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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A screened porch allows that breath of fresh air

One of the first things Mary Henning noticed about her Arlington, Va., house was the tiny bedrooms: three small spaces with three little closets. Not so good. But her reservations disappeared when she stepped through the kitchen and saw the screened porch.

“I walked out onto the porch and thought, ‘Oh, my God. I love this house,’ ” Henning says. “The porch sold me.”

To be sure, a screened porch has practical appeal. But another draw is its modest, old-fashioned charm, the jog of a childhood memory that occurs each time the screen door slaps against its frame. For both reasons, homeowners look to these sheltering spaces as the perfect place to while away the days of summer and beyond.

“We live on the porch all summer long and into the fall,” Henning says. “We have meals, relax, entertain and sit during rainstorms. ... It reminds me of a summer camp.”

The popularity of screened porches, say builders and architects, is a function of the environment.

“It’s just a return to common sense about our climate here in Washington,” says Ralph Cunningham, principal of Cunningham Quill Architects. “It’s hot, it’s humid and there are lots of bugs.”

Two years ago, Cunningham’s firm designed a porch for Bonnie Washington’s house in Chevy Chase, Md. The existing deck sat unused in warm weather because the mosquitoes were so bad.

“You’d be out there for five minutes, and you’d want to pack it in and go inside,” Washington says. Having three young children made things worse. “It’s one thing for us to get bitten,” she says of herself and her husband, “but it’s another when (the kids) get bitten. And they were bitten a lot.”

Today, the screened porch is one of the family’s favorite living spaces much of the year. It’s where the kids like to play games and do arts and crafts, where Mom and Dad like to watch the kids play outside, and where they have meals and entertain. They recently hosted a dinner party on the porch during a rainstorm.

Alexis Gentile Comrack spent her youth on her parents’ screened porches, sleeping on them during the summer because the house lacked central air conditioning. But it wasn’t nostalgia that prompted the construction of a porch now being added to her Washington home.

“Seriously,” she says, “it’s because of the mosquitoes.”

Her husband, Chris Comrack, is building much of the porch himself. He has hired subcontractors to help with the flagstone patio foundation, the copper roof and the gutters; he and his father will do all the framing, screening, painting and trim work.

Experts say homeowners should expect to spend at least $30,000 for a well-built screened porch. Details such as a tongue-and-groove ceiling or recessed lighting cost more.

“You’re really building an addition,” says Tim Burch, president of the local chapter of the National Association of the Remodeling Industry and of Burch Builders Group in Warrenton, Va. “You’re just not adding heating and cooling.”

In the end, Burch says, clients invariably feel that their porches represent money well spent: “Ten out of 10 clients who add them say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done.”

John Barrett, owner of Archadeck, a building company in Laytonsville, Md., says screened porches have been “the most significant part of (our) business” in recent years. “It’s a very cost-effective way of increasing usable living space.”

Chris MacBride and her husband, Neil, added a screened porch to their house in Arlington, Va., in 2004. They were inspired by a porch they’d enjoyed while housesitting as newlyweds 16 years earlier.

Their porch has a painted wood floor and a pale-blue beadboard ceiling. An end table fashioned from a Singer sewing machine base (her great-grandmother’s) with a piece of glass on top sits alongside secondhand wicker chairs and a “nap-depth” sofa with cushions covered in outdoor fabric.

“The kids come back from the pool and sit out there with wet bathing suits, and I couldn’t care less,” Chris MacBride says.

The porch acts as a summer family room where the MacBrides spend time together, read and play board games. It’s put to good use in the winter months, too, as storage for muddy cleats, firewood and cases of soft drinks.

“It’s a fun space that I can reinvent to suit our needs,” she says. “That’s harder to do with an interior space.”

Now the MacBrides’ porch is the one providing inspiration: The neighbors on one side recently added a porch, and the neighbors on the other side are having one built. Three other friends in different neighborhoods also have added screened porches.

“We’ve inspired friends, and no one has been disappointed. It’s contagious. Once you have a porch, you won’t want to go back to not having one,” she says.

Kate McCauley and her husband, Jim Balick, are renovating their Arlington house. When the first set of architectural plans proposed enclosing the porch to expand the living room, their response was “absolutely not.”

The porch is “tiny and nondescript, but it’s a real part of our lives,” McCauley says. “It’s messy with kids’ gear and shoes and hockey sticks and baseball hats and balls ... but we have too many good associations. It’s how we got to know our neighbors, and it makes all the difference in the world to us.”

Not all homeowners feel the same way.

Two years ago, Laura Polly, of Arlington, traded in her family’s screened porch and deck for a home office and a walk-in closet. At less than 8 feet wide, the porch was too narrow to furnish, Polly says, and therefore rarely used. Expanding wasn’t an option, so they tore it down and built a small, two-story addition.

“It seemed like unused space that we could recapture,” Polly says. “What we really needed was closet space.”

After two years of living with her own lack of closet space, Henning says, she would still choose her porch over more storage. She’s not against expanding the house, but only if the porch remained intact.

“I would never get rid of the porch,” she says. “Never.”