Porches are timeless treasures, so don't ignore what's out front
Backyards are not the only choice for Chicago area homeowners who want to spend their "home time" outdoors.
Many homeowners now hearken back to the days when their parents and grandparents set up chairs on their front porches -- or even on their driveways -- as a way to enjoy the evenings socializing with neighbors.
It is true that houses in recent decades have become more oriented to the back, rather than the front yard. But porches have never completely gone out of style.
Whether to the front of the house, the side or the back, a porch is a continuation of one's living space. It is just the intent that is slightly different. Front porches tend to be eyes on the world for the residents of the home and welcoming refuges for friends, neighbors and passersby. Back porches are generally screened-in hideaways. And then there are the wraparound-style porches that greet the world from multiple angles.
Front porches are generally open, with wide steps leading to the front door. Most only cover an area to the front of the house, but if they cover one or both sides, as well, then they are considered wraparound porches. Screened porches are usually only found in the backyard, but they are a great option if you want to sit outside even when the bugs are buzzing.
Unlike rear-facing screened porches, front porches definitely have an effect on a home's curb appeal. If it is well planned and maintained, a front porch will certainly improve a home's value. But before adding one, be sure to consult an architect and a licensed contractor to ensure it is designed correctly and meets local building rules. Unlike a patio or deck, a porch is an extension of your home, and an architect is familiar with the design, structural issues and regulations that will be encountered.
Once you have that front porch -- whether you have added it or just purchased a home that has one -- you need to consider how to decorate, furnish and enhance it.
Brian and Wendy Lambel of Mount Prospect purchased an 1890 farmhouse several years ago and felt the need to add a wraparound front porch to the home, even before they moved in.
"Every farmhouse should have a wraparound porch," said Brian, "and the previous owners probably agreed because they told us they had plans for such a porch and had left them in the house for us."
"We consulted our own architect but those plans they left gave us a visual to work with," Wendy added.
The couple then embarked on a project to build the porch themselves, a process that took about seven months, only getting help on the concrete sidewalks and some of the heavy preconstruction tear-out work. Brian is a skilled carpenter who is also the fire chief of the village of Mount Prospect.
The Lambels have been gradually finishing and improving the porch ever since, adding gutters the first summer and then recently painting its ceiling "haint blue." But everything else is white. And they have enhanced it with beautiful ceiling fans, canned lights and even rope lights hidden along the interior edges.
"When it is 85 degrees out, those fans make all the difference," Wendy said. "And when it is full dark outside, we just use those rope lights for a great look."
"Most mornings we sit out here and have coffee and are often out here in the evenings, too," Brian admitted. "We generally have coffee in the Adirondack chairs on the east side and entertain guests on the south side in the evenings."
"We generally recommend that people looking to furnish a front porch opt for natural materials like wicker and wood, not plastic or metal," said Dan Mayer, owner of Northwest Metalcraft in Arlington Heights. "Rocking chairs, gliders, swings and benches tend to be especially popular in these spaces. But it depends on the style, motif and size of the house and porch. Lounge chairs with ottomans can also be very nice, as are tall chairs that allow you to see over the railings.
"A porch is truly an extension of the home so you don't want to have fire features out there, but planters are generally a must," he added.
Tom Partipilo, outdoor living and home decor coordinator at Lurvey's Garden Center in Des Plaines, advocates the use of eucalyptus rockers woven with durable polyethylene, which is comfortable to sit on, for porch use. The rockers are both UV and weather-resistant. All you have to do is oil it once each year, he said, and either bring it inside or cover it in the winter.
He also likes the look of natural, unpainted Adirondack chairs made of eucalyptus that come equipped with pullout ottomans, as well as hammocks for the ultimate in relaxation.
As far as decor goes, rustic pottery (which mimics old dairy jugs) look great on a front porch, particularly a farmhouse porch. Porches can also be the perfect setting for small bubbler fountains; tall, cascading water towers; wooden bar carts, wall art and, of course, hanging baskets of plants like ferns and colorful flowers.
Many homeowners also choose to soften and adorn each level of their porch steps with pots of flowers at the edges of the steps. Just be sure to pay close attention to watering plants in a high-profile area like that, experts warn.
Planting attractive flowers, shrubs and grasses around a front porch is also important, if you want to enhance that beautiful appendage to the front of your home, according to Donna Diamond, landscape designer at Lurvey's.
"The important thing is to choose plants that are appropriate to the site, are a mix of heights, are hardy and offer a mix of colors during the various seasons," she explained. "If the environment is hot, sunny and dry, consider planting yews or junipers because they don't like wet soil. If you, on the other hand, have consistent moisture, choose something like boxwood, which has broad leaves that will help it endure our harsh winters."
"And when you are talking about flowers," Diamond continued, "consider taller, reliable perennials like lilies of the valley, black-eyed Susans and Arkansas blue stars, which have a long season of interest. Forsythia and lilacs are also nice, especially with more traditional homes. I particularly like Bronx forsythia, which grow about knee high and have green leaves during the summer and leaves which turn purple or burgundy in the fall. Dwarf Korean lilacs are also wonderful. They are small, flower in the spring and then turn purple or yellow in the fall for a nice contrast in your landscape."
Unusual plants Diamond advocates are low-scape chokeberries, which only grow about 2 feet high and have dainty white flowers in the spring; black berries in the summer with nice color in the fall; as well as Royal Raindrops Crabapple trees, which blossom each spring, feature small red berries and purple leaves in the summer, and turn either orange or burgundy in the autumn.
Ornamental grasses are also nice in moderation. They create lots of interest because of the way in which they move in the wind.
"And remember when choosing plants, most of us have busy lives, so choose plants that require a minimum of maintenance. I also generally recommend that people not plant hedges because if one plant dies, you have a problem trying to replace it. It is better to plant a mixture of things with room around them and to plant delicate things close to your house," she added.
Boulders or large stones also create nice interest in a landscape.
"Be sure to always choose plants that have a natural tolerance of our climate in Chicago," Diamond added. "If you have questions about which plants to choose or where best to plant them, email us at email@example.com."