If there’s one icon of American architecture, and one that calls to mind a more leisurely time, it’s the porch. I grew up in the South, where porch sitting is a part of the culture. Even now, some of my most peaceful, introspective times are spent sipping coffee and looking out over the river on the porch of a guest house I stay at when visiting family back in rural Louisiana.
A porch is a great place to take in a view, watch your neighbors, observe weather changes, or just keep an eye on the outside world. It serves as a transition point between the inside of a house and the great outdoors. It can give you shelter without forcing you inside. It can create distance where you want some – from a busy street, for example. And it can function beautifully as an outdoor room.
Over the years, as I’ve designed homes with porches, I’ve asked myself what makes one porch more pleasing than another. Why do some porches invite gathering and conversation, while others don’t? What is it, exactly, that makes a porch sittable? I’ve learned that attention to certain design principles and practical matters will point you in the right direction if there’s a porch in your future.
What Makes You Want To Put Your Feet Up?
Porches are nice to look at, and that’s part of their charm. Of course, different styles appeal to different people, but for a porch to be visually pleasing, it should adhere to a few basic design principles:
Appropriate scale is critical. A porch should never do battle with a house. It should be visually subservient to the main structure and not over power it.
Proper proportions provide balance. Vertical components should always appear appropriate to horizons. Posts, for example, should look substantial enough to be carrying the roof. Sometimes, this means making posts larger than what is structurally required.
Style is never arbitrary. Everyone has a favorite porch style. Some like simple stone structures, while others prefer elaborately detailed porches with gingerbread trim. Whatever you like, the details of your porch should always be dictated by what already exists. Formal columns will look out of place on a simple, spare farmhouse. Likewise, a grand, formal home will not be enhanced in any way by a contemporary, featureless porch. An exact match is not always necessary, but visually the parts should blend to read as a whole.
Views are something to aim for. The location of your porch may be predestined by your site – or your desire to look out onto your street – but if there is a choice, it is always best to focus on a view. Remember, the porch is a place where you can connect to your surroundings. If no view is readily available, creative landscaping or a strong focal point, be it an arbor, tree or garden bed, can be just as effective. I like balustrades because railings provide a sense of enclosure and protection. But if you have a particularly stunning vista, and the distance to the ground isn’t too great, you can do without railings and really open the view.
Size makes a difference. I’ve seen very narrow porches attached to some newer houses, but they don’t look appropriate – and they certainly don’t look comfortable.
When designing a porch, I like to make it at least 9 feet deep. Some say that 6 feet is adequate, but I like 9 feet because it gives you enough room for large chairs and even a small dining table and chairs, while leaving room to pass. I know there isn’t always space for such a deep porch, but another option is creating a bump out on a corner that can work as a larger, more comfortable gathering point.
Lighting is more important than you think, so consider how you will use your porch. If it is just for sitting and talking, low levels of ambient light will suffice. If there is to be a corner for reading or eating, task lighting will be needed. Sconces and recessed can lights that are rated for exterior use can be installed in porch ceilings and walls. Consider multiple switches as well as dimmers for flexibility.
Don’t forget that a porch impacts interior space. Adding a covered porch can cut down substantially on the natural light that enters adjacent rooms. One way to solve this problem is to include skylights or leave some roof sections open. Finally, since a porch is a transition space, it is smart to design landscape lighting so that it leads pedestrians comfortably from the walkway to the porch.
Public and private spaces need to be determined. Do you want your porch to be approachable and neighbor-friendly? Create a large and prominent entry to the space, use open lattices, provide good lighting – all of these details make people want to step up and take a seat. A more enclosed porch that keeps people from looking in will make the space more private. You can also gain a sense of enclosure by using trellising, closed spaced columns, or shutters.
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Last Updated: October 15, 2020
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