Porches: Where the living’s easy

Porches: Where the living’s easy

Its hard to improve on some classics. This Gulf Coast home sports a textbook regional porch, with enough depth for furnishings, painted posts and railings, and a wide roof overhang to keep the rain from blowing in.

Like it or not, kitchens, master suites and other glamorous rooms in American homes get the lions share of attention and resources, while other deserving, but unsung spaces languish in the public eye. Author Paula Wallace seems intent on changing that with her new book, Perfect Porches.      
Defined simply as a roof-covered space flanked by at least one exterior wall of the house, porches can take on an astonishing array of guises, as the 40 examples shown in this book illustrate. Wallace doesnt limit her discussion simply to aesthetics, however. Instead, she ponders and examines the role of the porch as an almost ritual space, a theater platform for observing the character and characters of the world.     
Call it a portico, a veranda, a loggia or some other name, the porch offers a unique transition between our public and private lives, and in America, has long been an architectural feature intertwined with our social fabric. For decades, these spaces functioned as outdoor living rooms when summer heat made house interiors uncomfortable and extended daylight encouraged us to set a spell outside. With neighbors doing the same thing, conversations blossomed into connections.     
Then came the advent of two technological innovations air-conditioning and television. Americans increasingly spent their evenings indoors to enjoy both, and many porches became just another utility space, useful for parking the kids bikes, storing a little firewood, or keeping us dry as we fumbled for house keys in the rain. Newer home designs often dispensed with the front porch altogether, substituting an up-front garage that became the regular point of entry and departure for the inhabitants.     
Wallace cant singlehandedly reverse decades of bad architectural design trends, but she makes a convincing case for resurrecting the primary role that porches once enjoyed, and she offers plenty of ideas and more than 250 photographs to show how its done. The styles range from crisp white contemporary to the rustic splintered texture of a salvaged barn, but they all share the underlying virtues of this iconic outdoor space they put us outdoors and engage our senses, exposing us not only to an ever-changing visual menu, but also to the smells of barbecue grills and freshly cut lawns, the sound of light rain on the roof, the feel of wind on our faces. For Wallace, the key to a great porch lies in making the details as inviting as this natural sensory menu.     
First and foremost, porches require our imagination. If we can see beyond the mere usefulness of a roof overhead, we can let these spaces become vehicles for personal expression and a renewed social fabric in our neighborhoods. This can still be done even with practical concerns addressed, such as the use of screening to keep insects at bay. 
Wallaces examples and explanations offer these strategies: 

Imaginative use of decorative objects: Bits and pieces of architectural salvage, or regional items such as snowshoes, maritime items or small agricultural implements, are all good candidates for decor. Repurposed or historical items and personal mementos can also contribute to an eclectic mix that makes a porch more inviting.     
Plenty of room: Some situations may not allow changing dimensions, but if you are building or modifying a porch, make it deep enough to fit a seating group or dining table and chairs. Shallow or narrow porches tend to limit seating options to a row of chairs all facing outward, as if on a ships deck, and such arrangements dont induce comfort or real social opportunities.    

Stay tethered to the surroundings: Your homes architectural style and the character of your neighborhood will dictate, at least in part, the design themes for your porch. Get eclectic all you want, but dont fight these surroundings by forcing dissonant styles or furnishings. Youll create a jarring oddity rather than the relaxing space it could be.      
Comfortable seating: Rocking chairs and swinging benches dont have to be part of every porch ensemble, but provide plenty of comfy places to sit. Furnish the space like its there for relaxing, not just something to walk past on your way into the house.     
Create zones where necessary: On wraparound porches especially, there may be enough room to create multiple zones so you can have public spaces up front and more privacy around the sides or back. Consider using folding screens, a bank of wood shutters or an assembly of old weathered doors as a freestanding divider where desired. 
Wallace wraps up the book with sections on how to incorporate lighting, carefully selected furnishings, and textiles and fabrics into the porchs design. Theres no shortage of ideas or inspiration here, and the timing for a simple summer project couldnt be better.