Bring Back the Screened Porch

The "outdoor room" gives you more fresh air and maybe less coronavirus.

design for white pine house with sleeping porches
Sleeping porch covers the entire facade.

Richard M. Powers, 1918 

In a recent post, I showed a new house designed by Tom Bassett-Dilley with screened porches, which you don't see very often anymore except in really buggy parts of the world. It also had a sleeping porch on the upper level, which you never see anywhere. 

Before air conditioning was invented, sleeping porches were very common; sleeping inside a hot, humid house could be difficult, especially in the south. Harriet Beecher Stowe thought sleeping outside was healthier for kids, writing ''The child, having slept in a closed box of a room, his brain all night fed by poison, is in a mild state of moral insanity.''

Screening, developed for sieves during the Civil War, became popular in the 1880s and caught on quickly; historian Russell Lynes called it ''the most humane contribution to the 19th century and the most unsung.'' Jill P. Capuzzo of the New York Times notes that in his book The Domesticated Americans, "Mr. Lynes cites a 1930 survey from The Journal of Home Economics in which window screening ranked as the third most important ''household appliance'' behind running water and sewage disposal."

Before air conditioning came along, screens made many parts of the world, if not habitable, at least bearable, keeping out the bugs but letting in the air. I could not be writing this post from a cabin in the woods in Ontario, Canada, without screens to keep the mosquitoes and black flies out.

Sleeping porches were part of the architecture

Plan of vacation house by the sea
Vacation house with giant sleeping porch. Richard M. Powers, 1918

Sleeping porches and screened porches were not just add-ons but were part of the architecture of the home; I am illustrating this post with drawings from a 1918 architectural competition to design a white pine house for the vacation season. The winning entry by Richard M. Powers of Boston shows porches dominating the lakeside façade. Every entry in the competition had screened sleeping porches integrated into the designs. 

Sleeping porches were killed by air conditioning, which does a better job on a hot, humid night. Screened porches made a bit of a comeback a few years ago, thanks to health concerns. Stacy Downs wrote in the Washington Post back in 2004:

"The bugs are really bad out there," said Victoria Scott, whose screened porch will include a chiseled limestone fireplace and French concrete furniture. "We're worried about West Nile virus and other issues with mosquitoes."

A building inspector noted that he is getting a lot of applications for them.

"I've noticed it this year more than ever," said Ken Williams, a residential plans examiner in Overland Park, Kan. "People are mentioning mosquitoes and West Nile virus. A few years ago people building screened porches were not common at all."

Screened porches are healthy

second prize house with porches on second floor
Vacation home with sleeping porches everywhere. Otto Faelten and Donald Robb, 1918 

There is another health concern that is worrying people now: the coronavirus. Kyle and Paige Faulkner, who build screened porches, write on their blog: 

While the original purpose of sleeping porches was for comfort, they became even more popular in the 1920s due to the increased awareness of germs. People believed that fresh air would combat the transmission of diseases that were known to spread fast in overcrowded indoor conditions. Families viewed sleeping porches as offering a significant health benefit.

The coronavirus presents a problem very similar to what they faced in the 1920s when they knew what caused disease but didn't have the drugs to treat it. Fresh air and reducing crowding were a significant part of the strategy.  Screened porches helped then, and they could help now.

Screened porches are cool

house with sleeping balconies
House with sleeping balconies.  Edwin J. Schmitt, 1918

We have written before about how people were obsessed with fresh air, even hanging their children out the window in baby cages; the experts told parents of the time that they should be airing their babies. My mother brought me up according to Dr. Spock and his book Baby and Child Care and would put me out on the fire escape of our Chicago apartment in the middle of winter. Dr. Spock wrote, "cool or cold air improves appetite, puts color in the cheeks, and gives more pep to humans of all ages... I can't help but believe in the tradition." 

Perhaps it's time to be obsessed with fresh air again. It is time to build spaces where you can extend the outdoor season, get fresh air that is not recirculated through ducts, and put us back in touch with the outdoors.

Bring back the screened porch!