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Say hello to an old friend

The front porch is back, albeit in a new form -- smaller, yes, but still a link to the neighbors.

October 12, 2006|Joe Robinson | Special to The Times

AS workers put the finishing touches on her just-minted home amid a tangle of electrical cords and ladders, Pam McGregor ticks off her plans, not for the inside, but the outside of her house -- her front porch. "We're going to pull the travertine out here, put a rocker there, a love seat and some rattan chairs," the mother of four shouts over the roar of power tools.

The appointments are no afterthought for McGregor, who chose the Woodbury development in Irvine for its focus on neighborhood, something she believes this open-air space will promote.

"When you pull your living room outside, it encourages people to get out more," she says. "Parents can sit out and watch their kids, say hello to neighbors."

After largely disappearing in the 1950s, the front porch is staging the inklings of a comeback, thanks to homeowners like McGregor. The number of new houses with porches is up 11% over the last decade, according to the National Assn. of Homebuilders, and porches figure prominently in Southern California developments such as Columbus Grove and Columbus Square in Irvine and Tustin. In Orange, the city planning committee has mandated porches for a project of Craftsman-style homes.

Why the trend, especially here in Southern California, where residential architecture has historically focused on the private realm of the backyard? In a word, isolation. And a growing desire to avoid it.

Transient careerists are in the mood for a home, not a house -- a community that can provide personal connections and a sense of belonging. Baby boomers remember suburban blocks bustling with kids playing ball and neighbors sharing burgers; Generation X and Y home buyers hark back through movies and TV to vintage neighborhoods where everyone knew your name.

Merely building a porch, however, doesn't mean shared lemonades and Parcheesi will come along with it. Architects face the challenge of melding a traditional design element with the modern realities of wider streets, smaller lots and concerns about privacy. Some porches end up as cosmetic window dressing.

"Many porches that you see in the recent homes have been token," says David Ko, a residential designer with Santa Ana-based Angeleno Associates, which is calling for full-size porches for the home of Angels baseball star Garret Anderson. Some modern versions of the porch don't even have enough space for a person to sit, Ko says.

There's also ambivalence about how social neighbors want to be.

Homeowners "want to know their neighbors, but not that well," says James Chung, president of Reach Advisors, a Boston-based research company that tracks buyer attitudes. "Not all home buyers want the front of their home so close to noise or the density required to make the front porch interaction work."

The porch may be outdoors, but it's still private space, what psychologists call primary territory. A porch has to enable contact between residents and passersby without a bullhorn, but it can't be too close to the action and it can't be too low. Sit on a porch that's at sidewalk level with pedestrians looking down at you, and they begin to feel invasive.

"The important thing is elevation change -- it should be two, three, four steps up," says Will Haynes, an architect at William Hezmalhalch Architects who has designed homes with porches, including some in the new Irvine developments. When a porch sits high enough off the ground, it puts you at "eye level with people walking by, which gives you a sense of security and privacy."

IT wasn't a burning need to hobnob that triggered the initial porch wave back in the 19th century but something more urgent: wilting heat.

In the pre-air-conditioning era, stir-fried homeowners in the Southeast fled to their outdoor sanctuaries for relief from oppressive summer broilings. A well-designed porch was essential not just as an escape hatch but also as a natural AC device, pulling cooler air into the home through cross-ventilation.

The American porch sprouted from French and Spanish influences, notably the veranda, a deck that extended the full width of the home. Craftsman housing kits from the Sears Roebuck catalog spread the ultimate front room coast to coast. Along the way it became less a haven from heat and more of an architectural and social statement. Woodwork flourishes -- ornamented brackets on posts, embellished rails and the like -- put a face on the home.

"When you look at a Victorian house and its porch, it's a highly articulated, elaborate piece of the architectural facade," says Dana Cuff, professor of architecture at UCLA. "It's like your Sunday hat, the showiest part."

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