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What Do You Do With a Solarium?

Designer Chad Falkenberg shares his tricks for making that what-exactly-do-we-do-with-this space work for you.

Some people call them solariums. Others call them enclosed balconies. But no matter which name they use, there’s probably little disagreement that they’re one of the most vexing spaces in an apartment or condominium. Indeed, they’re the Bermuda Triangle of condominium interior design, the place where well-meaning plans and good intentions go to disappear—and Vancouver is riddled with them.

“It’s always a challenge,” says Chad Falkenberg, one of the principals at Falken Reynolds Interiors and a man who tends to thrive on those sorts of challenges. But the challenges associated with a solarium are numerous, given that they’re basically the reverse Goldilocks of interior spaces: both too small and yet not quite small enough for some purposes, and both too bright (the sun) and too dark (the crummy overhead lighting) at the same time for others.

That’s why, Falkenberg says, people tend to try to do too many things with them—and, in the end, achieve almost none of them. “They think, ‘It’s not big enough to do any one thing, so let’s make it a bike room and a storage room and a home office and a little sitting room and maybe a craft room for the kids.’ It just becomes this catch-all space—and then it just becomes chaos.”

The best way to manage that chaos, he says, is by sticking with one purpose. “That’s probably the biggest thing—pick one thing, and be really focused on what it needs to do for you.”

This Vancouver solarium feels connected to the rest of the space thanks to the unified flooring. Design by Ami McKay. (Photo: Janis Nicolay.)
This Vancouver solarium feels connected to the rest of the space thanks to the unified flooring. Design by Ami McKay. (Photo: Janis Nicolay.)

Don’t Isolate It

The other big key to making a solarium work, Falkenberg says, is making sure that it’s integrated into the look and feel of the rest of the apartment rather than hived off from it. “So many of them have an awkward transition. Usually they’re off the family room, and that can tempt people to think that they’re a powder room and they can go crazy and do something really fun and interesting that they wouldn’t do in the rest of their space,” he says. “It tempts people to do things they probably shouldn’t do—and that they might regret.”

Do: Tie In the Solarium to the Apartment’s Design

If you can install flooring that matches the rest of the apartment—solariums almost always have tile, due to the fact that they’re technically zoned as an exterior space—that’s probably the best solution, but for renters and others who can’t drop new flooring down, an area rug can do the job as well.

“The key is to keep the colour of the rug somehow related to what’s in the rest of the apartment,” Falkenberg says. “So if it’s a Scandinavian kind of a feel and there’s lots of lights and white wood, white walls and creams with black accents, find a rug that does the same thing. It will help the solarium and the space it’s next to both feel bigger, because they’re kind of extensions of each other.”

Design Hack: Falkenberg says that an area rug is generally something you’re going to want to invest a bit of money in, and get something that’s pure wool rather than synthetic. “It helps filter and clean the air, and it won’t shed nearly as much as some of the less expensive ones.” But if you can’t find a decent area rug that fits the space—a common problem, given the stubbornly rectangular dimensions of most solariums—Falkenberg has an innovative workaround. “We’ll actually use wall-to-wall carpeting but make it look like a rug by binding the edges of the carpet. It looks like an area rug, and it’s a really cost-effective way of getting something that’s the right colour and the right texture and the right size.”

A floor-to-ceiling bookcase can focus the eye.
A floor-to-ceiling bookcase can focus the eye.

Find The Focal Point

Solariums differ in terms of their configuration and dimensions, but they all tend to have one thing in common: a smaller rectangular wall at one end. That wall is the key to making the room as expansive and inviting as possible, Falkenberg says. “People’s tendency, in a small space, is to put in a bunch of small things. But what we try and do in a small to try and make it look bigger is treat the smallest wall all the same way. So for the reading room that we’re doing for a client right now, that whole small wall is a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf. That makes a longer rectangle seem a little more square, and squares always feel bigger than long rectangles—especially when they can almost feel like a corridor.”

Another option for those who aren’t big into books is painting that wall a slightly darker colour than the rest of the room. “Even if it’s just a couple of shades darker (a light grey or off-white) it’ll help make the room feel less cavernous. Then it could be a space for a piece of art or a desk sitting right in front of it, and it’ll create a visual anchor point for somebody looking into the space. It’ll feel more comfortable.” Caveat emptor: this won’t work if your interpretation of “slightly darker” is dark purple or pitch black.

Design Hack: Yes, it’s tempting to deploy the tried-and-true Billy bookshelf in a solarium, and from a cost-benefit perspective it’s hard to do much better. But for those who aren’t planning on moving in the near future and want to invest in something that will look better for longer, Falkenberg suggests looking Vitsoe’s universal shelving system. “That’s one of our go-tos. But there are a lot of other great systems out there that can go wall-to-wall, and floor-to-ceiling—and a lot of them are Scandivanian. That’s probably because they’ve been dealing with smaller spaces for a lot longer than we have.”

This isn't a solarium, but it's still a great example of using the Flos string light effectively. (Photo: Ema Peter.)
This isn’t a solarium, but it’s still a great example of using the Flos string light effectively. (Photo: Ema Peter.)

Light It Up

Solariums aren’t exactly blessed with the best lighting conditions, given that they alternate between a full blast of natural light and overhead fixtures that are a better fit for a closet than a living space for human beings. Replacing the dinky overhead fixture is probably the best solution, but for those who can’t do that there are still a couple of potential solutions. The first, he says, is sheer volume, and he suggests using a multitude of lamps—from floor and shelf lights to one on a desk or table—to give the space a more inviting feel. “That will make the space feel a lot more comfortable—especially now, when most of the day is dark.”

Design Hack: Still want to replace that overhead light, but can’t bring yourself to monkey around with the apartment’s electrical system? Falkenberg recommends the string lights that Flos sells. He uses them in powder rooms all the time, and says they’re a low-risk (and low-fuss) way to add some overhead light to a room. “You can have a light hanging from the ceiling without it actually having to be attached to a junction box or a power source in the ceiling.”

(Photo: Ivan Hunter.)
Our dream sun room, designed by Splyce. (Photo: Ivan Hunter.)

The Nuclear Option

If you’re frustrated with your solarium and tired of trying to design and decorate around its inherent structural flaws, you can always remove the non-structural wall and integrate it into the adjoining living or sleeping area. But be forewarned: It’s an expensive option. That’s because you’re effectively re-zoning a portion of the apartment, and the City of Vancouver is going to want its pound of flesh in exchange for allowing that. “A lot of clients come to us and they just want to remove that wall, but if you do that you actually have to buy that exterior space from the city,” Falkenberg says. “And that can be really, really extensive.”

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