Decorating, and enjoying, a screened porch

July 18, 2012

Summer is not Washington’s good side. As temperatures break records and our bodies break into sweats, we seek shelter indoors, where we’re protected from bugs and heat. But even on the hottest July day, we should not disregard the porch.

Screened porches offer an experience that cannot be found elsewhere. They are the meeting point between home and garden, offering exposure to the elements with the protection and comfort of being indoors. In other words, the best of both worlds.

“It’s nature up close, but not too personal,” said designer Christopher Patrick, who works in the District. “That’s a fun luxury to play around with.”

But screened porches are not always fun to decorate.

“It’s a hybrid space, so people have a tough time figuring out how to approach it,” said James Farmer, author of the book “Porch Living” ($30, Gibbs Smith). “It’s not inside, but it’s not outside. It’s not the garden, but it’s not the dining room. It can be whatever you want it to be, but having too many options is intimidating. People don’t know where to begin.”

To simplify things, Farmer recommends approaching the porch exactly as you would a living room. Decide what functions the space should serve and then decorate it accordingly, adjusting finishes and fabrics to suit an outdoor living space. The aesthetic goal, he said, is for the porch to be an extension of the home.

When designer David Mitchell decorated his porch in the Shepherd Park neighborhood of the District, he enclosed it with screens to capture the nostalgic feeling of summer camp in North Carolina, a beloved childhood memory. The challenge was making the narrow, 10-by-20-foot space seem roomy for a group and also pleasant during District heat waves.

“I wanted room for six of us to have cocktails and dinner,” he said. “Once I finally figured that out, I had to make it bearable.”

Doing so required experimentation, but Mitchell settled on a combination of ceiling fans and Dyson floor fans. Overhead fans spin hot air around, he said, while floor fans circulate the cooler air before it rises.

“They’re magnificent,” he said of the floor fans.

The floor is made of porcelain planks that were stamped to look like petrified wood, which he bought for $7 per square foot at Renaissance Tile & Bath in Alexandria. On the sofa and chairs, he used heavy linen fabrics that were treated for outdoor use and painted the wicker frames glossy black to give them an industrial edge. Architectural accents include bread paddles and a bench he bought at a design shop in Atlanta for $250 that now serves as a coffee table.

Mitchell said he has become very attached to his porch. He sat out on it with a friend and watched the lightning during the recent derecho. The following night, after he had lost power, Mitchell slept on the porch to stay cool.


A view from the screened in porch looking onto the deck and surrounding neighborhood in Avon, North Carolina. (Cecelia Jolley/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

“People romanticize the porch, but it has to fit your lifestyle,” he said. “It’s not the place to be precious. You want to be able to put your feet up on the furniture.”

Bruce Wentworth, an architect with Wentworth Studio in Chevy Chase, said he often encounters clients who are reluctant to invest in their porch because they don’t see themselves using it year-round. But the best way to extend a porch’s life is to examine its bones, he said.

“A nice floor, such as flagstone or ipe, paired with a high ceiling for ventilation and perhaps a skylight will quickly make the space go from dumpy to luxurious,” he said. “These core areas are where you really see a difference.”

For those looking to get more use out of their porch in the winter months, Wentworth suggests Bromic Heating, a brand of gas or electric wall-mounted heating systems that function like heat lamps (electric models begin at $470, gas models at $1,100).

The last frontier for many porch owners is the ceiling. Southern tradition calls for blue, and Farmer, who is from Georgia, favors Palladian Blue by Benjamin Moore. Others, such as Mitchell, recommend using the color of the house’s trim. A third route, Farmer said, is to paint the ceiling and shutters green, a particularly attractive option if you have a lot of land. The green color will connect the home to its surrounding landscape and can be repeated in plants around the porch.

“Most importantly, don’t treat the porch like a stepchild,” Farmer said. “Done right, it could be the coolest part of your home. ”

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