Covering the Atrium

Atrium Cover & Lights

We do get weather in California. Beyond the 9 months of sun, we have 3 months of sun and rain. And, believe it or not, cold weather. It actually freezes quite a few times over the winter.

And when you live in a glass house with a gigantic hole in the middle, this can make for a few wet and chilly days.

To compound the issue, we are in the midst of a remodel and, thus, our kitchen is actually in our atrium. We cook, eat, and refrigerate in this open space.

In past years, I have tied a tarp over the hole. It worked, but was ugly and leaky.

Clearly, a better solution was in order.

Many of the Eichler’s in our neighborhood have covers, but most are permanent — intentional or otherwise due to the inconvenience of dealing with it.

When I searched for “eichler atrium cover“, the first non “network” hit was this beauty. Well engineered and stylish, but unintentionally permanent. Coincidentally, that cover was built by Robert Bowdidge, a rather smart fellow that I used to work with at Apple.

So, we took a wander about Home Depot to peruse all of the materials that might be suitable.

Off the bat, I chose Suntuf corrugated lexan panels as the actual covering material. It is lightweight, very strong, and reasonably priced. Suntuf blocks almost all UV radiation.

Atrium Cover & Lights at Night

With covering material selected, then it became a problem of how to build a sturdy frame that was lightweight and easily removed. The key challenge being the relatively large span that must be crossed.

I started in the lumber department, but wood is heavy, not terribly stiff over long runs without being really heavy, and fairly difficult to work with in this application.

So, off to electrical…

Electrical seemed promising, except that electrical boxes tend to stick up well past the actual piping. The geometry simply didn’t work.

Back to the other side of the store and the plumbing section. Anything metal proved to be prohibitively expensive.

Christine suggested PVC as it is both cheap and strong. The 1″ PVC, in particular, is quite strong as long as you make good, clean, joints and keep runs under about 24″.

So, PVC it was.

The frame is completely glued together save for one set of seams down the middle that allow the frame to be split into two halves. The Lexan is screwed down to plastic corrugated framing material on top of strips of wood.

The strips of wood are then wire tied to the PVC frame and the entire PVC frame is wire tied down to massive eyebolts screwed into the house.

The low end along the beam is unglued for the moment until I decide exactly how I want it configured and I still need to repair the beam.

The cover is actually open at the low end so the hummingbirds can visit and to ensure both decent ventilation and that the rainwater still falls on the orange tree and jasmine vine on that wall.

The lighting came from the Paper Lantern Store. They have lanterns and electrical wiring designed for the same. Next time, I would skip the wiring and roll my own. Theirs is convenient, but I could do better.

So far, it is working really really well. Totally water tight save for when the wind is from exactly the right direction (wrong direction?). I think I can fix that by moving the frame slightly. It has withstood a couple of pretty windy nights, though not one of our nasty little wind storms. That should be interesting.

All in all, it has proven to be exceptionally effective! We find ourselves eating in the atrium more often than not and plan to keep doing so well after we have a kitchen back!

Of course, the real test will be to see if I actually take the damned thing off the roof next summer.

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4 Responses to “Covering the Atrium”

  1. Amie says:

    That’s one sweet hack! It looks fantastic, too.

    What’s the ETA on wrapping up the renovation? Any hopes of being done before the end of the year?

  2. Jeffrey J Hoover says:

    Nice. The lexqn will keep the PVC from degrading in the sun. Might be a tad noisy in the rain, but I’ll bet the tarp was too.


    Another idea might be to use a retractable canvas roof ala the old ragtop sunroofs on cars in the 60’s

  3. annbb says:

    Looks nice. How hard is it to remove…or do you even want to?

  4. Papa Joe says:

    Mom & I can attest to the fact that it do get FREAKING COLD in winter.
    Looks great.
    Can’t wait to visit for the whole winter season to see if all is working well.
    Yeah, Bill, 3 long months of us.
    Think about it!!!

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