Home & Design | Gardens under glass

The Wall Street Journal, which in 2020 splashed a Prairie-style Minnetonka space by the company through a spread. But perhaps the best testimonial comes from an Atlanta homeowner, who had a magnolia motif incorporated into her sunroom transoms. “She loved her conservatory so much that she put her bed there and slept there,” says Jim Hewitt, founder and owner of Conservatory Craftsmen.

Hewitt’s love for conservatories came early in life. “My dad used to take me to the Park Conservatory in Como when I was a little boy, just for a little winter vacation,” he says. Over time, the horticulturist by trade – who for years taught high school horticulture in Cold Spring – wondered if there wasn’t more to conservatories than the occasional visit. “I felt it was the kind of environment that could make people mentally and physically healthy and should be considered more frequently in everyday life,” he says.

This realization became an attempt to build winter gardens with modular kits from England. But Hewitt quickly realized that the architects wanted more control. “At that point, we knew we had to break from the norm and become custom designers,” he says. “We had to design what was most appropriate for the moment.”

These designs span styles (85% of the company’s designs are traditional, but contemporary is gaining traction), sizes (from 500 to nearly 3,000 square feet), states (about half of their projects are in Minnesota and the Upper Midwest, half elsewhere in the country, with jobs in places like New York’s Hamptons and Jackson Hole, Wyoming), and the costs (from about $150,000 to more than $2 million dollars). Some have elegant lounges or swimming pools. But most are designed for a clientele that Hewitt calls “factory people,” just like him.

That means plants for virtually any climate, with conservatories designed to withstand extreme temperatures. Innovations in glass, in particular, make this possible, says Hewitt. “When we started, glass was basically an issue in our rooms, and now our glass is as energy efficient as an insulated wall.”

Plant science also plays a role. Hydroponic towers, for example, automatically feed plants with nutrient-rich water several times a day. But horticultural expertise brings the most value, according to Hewitt, which is why he recently tapped Alex Eilts, a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology who is a part-time professor and research associate at the University of Minnesota. “We needed him on our team just to help us with our clients’ rare plant collections,” says Hewitt.

That bespoke touch might just make the biggest difference. Every piece of a conservatory is custom designed by the Hewitt team and manufactured by small businesses around the world. Much of the glass comes from the United States and the framing elements are mainly made in England. Window motors come from Italy, roof vents from France. “These are not large-scale factories,” Hewitt says. “Along with each of our manufacturers, we are their biggest customer.”

But the ‘fitters’ – a British term used for craftsmen who assemble conservatories – come from the Twin Cities and travel to every job. “People say, ‘Well, I’m going to have my builder do it,'” Hewitt says. “And I’m like, ‘You want your builder to learn how to glass your roof? Leak is a four letter word, you know.

Keeping things practical and hyper-personalized, after all, has been key to the company’s success from day one. “Either you’re going to be a commodity company and produce hundreds of them and sell them and ship them,” Hewitt says, “or you’re going to make a few, and they’re going to turn out right.”

Architecture + Building: Conservatory Craftsmen, 2229 Friendship Ln., Mpls., 612-281-4985, conservatorycraftsmen.com

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