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Alluring Atriums : Design: They bring light, greenery and color into a house, creating a new environment. Adding a garden room can achieve a similar effect.

August 11, 1990|MARESA ARCHER | Maresa Archer is a regular contributor to Home Design

Ever since humans moved into their first shelter, they have tried to bring nature indoors with them.

The ancient Greeks first popularized atriums--wall-enclosed plant areas that open to the sky--and people in the Victorian era called their glass-structured garden rooms conservatories.

The '60s brought everyone into the act of making plants thrive indoors. Then the National Aeronautics and Space Administration released a report that common house plants help purify the air in enclosed areas. Clean air is of particular concern to NASA, since no one wants stale air in a space station.

Experiments at the John C. Stennis Space Center in Mississippi proved that house plants--pothos, Spider plant, English ivy, Dracaena marginata-- remove deadly benzene, formaldehyde, trichloroethylene and carbon monoxide from the air.

But most people are less scientific about bringing plants indoors. They do it mainly to create a pleasing environment. Some people even devote entire rooms to plants, building a garden room or an atrium.

"The idea of a garden room is either to open the house up to an actual garden or to bring nature into the house by creating an environment," said John Garcia, president of PLANit Design Studio in Corona del Mar. "Most people don't have views of a bay, they have flat city lots with no view. But that doesn't mean they can't create an outdoor environment in a room."

A garden room can mean anything from a greenhouse kitchen window with potted herbs on the shelves to a proper greenhouse room or an enclosed patio overgrown with plants. An atrium, on the other hand, is a much more specific term describing a glass-enclosed area inside a house, with an earthen floor and usually no ceiling.

A garden room can be an easy addition to a home, while an atrium is such an integral part of a structure that an architect is typically hired to add one to an existing home.

"Usually an atrium already exists in a structure. To build one means you need an architect because it usually means structural changes," said Steve Rose, owner of Purkiss-Ross Landscape Architecture in Fullerton. "If a client were to ask (for) natural light and foliage, I'd probably say go with a garden room. A screened porch transformed into a garden room comes off real nice, and it's a lot cheaper to do."

The difficulty in adding an atrium comes from cutting out the roof and altering the floor for proper drainage, Rose explained. "People who have atriums with poor drainage (solve the problem by) roofing them over and converting the area to usable living space."

Atriums are used by architects to bring natural light into a dark house. The down side is that they allow heat in too. "You see atriums in master baths, usually with a roof. That's a good choice because the humidity isn't as much a problem," Rose said.

Some people who have atriums add a cover that allows sunlight to filter in but cuts down the heat. Rose added a nursery saran cover over the atrium in his Orange home. "(Or) you could keep the illusion of it being open to the sky by putting in a skylight. But if you do that you have to put in adequate ventilation to keep the condensation down."

Rose lived in one of the Eichler Homes in Orange, which were designed with atriums as the central theme by architect Quincy Jones about 20 years ago. The Eichler Co. built two tracts of houses with atriums in the city of Orange; one off Cambridge Street and Taft Avenue, and the other off Santiago Boulevard.

The tract off Cambridge has about 10 houses and is a favorite among landscape architects, Rose said. "One of the most telling aspects of the Eichler homes is that most of the original owners still live in them. They are just very well-designed homes."

Nature puts up a fight when brought indoors, and atrium upkeep poses some problems. Like any indoor flora, atrium plants are susceptible to aphids, those soft, oval, tiny insects that leave a sticky residue on leaves. Once aphids or other pests like whiteflies descend, it's almost impossible to get rid of them, according to Rose.

"They are attracted to all the humidity inside the atrium. The way I always handle it is to use a strong stream of water to shoot them off," Rose said. "I don't like to use chemicals indoors."

Weeds do not pose much of a problem but maintainence keeps atrium gardeners busy. "One way to handle overgrowth is to cut plants down continually, especially the leading trunk," Rose said. By cutting the main growth, new shoots will sprout at the bottom, keeping the plant wide and compact rather than tall.

"Another way to restrict plant growth is to restrict the root growth. If you have a plant that's the right size, (keep it in its original pot) and plant it in the ground, and that will keep it at that size," Rose said.

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