Akron Beacon Journal

AKRON, Ohio - A front porch is more than a shelter from the elements. It's a friendly face on a home, a comfortable bridge between our private lives and our public selves. And almost by its very presence, it conveys neighborliness.

Is it any wonder, then, that in a country where families are often scattered and relocations common, we'd crave a return to the community-building powers of the porch?

That's a big part of the reason, housing experts believe, that the front porch is regaining its importance in home construction.

Increasing demand for front porches in new homes was projected by most of the 60 builders, architects, designers, and other specialists who were surveyed in a 2007 study by the National Association of Home Builders' Home of the Future.

Among the panelists, 70 percent predicted front porches would become popular in new homes of about 2,400 square feet, while 79 percent expected it to be a desired feature in upscale homes of 3,000 feet or more. The experts aren't talking about porches intended primarily for decoration, noted Steve Melman, the association's director of economic services.

"This is something where you could actually sit out," a covered space big enough to accommodate a swing or a table and chairs.

Melman thinks the movement has several roots.

Front porches fit with the trend toward traditional home design, and they meet homeowners' desire for a more casual lifestyle, he said.

What's more, Melman said, porches feed people's desire to belong. A front porch is an icon of the American neighborhood, and its presence helps create a sense of community almost instantly, he said.

The orientation of porch to sidewalk encourages interaction - proximity, but with the porch a few feet higher - without setting up the expectation of a long encounter, unless that's what you want.

A porch's ability to promote that sort of casual exchange is the reason the architectural feature is often used in new urbanist developments, which strive to give new neighborhoods the feel and livability of older small towns.

New urbanism - also called new traditional development - de-emphasizes cars and encourages people to walk places, spend time outdoors, and interact with their neighbors, fostering a sense of belonging.

"You get a feel that, OK, I'm in a neighborhood," said Tony Troppe, who is developing Hickory, a new urbanist neighborhood near Cascade Locks Park in Akron, Ohio.

The porch wasn't strictly a safety element. The development took its design cues from the nearby neighborhood, which is mainly populated with pre-World War II homes on which front porches are typical, said Joel Testa of Testa Cos., which built homes in Cascade Village just north of downtown Akron for the nonprofit development company Community Builders Inc. Even the color palette was inspired by the homes in the vicinity.

But porches were also a logical way to draw people outside.

"The more people that are out front, the more people are keeping an eye on the community," he said. Testa sees evidence that the strategy is working.

"People didn't even want to go down there before. . . . Now people tour it [the neighborhood] all the time."

The front porch may be an American icon, but it was hardly an American invention. Its origins lie in the protected walkways that edged ancient Greek temples, the porticos of ancient Rome, the covered outdoor living areas of equatorial Africa, and the Indian huts called barandas, Michael Dolan writes in The American Porch: An Informal History of an Informal Place.

Dolan said the porch was common in 19th-century America, but started falling out of fashion early in the 20th century as indoor plumbing came into use. Porches, like outhouses, became symbols of houses that were outdated, he said.

The demise of the front porch accelerated after World War II as ranch houses sprang up to accommodate the returning GIs and their burgeoning families.

The houses' simple construction meant they could be built quickly and affordably, and "those little houses . . . didn't lend themselves to any complicated carpentry," Dolan said. The neighborhoods where those houses were built also emphasized the automobile over walking, and the orientation of homes moved to the more private space in the backyard.

Dolan said movies and TV shows continued to portray the front porch as a symbol of hearth and home, and the kids who grew up seeing those images now want to make those idyllic settings their own.

He noticed the popularity of the porch starting to revive about 15 years ago. Coincidentally, that was around the time he and his wife bought a house in Washington, with a ratty front porch they eventually replaced.

Testa thinks it was back in the 1980s when his company started including front porches in many of its stock plans for single-family homes. Now, he said, "almost every single-home [plan] we have has a front porch."

A front porch feels good, Dolan said, and to him, it just looks like it belongs - sort of like eyebrows on a depiction of a face. "It's detail that the eye wants."