Adding a sunroom to our house - any tips?
August 8, 2017 9:15 AM   Subscribe

We're thinking of getting a sunroom added to the back of our home and were wondering if you folks had any tips or experiences that might help us make the right decision or avoid terrible mistakes.

We had a local dealer from a local manufacturer ( give us an estimate yesterday and we'll probably be visiting the factory to see their sunrooms. I've never actually been in an aftermarket sunroom before - what should we be looking for? We're in Pennsylvania so we'll get snow - anything specific we should be looking for? He suggested getting one of those combo heater/AC units like you see in hotels - is that a good idea?
posted by exhilaration to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Get one that allows for good passive ventilation. Our sun room has one of the upper windows that opens up to allow for a chimney effect when a lower window is open. All my plants in there would be dead if it didn't have that. With the window closed it gets EXTREMELY hot in there and you would need a massive AC to keep up with it.
posted by Dr. Twist at 10:52 AM on August 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

Ventilation! My sunporch is delightful in Portland winters, but unbearable in the summer, even with all the windows open. Look for ventilation high up -- skylights, vents, through-wall fans.
posted by janell at 11:02 AM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

You may want to talk to your local planning department to make sure you won't be encroaching on setbacks, or violating any ratios like living space to lot size ratios, or permeable to impermeable land ratios. E.g., in my zone I have setbacks of 20ft from the front, 5ft on the sides and 10ft from the back of the lot, and my ratios all max out at 50%.
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:07 AM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

One thing to keep in mind is that sunrooms have a typically terrible ROI if you ever decide to sell your house. I can't recall where I saw this, but IIRC the ROI is something pretty low, like 50-60%?
posted by furnace.heart at 11:23 AM on August 8, 2017

My parents added something like that to the back of their house when my stepfather was beginning to decline, with the idea that it would be a comfortable place for him during the day. It was a disaster from day one.

The roof never really connected properly to the existing structure and the whole thing leaked like crazy whenever it rained. Like "multiple buckets scattered around the floor" leaked. I think she finally got that fixed but it took literally years with multiple contractors taking various cracks at it, and ultimately a whole new roof. The twin pane windows got condensation between the panes so you couldn't see out. It wasn't connected to the house HVAC systems so it had to have its own heating and cooling, which never worked properly. Miserable in there.

Beyond that, it took up what had been the quite nice patio at the back of the house so they went and built a deck around it to replace the patio, except the house is on a hilltop and at that point the land was starting to slope away. Thus, the deck surface is about two feet off the ground at the rear edge, which makes it a very attractive place for local wildlife to take up residence. An enraged groundhog damn near killed my mother's papillon, and she's had to get skunks removed at least twice now. It's just been a fiasco all around. Now it's pretty much a greenhouse for my mom's plants with a pretty ugly floor covering and some translucent windows.

I don't want to discourage you. Some of these specifics won't apply to you, of course, and regarding the build quality, it's quite possible that my parents just picked a shitty contractor. But if I ever own that house, the first thing I'm going to do is rip that thing down and put it back the way it was.
posted by Naberius at 11:39 AM on August 8, 2017

he suggested getting one of those combo heater/AC units like you see in hotels

I find them really noisy to the degree that they detract from my enjoyment of the space. However, it's way cheaper to do that than to extend your ductwork into the sunroom and would give you much better control over the local temperature.

The leaky roof/skylights can also be a big problem.

That said, I really like mine.
posted by Candleman at 11:41 AM on August 8, 2017

Similar to others, ours leaks. The installer did a terrible job of connecting it to the rest of the roof/house. A real roofer eventually fixed that, after all the drywall inside was ruined. But the sunroom itself still leaks whenever it rains.

You mention snow - make sure you plan where the door is going to be. Our installer tried to persuade us to put the door on the side of the sunroom, but my wife was insistent that it be in the front, so she could walk directly into her garden. Our roof slopes towards the front so any snowfall slides off the roof onto the deck & steps and requires extra shovelling. And if you happen to be standing by the door when all the accumulated snow/ice decides to slide off, it can be downright dangerous. It's happened to me more than once.

Depending on your situation, think about how you're going to clean the windows - they get awfully dirty from rain. Ours is elevated so needs a tall ladder and extended tools. Because it's such a hassle they don't get cleaned as often as they should.

We got a space heater which is too large for the space - need to downsize it at some point. We don't really use the room in the summer as it would be too hot and we didn't connect the AC to it. The rest of the year it can be very pleasant (when it's not raining...) My wife loves it for sitting in and keeping plants in during the winter. I think a regular added-on room would have been better overall.
posted by valleys at 2:40 PM on August 8, 2017

I helped my dad build one and he and mum enjoyed it hugely. He was diagnosed with terminal cancer a few years later and spent nearly all his remaining days sitting and sleeping in the thing.

Make it as big as you can, and try to plan it so that you can incorporate standard sized sliding doors as wall sections. It's great being able to open up doors all the way around. Make sure the floor's as close to in the same level as the house because steps coming down into it will eat up a lot of space. Don't have a flat roof or one that continues out from the line of your existing roof because it'll be too low. Do a gable. It's not that hard because you just build it on top of your existing shingles and then reshingle the side of the roof you're intersecting with when you shingle the sunroom. Make a generous amount of roof overhang for shade. Install narrow blinds on the sunny side. Insulate the roof and floor.
posted by bonobothegreat at 4:25 PM on August 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

My folks had a sunroom put on the back of their house several years back and it's my mother's absolute favorite part of the house. All the walls (except the one abutting the main house, of course) have sliding doors all the way across—two eight-foot patio doors per wall—so that you can really open that thing right up when the weather is nice. It's got high, vaulted ceilings to keep the heat over people's heads, with a couple of skylights for vertical ventilation and a ceiling fan to keep air moving around in there. They basically live out there from May through September. Also it has v-groove pine walls anywhere that isn't glass, with a natural finish that makes everything look really light and airy. It's lovely.

The only thing they wish they'd done differently is have heat put in so that they can use it for more of the year.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:31 PM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

We had a sunroom in our previous house - it was there when we moved in. Leaking was an issue the first year, until we got the roof refinished, and we had the problem of condensation between some of the glass that blurred out the view somewhat (and couldn't be remedied in any DIY way). It was far too hot in the summer, way too cold in the winter - and the cost to run the electrical heater was way more than we wanted. Basically, we could comfortably use it in the autumn and spring only. Our cats and dogs absolutely LOVED it in that room during the summer. I liked it well-enough, but wouldn't pay to put one on my current/future home - I'd be much more inclined to add a regular room with a lot of regular windows and, if I could convince my husband to take the chance, some skylights for additional brightness.
posted by VioletU at 4:33 PM on August 8, 2017

Oh and yeah, it has a gable roof; the roofline comes out perpendicularly from the exterior wall that it butts up against. No leaks, but then frankly there are a zillion roof types you can do that won't leak, as long as they're done right. A sunroom is basically a small addition, and you don't generally hear about additions leaking, do you? The roof just needs to be installed and flashed in correctly—a problem that's been solved in the building trades for literally thousands of years, though people do still manage to fuck it up by not knowing or caring what they're doing.

Likewise, condensation between the panes of your windows shouldn't be a problem in a sunroom any more than in the rest of your house. Double-glazed windows are a mature technology at this point and while they certainly can develop condensation, it's usually only a problem in old windows where the seals have gone bad. Harvey Classics, which are a bog-standard, perfectly-fine-but-nothing-special window that my old employer used to use all the time, have a 20-year warranty against that problem, and fancier windows have even longer ones. Skylights are usually only warrantied to 10 years out, for what that's worth—partly because there's virtually no competition in the US residential skylight market (it's all Velux all the time nowadays) and partly because skylights combine all the challenges of both roofs and windows, which are each one of the more challenging aspects of building by themselves.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 4:48 PM on August 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

We recently renovated our sunroom, which we built when we first purchased our house. Thoughts....

1) Roof. My husband is a great amateur architect, so he opened up the existing roof and tied the two together securely. Hurricane ties, overbuilding the rafters, plenty of attic height, excellent insulation and air circulation. Various reroofings later, we now have a 50-year metal roof. Do it right the first time.

2) Windows. Ours face the north and east, with one by the door to the west. The first "all windows" design led to condensation between many of the double-pane insulated windows, making them difficult to see through. We changed to a couple of individual windows per wall in the corners instead of marrying pairs together, and are pleased with the result. Plenty of light and air circulation, but more wall space to put furniture and decorate. We like blinds instead of curtains. We use stationary upper panes and moveable lower panes.

3) Door. We went from a sliding door to a French door, and are not pleased. We removed it a few times before getting it correctly in position. Our next building project will have sliding doors.
On the plus size the French doors make taking large items outside easier. The old sliding door eventually began sticking and became almost impossible to use. It was oversized, and in hindsight that was not as helpful as two functional doors.
The old sliding door also became clouded with condensation. The current French doors have built-in blinds, which we like. Time will tell if they become stuck or unusable.

4) HVAC and electric. Check current national codes and local building codes for these items. We've added extra outlets inside and out, including wiring for entertainment areas. We love ceiling fans over sitting areas. Consider whether window units and gas heaters will extend the use of the sunroom, and whether these things fit into your lifestyle.

5) Outdoor safety. My husband designed the outdoor walking areas with cold and / or wet weather in mind. Water runoff near the door, wet or frozen walkways, extended roof lines to create covered areas. Trees and shrubbery are planted back from the sunroom in case of ice storms and high winds. Durable slip-resistant surfaces, especially near the door.

6) Pets. When we built the sunroom, we used a pet door in the small window near the door for our cats. We currently do not have pets, but we could refit a cat door in that space again, which keeps possums and raccoons out -- usually.

7) Security. Outdoor lighting, deadbolt locks and secure window fasteners are necessary. We do use the old mop handle method to secure a sliding door on another property.
posted by TrishaU at 5:04 PM on August 8, 2017

Final thought: if you want to put heat and AC in your new sunroom, they are a textbook application for a mini-split. They're very efficient (particularly when it comes to heat) and mini-splits work great for single-room additions where it might be annoying for whatever reason to tie into whatever your house's existing climate control system is. Particularly for a room that's somewhat separate from the rest of the house and which has different climate control needs, they're often much more cost-effective than, say, adding onto your house's baseboard heating system. They are different from hotel heater/air conditioners (PTACs); much quieter and more efficient.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:58 PM on August 8, 2017

Thank you, folks. We're not mentally prepared to deal with the possible issues you've outlined above so soon after moving here so we've decided against getting a sunroom for now.
posted by exhilaration at 8:50 AM on August 15, 2017

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