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Front porch city

by Steve McKee on July 30, 2008

If you are like most people, you like a good front porch. A really good one may even stir you up in a good sort of way, even give you a “warm fuzzy” somewhere deep inside, right where you live. Anybody else remember Daryl Hannah’s room-like front porch from “Roxanne?” Whew, that’s good stuff.

In Benicia we have our share of good ones. It’s mostly due to the fact that so many downtown houses were built in an era before watching TV made it more likely we would just stay inside. Despite this and other modern influences, Benicia is still friendly to front porches. Our zoning law virtually encourages their creation. Unlike any other city I know, in our town there’s an extra six foot deep space in front of each house where the city will let you build only covered porches.

What is it that distinguishes the “great” front porches from the merely “pretty good?” Like most things in the world of home design, there is both art and science in the mix.
There’s a lot more to a porch than just pretty looking posts. We’ve all seen ornate front porches that still felt somehow wrong. One look and we can instantly tell they will be lifeless, not conducive to “hanging out” there.

The good ones are both sheltered and open; a place that is “outside” but with a little bit of “inside” to it. A place where you get to watch the world go by while feeling “at home.”

The following is my best shot at listing what makes for a good front porch.

Slightly raised porch
Sometimes we don’t get to control this variable, especially when remodeling an existing house that is low to the ground. But wherever possible, it’s preferred that the porch be raised somewhat so that there is an added sense of separation between the porch dwellers and the passers-by. Studies have been done showing people prefer this. (Didn’t I tell you there was some science to this porch design thing?)

Steps as seating
The steps resulting from raising the porch make great impromptu seating. Make the steps extra wide for this reason, then watch for all the delightful loitering these steps will contain and even help create over the years.

Shade happens
The best porches are places that support our desire to linger in comfort and engage a visitor in conversation. Shade or dappled sunlight is preferred to too much sun. You would think the sunny porch would be a big hit, but in Benicia the north facing (and therefore shaded) front porches always seem to be more conducive to people “hanging out” (or, if you prefer, “chilling”) than the houses with south facing porches. Years of direct observation lets me say that. A big shade tree can help fix the south facing porches. That’s what I did at my house with its highly sunny porch. Shade works.

Another key idea: the porch should be wide enough to allow some furniture. Five feet of width is a minimum. Seven feet is preferred. The ultra-wide ones allow for porch swings and even full size furniture. Have you ever see a couch on a porch? It can be deliciously luxurious. Go with wicker or teak (a good weather resistant wood) with fitted pads. Maybe an Adirondack chair.

Railing as bench
If sizable furniture isn’t going to happen on your more modestly scaled porch, there’s a nifty trick I like to use for creating more seating virtually out of thin air: Set the railing at a height where it can serve as a comfortable place to rest one’s fanny. I’d recommend about 24 to 30 inches of height. To pull this one off, the porch’s floor height must be less than two and a half feet above the ground, because a porch that low isn’t required by building codes to have any railing at all. Decide to go ahead and add a railing, but make it whatever design you want. Instead of the tallish forty-two inch height now required by the latest building code (ugh), do a lower height rail which is more user-friendly for leaning one’s tush. Make the top rail wider (and therefore more comfortable) than the usual narrow rail. These things accommodate comfortable sitting or leaning. They also receive potted plants nicely. The lower rail height also opens up the view and outlook. We’re creating an ergonomic house – a house that truly accommodates us – what’s not to love about that?

Different flooring
One more thing, the floor surface of the porch should have a texture that is different from the public sidewalk to help it feel separate. Make it different also from your front path. This one usually happens anyway. What we’re going for is the sense that the porch is a different place than the paths in front of it. For goodness sake, don’t try and match the look of the sidewalk.

. . . . . . . . . . . .

Well, we saved the funnest stuff for last, the aesthetics of the porch, things like the shape and spacing of the posts, to arch the beams or not, to add decorative corbels to embellish the columns or not: all the elements that can give “style” to our porch, a “look” to our creation. This is the icing on the cake, pure fun to figure out. Depending on your wishes, any number of “styles” are available: tapered posts or arched beams or wrought iron and so on. These highly visual aspects of the design are what most people will think of as the design work, but we who have made sure to get the underlying basics correct know better. We get a porch that not only looks good but actually enhances the life of the house.


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