Front Porches Make An Inviting Comeback
The focus is on neighborhood openness, added space
BOSTON — For years it was a castle in the air - Jane McNeill's longing to step outdoors while staying indoors. She wanted a front porch, and three years ago it materialized.
It is not one of those ornate excesses of the Victorian Savannah, but a simple $6,000 getaway where she now spends much of her leisure time. The porch was added midway through a major renovation to the McNeills' home.
"Everyone who comes to our house says, 'This is wonderful. We wish we had a porch like this,' " she says cheerily by telephone from from her home in Doylestown, Pa.
Among her visitors are the Keeleys, who live across the street. Recently, they built their own window to the outside world. It is a replica of their neighbor's new porch.
Once a staple of American architecture, porches are coming back into vogue. Whether they're additions to existing homes or included with newly built ones, porches are seeing a revival, according to the Washington-based National Association of Remodeling Industry. The organization estimates that 90 percent of the 1.1 million new homes built in 1996 had porches.
This booming construction stems from a concept called neotraditionalism - a recasting of historic traditions. Sociologists refer to the broader movement as "new urbanism." It emphasizes pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods - narrow streets, white picket fences, and front porches - where the automobile is less prominent.
"The trend is just [warming]," says Mary Ellen Polson, associate editor of Old-House Journal, a home magazine published in Framingham, Mass. "It's not mainstream as yet."
Still the upsurge is noticeable. Porches are mandatory in neotraditional communities such as Seaside Resort in Florida and Northwest Landing in Du Pont, Wash. These communities are appearing on the covers of home and gardening publications. The home-building industry estimates that more than 150 new developments around the country have incorporated porches into their designs. The focus is on neighborhood living.
Looking back in time, porches were the hub of leisure activities from the 18th century through the 1940s, says Daria Price Bowman, who along with Maureen LaMarca wrote "Pleasures of the Porch: Ideas for Gracious Outdoor Living" (Rizzoli, $35). "They were family places, designated for gatherings. Spending time on the porch was considered healthy, something like what jogging is these days."
But the arrival of the automobile made driving enticing, and car exhaust fumes shifted the focus of family gatherings to the backyard. TV and air conditioning made the living room the social hub.
After World War II, neighborhoods with porches were sparse as home designs were driven by the construction industry, leaving little choice to homeowners, Ms. Polson says. These suburban track houses also lessened the visibility of porches.
For instance, Levittown, N.Y., was built 50 years ago with assembly-line precision, - rows of cookie-cutter homes with little character. Today, Levittown - which remains a bellwether of middle-class suburbia - is witnessing a dramatic makeover with a variety of architectural styles. Some homes now have porches.
"The porch is not quite in the home and not quite out of it. It's a neutral territory and provides a natural link to the neighborhood," Ms. Bowman says.
The biggest contributor to the upsurge in porches is gardening. It is the fastest-growing leisure-time activity in America, which makes the porch an ideal place to appreciate those potted geraniums or zinnias, Bowman says.
Porches have been reinvented throughout history. In simpler times, when there were not many demands on leisure time, farmers would rock their chairs for hours while counting their cattle.
But today the porch is seen as an appendage that can increase living and entertaining options. The McNeills host their parties there. But, Mrs. McNeill says, she doesn't see her porch as a vehicle to reconnect with her neighborhood. For her, the porch is a private outlet for family togetherness. It is a place for dinners, relaxation, and talking about events of the day.
Paul Sullivan, who renovates porches in Massachusetts, calls it "cocooning." Some of his clients specify that privacy porches be included in the designs. Some add porches only because it increases real estate prices.
Yet as the debate about whether the "neotraditional" experiment is reconnecting the neighborhood continues, evidence from new communities such as Seaside suggests that people still stake out these getaways for up-close neighborhood sociability. "A home with a porch is like a smile on a face," Bowman says.
If You Want to Build Your Own
hinking about a porch? Homeowner Jane McNeill, renovator Paul Sullivan, author Daria Price Bowman, and editor Mary Ellen Polson share some tips.
If you are starting from scratch, simple porches can cost about $8,000 and the more elaborate ones can be $50,000 or more.
Style and taste
Porches are coming back but not necessarily the styles, Ms. Polson says. New porches are drawing from the different styles of the Victorian era, and different styles are emerging. But homeowners reconstructing existing porches are seeking historical accuracy, Mr. Sullivan says.
Zoning laws often require a setback distance of 30 to 50 feet from the front land boundary to the additions. The depth of the porch should be at least 6 feet. For privacy, floor height should be at least 18 inches above grade, but it is best if it is 30 inches. Submit well-designed blueprints with attention to detail if you are seeking variances. Many zoning boards are encouraging the friendlier faces of front porches. This is good news for those filing for variances. Fees usually cost upwards of $250.
Planning and designing
If dining is a priority, a porch built close to the kitchen is ideal, Ms. Bowman says. If privacy and quiet time are priorities, a small porch on the side of the house is recommended. Mrs. McNeill divided her porch into two zones: one for dining, the other for relaxation.
To keep in mind
Waterproofed lumber increases the life of the porch. Before you dig, call your local utility companies.