What’s more, the front porch is an American tradition, part of our way of life, with a long history and deep cultural meaning—so deep that we are not always conscious of it. If you intend to build a new house or alter an existing one, consider adding a porch.
At least as important as these practical advantages, the front porch serves as a transition from inside to outside, an intermediate zone that is both public and private. By old habit, Americans sat on their porches in warm weather, talked to neighbors, and observed the passing scene. It still happens in small towns, including the one I live in, though air conditioning is blamed for a general retreat indoors during summer. Porches are usually elevated a bit from ground level, so a person seated on a porch is at eye level or higher than a person standing in the street—a psychological advantage. Railings reinforce the sense of protection. City governments in the United States sometimes encourage front porch use as a way of making neighborhoods safe and friendly. They sponsor campaigns to “Turn on your porch lights.”
By the same token, a visitor can stand or sit here without trespassing in the home. You can talk to someone here that you do not want to invite inside, and still avoid being rude. The shelter is both real and symbolic, a neat way to handle a social interaction. The symbolism extends to how the porch is furnished. It can look bare and impersonal, or it can be an outdoor living room, with chairs, tables, plants, and sculpture. Porches in the South are sometimes opulent—a display of good taste and the owner’s flair for hospitality.
How big should a front porch be? Many people feel that wider is better, and a porch that spans the whole front of the house is ideal. Others like a wrap-around porch, one that turns a corner. An advantage to this type is varied sun exposure for different times of the day. The corner may get special treatment, rounded or chamfered, or even a turret roof, like a gazebo attached to the house. For a porch that is only an entry, it is good to allow a little room to each side of the door for ease of passage, if not for a place to sit. Six feet (two meters) is good, given that posts occupy some of the area.
How deep should you make a porch? Again, the minimum dimension for seating and a passageway is six feet. Front porches that are five and even four feet deep occasionally show up in new houses, but such a shallow porch is for show—a decorative accessory, instead of a useful outdoor space. For eating and other activities, more depth is needed, such as eight feet or more. At this dimension, the porch roof will be pitched low or flat, to fit under the sills of the second floor windows. And at very low pitches, the roof material must be metal or rubber instead of shingle.
The style of the porch should match the style of the house. Rustic posts and unpainted railings would be out of step with a Georgian or Federal house, for example, which should have slender columns and delicate wood or wrought-iron railings. Victorian or Queen Anne houses often have elaborate woodwork or “gingerbread” on the porch, including brackets and a valance. For some houses, the porch is itself the style-maker. Think of a classic bungalow, one story with a porch across the front, a deep overhang, and perhaps a low gable above.
Porches cost less to build than fully enclosed rooms. So the addition of a porch is a cost-effective way to increase living area, dress up the front of a house, and increase its curb appeal. Realtors say that first impressions count, when buyers go looking at houses for sale. The front must be appealing for them to want to step inside. Even if you don’t want to sell, you can add to the value of your home by adding an attractive, well-designed front porch.