A Home Inspector’s Weblog by Frank Schulte-Ladbeck

exploring homes and the lives in them around Houston

Learning from Africa

Sometimes when I am going to the Food Bank to volunteer, I arrive in the neighborhood early, so I take a drive through the area. Being a curious soul, I examine the condition of the homes, basically doing my job for fun. The Food Bank is located near other warehouses, and the homes belong to the working class, and they were built in the 20’s to 50’s. They are maintained to various degrees. They really were not designed with our ideas of energy efficiency in mind.

I have been meandering through the site for Open Architecture, considering local solutions to living conditions, and I have been reading about architects from different parts of the world dealing with energy efficient designs. I thought that maybe an article that I read of a house style from West Africa may be a means for these working class homes in Houston to be improved, and with images from Open Architecture in mind, I believed that cost effective ideas can be developed. The plan that I came up with involves using a wrap around porch for their homes. These porches have wood slats for screens, so they are not totally open porches with just a rail around them. The screens allow breezes to come in, and reduce the amount of heat from the sun. The porches also give a place for children to play. The porches could just have roofs with the screening and rail built between the columns, but the ground left as the floor. To improve the flooring pavers could be used, or crushed decomposed granite can be put down. If we really want a porch, how about using pallets placed on concrete blocks. Then a covering can be attached to the pallets for the flooring, and there should be some type of trim to cover the side of the pallets. Another proposal for the structure around the house could be some type of fence, and then a roll of the fabric used for porch coverings attached between house and fence. My point is that there are different solutions that could make this idea work.

The benefit for the homeowner is that the exterior walls are not heated by the sun, and breezes can pass through to cool the house. Children would have a protected outdoor area to play in, and adults would have more livable, semi-sheltered space.

Let us consider some aspects of building this porch, which you can use to examine an already existing porch as well. If you build a porch up, you should think about headroom. There should be at least 6’8” from floor to ceiling. If the porch is more than 30” off of the ground, you will need a railing to prevent injuries from falling off of the porch. The railing should have a minimum height of 36” from the decking. Openings between rails on the railing can be no more than 4” apart, so no heads will be stuck in them, or children falling through. If you need stairs to go up to the deck, the height of each stair should be even. At the zoo this weekend, my daughter had me going up and down the stairs. I watched as countless people tripped, because the first tread was 5 1/2” from the ground, and the other treads had an even height of around 7 1/2”. A tread should also be big enough for a person to place their foot flatly on, around 10”. The maximum riser height between treads should be 7 3/4”. If you have a handrail for the stairs, it should be placed between 34” and 38” high for a comfortable grip. The handrail should be between 1 1/4” and 2”. Too small does not give enough support to some one who is grabbing on during a fall, and too big prevents them from grasping the handrail during a fall. If the porch is really high up, and you need a landing, the space for this landing should be 3′ by 3′. These numbers are by no means all of your concerns when building and examining your porch, but they are a good starting point. If you are using this information for evaluating an existing deck, also consider at looking at its footings and how it is attached to the building. Everything should look secure and stable.

Porches are a great place to sit, have a cup of coffee, and enjoy the day. I have fond memories of hanging out on porches, and the idea of a wrap around screened in porch is intriguing to me, and it could be useful for an older home trying to deal with the elements. I can tell you that after a long walk in the country, sitting on the porch of a dog trot house is a great place to be. (Dog trots are traditional homes in Texas; the kitchen/work area was on one side of the house, and the living spaces on the other; a single roof covered everything leaving an open space in the middle of the home. Bedrooms were placed below the roof, and the dog trot was used as a work area in summer, and an extra storage space in winter.) Consider the porch, if you are looking for a place to create a relaxing environment in your home.

If you do not want to create a porch you may want an awning. I still see these on a few homes in my subdivision, and they are more common in others. They are a good way to block the harsh rising or setting sun, while affording some protection from rain, so you can allow air to pass through an open window. An interesting alternative to an awning is a wall screen. I have seen this idea used in commercial buildings where walls come out of the main building at angles to prevent the sun from shining into rooms when it is setting or rising. Such a screen could be created by a trellis for a vine. I created a trellis with bougainvilleas and hyacinth beans to block the sun’s rays on walls facing the east on my house. Flowers for the eyes, and blocked heat for my comfort. A simple trellis with posts and wires can provide the same screening as the porch that I mentioned. Well ideas for other options should come to you, when you reflect on how you could use this idea.

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