An atrium is a small interior courtyard in a house usually fronted on all sides by windows and sliding glass doors. It is covered in the winter with glass or corrugated plastic greenhouse roofing, or with some other material such as fiberglass. This helps to keep the heat down over the windows and sometimes makes possible a greenhouse.
Our objection to atriums is that the view from any one wall of windows is of three other walls of windows. Aluminum and glass! Compare that to the view of an Uphill Patio with its walls of natural wood terraced and planted with climbing or hanging greenery.
Most atriums seem to be built more with traffic in mind than aesthetic considerations. They function as glass enclosed skylighted hallways. They are an architect's means of handling traffic while bringing light and air into the interior of a First-Thought House. But at what an aesthetic cost. To us they seem little more than a lazy designer's easy way out.
Light and air can and should be brought into the interior, or hillside portion, of a house through the use of the Uphill Patio, Offset Rooms and clerestories. Still, there may be certain instances when an atrium is desirable—if the house were really massive, for example, yet built in a restricted area where the rooms cannot be strung out. How then does one make an atrium attractive?
We offer two suggestions. First, raise the level of the atrium from the floor to chest height. Put windows from that height to the ceiling. This forces the trajectory of view up towards the sky and away from the windows of the other three sides. It makes someone sitting or lying down invisible from the other rooms. Plant the atrium—especially towards the center—with perennial plants which will further block the view of the other windows and doors. This will admittedly cut down somewhat on the amount of light entering the rooms, but the view then will be of an area lush with vegetation, and privacy will be assured. Looking across most atriums from one room to another is much like looking into a goldfish bowl. The result is that people often close off their rooms with ceiling to floor drapes which eliminates both view and light altogether.
something, anything to give it some character and charm rather than the sterility of concrete, aluminum and glass.
And here is our second suggestion: put a jog, or a bend in the corridors so that the doorway from one room is not visible from another.
Raising the planting beds of the atrium has one additional potential benefit. It raises the growing surface closer to the roof where there is a better chance for the sun to penetrate, especially on winter days when the sun is at a low angle in the sky. With most atriums the sun never reaches the floor except for a few hours during midday in the summer. This makes it so difficult to grow things that most people don't even try. Most of the atriums we've seen are barren of vegetation. The floor is more often than not white gravel with flagstone or concrete walks between the rooms. A few pathetic attempts are sometimes made to liven it up with hanging plants from above and driftwood chunks on the floor but there is no getting around the fact that they are primarily aluminum and glass and concrete or gravel areas. No wonder people pull their drapes.
Elevating the atrium would seem to eliminate the hallway or traffic function of the space. People will object to climbing up and down stairs to get to another room ten feet away. Corridors should be dug so that the atrium may be crossed at floor level. The walls of the corridors should probably be of some interesting natural material; logs would be good, or old barn wood, or cedar paneling;
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