Living with an Eichler atrium is like living with an attractive but mercurial mate. At first, we are excited by them; drawn to them; we celebrate them. Only later do we discover the downside—the dramatic moods, high maintenance costs, and big demands.
After four years, our relationship with the atrium has gone through the same range of feelings. In the beginning, it was love at first sight. How unique and visually pleasing. A modern hearth without the messiness of ashes! A place to dance under the stars!
Today, its all different. Now, it's a minor victory not getting rained on answering the front door. Slowly but surely, the hot romance gave way to the cold reality. The biggest shock occurred the first winter in the house. The living room and kitchen, both of which face the atrium, wouldn't stay warm unless the heat was cranked up for ten hours a day. Much to our chagrin, living with "a hole in the house" meant the radiant heat radiates to the outside even faster.
During the summer the bricks in the atrium would bake, their heat streaming into the house along with significant glare. In reality, the times when it was comfortable enough to be in the atrium were few and far between. Eventually, it came down to whether or not the atrium should be covered. Covering it seemed to be the only way to eliminate the obvious impracticalities due to weather and usability inherent in the open atrium.
Solving the problem wasn't easy. There were only a handful of companies in California that addressed our needs, and only two experienced enough with Eichler installations that offered retractable skylight designs.
The retractable skylight products offered by Rollamatic Roofs, Inc. of San Francisco have been on the market since 1958, designs that continue to be refined by architect and founding president David Miller. "No job is too big," admits Miller, who estimates having constructed nearly 1,000 Rollamatic skylights and domes throughout the country, most notably the remarkable canopies on the Marin County Civic Center, Serramonte Shopping Center in Daly City, and the City Center and the Galleria in San Francisco.
By Miller's estimate, more than 300 of his skylights cover Eichler atria, each a custom installation built of lightweight, strong galvanized steel. Electrically operated, the Rollamatic's huge panel covering glides over the atrium cavity, following the angle of the existing roof line, and opens from a fraction of an inch to full aperture. Some designs, when closed, completely seal off outside light; others continue the connection to the outdoors through a number of transparent and translucent panel options, including fiberglass and laminated and insulated glass.
"There are some Eichler owners who want to enclose their garden in a sheltered atrium yet want to continue bringing in outside light," said Miller. "Others want to convert the atrium to additional living space, perhaps creating a family or living room where they can entertain and enjoy themselves year round. What's certain is that each homeowner has his or her own needs and preferences—and that also contributes to each job becoming a custom installation. From scratch, we draw plans for every project, and design it to reflect the homeowner's needs. We engineer it, build it, and install it all ourselves."
The Rollamatic installation, according to Miller, builds in enough pitch to allow the skylight's water runoff to be directed to the adjacent roof. He also stresses that his installations "do not puncture the roof," and encourages coordinating his efforts with the owner's roofer at installation.
Most of Rollamatic's business arrives by word of mouth, a form of promotion that kicked in with the Eichlers 30 years ago at the onset of rising energy costs and conservation awareness. "Originally, the Eichler folks were buying my skylights to gain tax credits," Miller recalled, "because they tied in well with the government's energy-saving program."
The tax advantages are gone today, but Miller still touts his system as energy efficient. "The Rollamatic provides natural heating by collecting solar radiation, natural air conditioning through the opening panel, and natural lighting from the sun," he claims. Additionally, in the cold of winter, a skylight panel of a high-R-value, insulating material will retard the Eichler's radiant heat from escaping through the atrium opening. Rollamatic offers a five-year unconditional warranty on labor and parts, a one-year on electrical.