These are the sensual pleasures of porches:
the smell of the evening,
the feel of a summer breeze,
the experience of being both inside and outside.
At Dana Bixby Architecture, we have always seen a screen porch as an essential aspect of a summer home. These days, the vagaries of COVID-19 have underscored the health benefits of a screen porch and the fresh air that it offers. Today we have a new awareness of, and need for, fresh air.
We have designed many screened porches over the years. Some are “all screen”.
Some are designed with interchangeable screen and glass panels.
Some are fully enclosed with windows for year round use. But then, those are not screened porches.
We’ve seen an increased interest in indoor/outdoor spaces in recent months, as our clients have discovered the necessity of COVID-safe meeting spaces.
One of my clients for whom I designed a porch told me how great it was that her teenage daughters could meet with friends out on her porch in the midst of the COVID pandemic. With a screen porch. people can be protected, enclosed but effectively outside with abundant fresh air. In this case the porch was set away from the house in a way that created a sense of enclosure to the deck space between the house and porch.
Research on COVID-19 has revealed that meeting outdoors is an effective way to slow the spread of the virus. In our recent conversation with Sandra Martin, Senior Health Planner in the Public Health Program at Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, she emphasized that benefit of the two-way cross breeze on a screen porch for reducing COVID transmission, when coupled with proper social distancing protocols, such as masks when moving around, and frequent hand washing.
Not that we ever needed another reason to have a screen porch here in the Berkshires. The pleasure of being outside and yet not having mosquitoes and no-see-ums pestering us has been reason enough.
The screen porch has always represented many things: leisure, summer, quality of life. From a design standpoint, intermediary spaces that access the outdoors are a connector, literally and figuratively “a breath of fresh air,” that serves to draw a person out of their immediate space, to broaden and contextualize one’s daily life in terms of nature and landscape.
I had the good fortune in the early days of my architectural practice to work with a developer who specialized in passive solar architecture. This was in the 80’s when techniques and methods for passive and low energy architecture were just being developed. Porches came to have functionality as a “buffer zone,” tempering the transitions from inside to outside.
At the time, the idea of adding a greenhouse to a residence was very popular. In the course of my work it became obvious that a south-facing greenhouse was a very bad idea because it would get too hot in the summer. At some point the solution became obvious: build a screen porch facing south and utilize interchangeable glass and screen panels so that in the winter the porch would be a solar collector and a buffer zone to the interior, fully heated, spaces, while in the summer, with screens in place instead of glass, the space had all the breeze and fresh air of a screen porch.
And today, at our office, we changed the polycarbonate “winter” inserts to screens in a breezeway that had been used for storage, added a propane space heater and an electric radiant heat panel on the ceiling, and now we have an indoor/outdoor meeting room to review drawings and meet with clients. The final touch were lap blankets that made meeting outdoors tenable on a 32-degree day. Based on this initial experience, we would recommend at least two 2’x4′ panels, with a minimum of 800w output each, for a small sitting area.
From years of experience with a great variety of traditional and modern porch configurations, we do not see this current interest in screen porches as a ‘flash in pan’. The discovery that a porch can be improved to be a healthy outdoor, COVID-safe meeting space is simply a new evolution of venerated wisdom. A screen porch adds both quality of life, long-term value, and, now, a place to be a little bit safer about health.