When we first built our house, it was designed to be a post and beam summer cottage, and it was small — very small — about 1,100 square feet. But the signature room was undoubtedly our screened-in porch. What made it unique was that the screened-in wall was arced, essentially a semicircle.
The entire house at the time consisted of a bedroom upstairs that looked out on a beautiful arced deck, an open first floor with a kitchen and dining room, and, of course, the screened-in porch. Since there was just the one bedroom, by default the screened-in porch became the guest room.
There was just one problem. When it rained, the water on the deck above would flow over to one corner, and then drain down to the porch below. And believe me, at times that could amount to a substantial amount of water. I remember going downstairs one morning after a storm to greet friends who had spent the night in our “guest bedroom,” and they looked like they had been camping in the Everglades.
My solution was to drill holes in the floor to drain the water — scuppers, if you will. An inelegant solution at best, but over time, the floors must have settled in such a way that the flooding seemed to disappear. Which was a great relief, because aside from the water problem, the screened-in porch had become the best room in our house. The porch faces out on the gardens in the backyard. In the spring, the two large acacia dogwoods are luminescent.
When you opened the French doors from the screened-in porch, you could look out across the dining room to another set of French doors, which led out to a deck on the opposite side of the room. What had been a small house became absolutely spacious. We’re happy with the end result of our porch, but in retrospect I can’t help wonder if there are things we might have done differently. So I went to Mark Hutker of Hutker Architects, who has an office in Vineyard Haven, as well as one in Falmouth. I asked him just that: “Mark, if you were starting from scratch designing a house, how would you incorporate a screened-in porch?”
“The whole idea of a screened-in porch is that you want to be protected from the rain and insects,” Hutker said. “But you want to be immersed in the landscape.” To provide the most sun, he went on to say that the porch should be open on three sides, ideally facing east, south, and west.
He also had some very specific instructions on dealing with the flooding problem — something I was all too familiar with. “You want to get the roof to extend between 18 and 30 inches beyond the edges of the screened porch,” Hutker said. “That should keep most of the wind-driven rain from blowing in. And should it still get blown in, you want to do something to drain it off.”
If you have a solid floor, say tongue and groove floorboards or stone or brick, you’ll want to pitch the floor so the water drains off. So much for my scupper idea.
“If you want a flat wooden floor — we like to use ipe or mahogany — the boards need to be spaced so the water is going to drain,” Hutker said. He recommends the boards be spaced apart by the diameter of a 16-penny nail. Much less than that, and things can get stuck between the boards, and much more that that can make it uneven for walking. He also recommends putting a mosquito screen under the decking, to keep out insects.
“I also like cathedral ceilings for the porch,” Hutker said, “whether shed or hip-shaped, and I like to put a paddle fan in the cathedral space.”
Hutker is also a proponent of glass storm panels. In lieu of screens, he recommends putting them on the south- or west-facing sides of the porch to protect against wind. “If you’re sitting out there and the flower vase tips over and napkins start blowing around, it can be a bit annoying,” he said. “You really have to tune the porch like you would tune the sails on a boat to get the best performance.”
In Hutker’s Falmouth home, he has clear acetate roll-up panels that he can lower when needed to block the wind. They’re not quite as efficient as glass storm panels, but they make up for that in flexibility.
“Inevitably people say that the screened-in porch becomes one of the nicest rooms in their house,” said Hutker, “and as a result they want to make them usable year-round.” He said that can be done by putting in all storm panels, which can be replaced with screens in the warmer months. He adds that if you have stone or brick floors, you can put radiant heating in, which can make the porch all the more cozy.
The last thing Hutker is adamant about is that if you have floor-to-ceiling screens, you have to have a chair rail, or as he puts it, a “dog paw rail.” “If you just have a screen, chairs and furniture will figure out a way to rip it, and animals will walk right through it,” he said.
So thanks, Mark. Your thoughts on drainage could have made our porch a lot more enjoyable in the beginning, and I find the use of storm panels to allow four-season usage most interesting. But I’m a believer in not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Just the way it is, our screened-in porch is the best room in our house.