Porches, decks, and patios all have a place on houses of certain eras and styles. Architectural gingerbread has been gracing the American porch for at least 150 years. Brick and stone pathways and courtyards are centuries older. (The suburban patio simply updated the concept with concrete, a 20th-century material.) Even the wood deck, that concession to modern life, goes back at least 75 years.
Whether your outdoor room is composed of wood, brick, stone, concrete, or synthetic materials, it’s essential to choose quality components, install them with an eye to historical proportions, and keep them in good shape.
Porch flooring and wood decking have a lot in common, even though it’s customary to use tongue-and-groove boards on a porch rather than lumber laid with a slight gap to allow water to pass through, as on a deck. Since both expose surfaces to the harshest weather, they’re vulnerable to a host of ills: cracked, split, or “punky” lumber, and chipped, peeling, or faded paint or stain.
Replace rotten or unsound boards with new wood of similar species, quality, width, and cut (i.e., tongue-and-groove or plank). If the entire porch floor or deck is past saving, invest in new decking of long-lived wood or a quality composite. While pine and fir are often found on old porches, the best woods for floors and decks include quality grades of cedar and redwood, or tropical woods like mahogany and ipe.
While porch floors are often painted—battleship gray is the traditional color, camouflaging both dirt and pollen—many of the suggested woods are better suited to stains or sealers. (The natural oils that make redwood and tropical woods insect resistant mean they also resist paint.)
As for composite decking, the good news is that these materials are getting better—but you can still tell the difference between composites and wood. That said, composite materials are easy to care for. They do not require sealers, stains, or more than an occasional cleaning with soap and water. Unlike wood, they resist mildew; some resist greasy stains. And composites typically boast Class A fire ratings, which most woods do not. You might consider a composite material for an addition or rear façade.
Wood columns, balustrades, and even fretwork can last decades provided they’re cut from long-lived, dimensionally stable wood with a low moisture content. Kiln-dried premium woods such as Western red cedar, white or Ponderosa pine, and redwood serve well in the long run. For large elements like posts and columns, look for wood treated with an environmentally safe wood preservative.
Wood components should be thick where and when it matters. Where authenticity is especially important, order porch parts that are cut individually rather than by computer-aided machine. Work cut from a single blank—running trim, for example—should be at least ¾" thick. More substantial elements, like corbels, should be at least 3" thick. While a post or corbel may appear to be cut from one block of wood, almost universally these large elements were composed of several blanks cut and glued together. (Often the glue failed before the wood.) Elements cut from composites may appear to have an advantage, but they usually require a wood post or metal core for support.
Consider the impact of weather on complicated decorative elements. Plain connecting elements, like porch rails, should be sloped on either side to shed water. Runs of scrollwork (like a decorative bracket between porch posts) should be protected by cornice work or an overhang wide enough to keep water from reaching them.
If low maintenance is paramount, the latest synthetic composites based on PVC or fiberglass are worth considering. Not only are composites easy to cut and shape, but they also require less maintenance and they are very strong. Once painted, it’s difficult to tell a composite column or railing from one made of wood. For these reasons, millwork “systems” are spawning a new wave of gingerbread on new-old houses throughout the country. If you use a composite system, keep historical proportions and usage in mind: use trim just as it would have appeared on your home when it was new.