Front Porch a Shady Retreat

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Although two acronyms nearly killed the front porch in the 1950s — TV and AC — it is enjoying a Renaissance, thanks to the New Urbanism movement and a renewed appreciation for all-things-Grandma.

More than a collection of square feet, the front porch is the architectural version of a hug, the hyphen between our indoor and outdoor spaces, the green room that separates our public and private lives.

In 2007, 62 percent of new homes had porches, up from 50 percent in 1999, according to the NAHB. The South and West are the most porch-crazy regions, with the Midwest close behind.

The front porch ranked higher than the patio and rear porch on buyers’ wish lists in the NAHB’s “The New Home in 2015” report.

“It changes the tempo and pace of your life,” said Gail Warner, a public relations consultant who bought a house with a front porch in a planned community in Fort Mill, S.C., in 2007. “We’re out there in the evening with our porch mayor (pet dog), having a glass of wine and talking to the neighbors. We all have front porches here, which means we all know each other. When a neighbor needs help, we galvanize.”

Before moving to Fort Mill, Warner and her husband lived in a porchless town house. “Nine years there, and I never knew my neighbors,” said Warner.

The couple’s house also has an upstairs front porch that she calls her “ponytail porch” because the added distance from it to the sidewalk gives her privacy.

“There’s an unwritten law that if you’re on your upstairs porch, you’re not dressed and not ready to be social,” said Warner. “But if you’re on your downstairs porch, everyone’s welcome.”

The front porch is one of the features that helped sell 21 of 26 houses in nine months at the SchoolStreet Homes development in Libertyville, said developer John McLinden. The Craftsman- and bungalow-style houses, which start at $525,000, showcase architect/author Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House” tenets.

Curb Appeal

Even homeowners who do not use their front porches want them for curb appeal, said Jason DeBaker, managing principal for Orren Pickell Designers & Builders in Lake Bluff.

“The front porch gives the house a warm and inviting feel,” he said. “It’s a romantic addition to the house’s design. Most of our buyers plan to be in their houses for a long time but when they do sell, it will add to the architectural appeal of the house.”

DeBaker’s custom-home buyers gravitate toward traditional beadboard ceilings and wooden railings, but favor specialty flooring such as bluestone tile or ipe wood.

The more the porch proliferates, the more the design stays the same. Many of today’s front porches parrot those perpetuated by painters Norman Rockwell and Edward Hopper or echo those from iconic American homes including George Washington’s Mount Vernon and or Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Or, they are smaller versions of the 660-foot porch (the world’s largest, it claims) that defines Mackinac Island’s Grand Hotel.

Compared with interior rooms, the front porch gives you more bang for your buck, said Richard Becker of Becker Architects Ltd. in Highland Park.

“The foundation and roof are major costs,” he said. “But you don’t have the expenses of windows and mechanical systems.”

Material choices determine the porch cost from there. Ceiling options include exposed rafters, decking and beadboard. Flooring can be cement (more interesting now, thanks to stamping and dyeing), wood, composite or tile.

Be sure to budget for lighting, advised Becker, so the porch has ample light for evening activities. Don’t overlook the design of the stairs, he added. “They set the stage for the porch, so they matter.”

Becker especially likes the new woodlike composite flooring choices from the decking industry. “They last a lot longer than wood, don’t fade and you can get railings to match,” he said.

Front porches have moved up the list of remodeling homeowners’ must-haves, said Bruce Pinsler of Galaxie Home Remodeling in Lincolnwood.

“Due to the economy, people are spending more time at home,” he said. “The front porch gives them an extension of their living space.”

Accessorize your outdoor living space with a wooden, wicker or metal porch swing. Rocking chairs and outdoor gliders are just as fine for watching the world go by. Add character with bright, colorful cushions that are weather resistant.

Porch Additions

Neighborhoods and municipalities have minimum set-back requirements that can add red tape to front porch additions. Some also limit the percentage of the lot that can be covered by structures. But Becker said after sitting on a municipal board for six years, he saw fewer objections to porch additions than other requests. “Typically, the neighbors see it as a good thing,” he said.

Before you hire an architect or builder, learn the lingo from “On the Porch” by James Crisp and Sandra Mahoney. This primer describes porch parts and warns you of potential code complications.

While front porches often grace homes with traditional designs, architect Mark Frisch’s Wilmette house is thoroughly modern. Its front, side and back porches are integral to the design of the house, which was drafted by Demeter Building Workshop, LLC in Chicago.

“Architecturally, the front porch differentiates the first floor from the second so the house isn’t boxy,” said Frisch. “But in terms of lifestyle, it gets me outside. I read, I talk to the neighbors.”

While Frisch’s wife and their Labrador retriever prefer the back porch’s sunny exposure, Frisch prefers the front porch’s shade. “If it’s over 60 degrees, I’m out there,” he said.

Even off-site-built (sometimes called precut) houses feature front porches as prominent features in their designs. Companies including OakBridge Timber Framing and Estemerwalt Log Homes cater to the second-home market, where the front porch spells “time to relax.” Connor Homes’ “new-old” models replicate early American houses from the East Coast, most with front porches.

Will the front porch endure or will it succumb to obsolescence? It is has survived AC and TV, so it shall endure, the architects and builders agreed. It enjoys esteem that extends beyond its original purpose.

Like the good-night wave from the front door, the creak of the swing as teenagers court and the crickets’ evening serenade, the front porch tells us that for now, at least, all is OK.

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