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Do post-pandemic homes need the return of the porch?

Words:
Jonathan Clarke

The porch could be a critical part of home design for a post-pandemic world, offering a public/private space for deliveries, bike and boot storage, and even a visitors’ WC

Multi-functional porch.
Multi-functional porch. Credit: Jonathan Clarke

The pandemic has fuelled furious design speculation. There is a groundswell of ideas on how our homes can adapt and change, and an accelerated interest in hybrid living and working solutions.

Most ideas fixate on flexibility, some creating new apartment typologies with neat movable walls, inter-changeable rooms and clever modular divides.

But while flexibility is exciting, it is not new.

During the 1960s, architects like Cedric Price and Archigram concentrated much effort on flexibility in all areas of life. In 1967, Archigram was invited by the Weekend Telegraph to design a dwelling for the year 1990, which was built for an exhibition. In this space, the furniture could inflate and deflate when needed, robotically operated screens could create privacy and walls, ceilings and floors could move and adapt to meet the needs of the occupant. Archigram was a pioneer of modular construction, and its thinking, then so radical, still captivates architects and is a fundamental influence on the ‘post-pandemic home’ ideas we see today.

Despite Archigram’s prolific output challenging established thinking on our homes and cities, its built legacy is more modest. As pragmatic professionals, we all understand that there is a fine balance between design ambition and commercial reality, and that for our ideas to gain real traction they must factor in development costs, budget, and most of all the appetite of clients. But as bigger questions are being asked of the role our homes play in our lives, the need for the residential sector to keep exploring and adapting is now more vital than ever.

A challenge for architects is mediating between two very different positions. In development scale, our homes are micro – a tiny part of a big financial and viability puzzle. However to us, our homes live in the macro. They are the biggest single financial investment most of us will ever make, either as a mortgage, or as a percentage of our monthly income. And they are a big emotional investment too. During the pandemic our homes have been the single most important place in our lives.

Flexibility is no silver bullet and is not the only way to end the sector’s complex challenges. The profession should instead be finding simple deliverable ideas to better equip our homes for the new normal, but these need not necessarily be ‘new’.

Return of the threshold

One ‘old’ idea to improve our homes could be reinstating the threshold or porch – particularly in multi-tenanted developments.

Thresholds are a convenient ‘pre-room’ mediating movement from one spatial status to another. They used to come in a dazzling variety, from the stone porticos of ancient Greek temples, medieval churches, Georgian homes and government buildings, to the timber porches of the Edwardians, and the ornate brick of the Arts and Crafts movement – right through to the modern pebbledash, white-painted timber, or PVC modern porches and verandas.

 

The humble porch – as a space that is neither inside nor outside of our homes and a perfect mediator from a very public, to a very private space – is important to protecting the sanctity of home

Yet the threshold is often the preserve of the single dwelling, and a waning commodity – in older homes, porches tend to be removed or consumed by years of refurbishment. In modern homes porches are rarely built at all – save for a light canopy over the front door.

But the humble porch – as a space that is neither inside nor outside of our homes and a perfect mediator from a very public, to a very private space – is important to protecting the sanctity of home.

The internalised porch

The standard functions of a porch have never been more in demand.

We live in a world where Amazon is increasing its UK staff by 75,000, and our retail habits are increasingly switching to online. The porch could become a delivery ‘hub’ and a safe ‘private’ space to receive post and parcels, takeaway and grocery deliveries, away from the ‘public’ street.

The porch could cater for the increased focus on health and the war against disease. An internalised porch housing a guest WC would allow guests to refresh themselves while ensuring the ‘home’ bathroom remains private. Within the guest WC could be a discreet space-saving sink basin, such as that designed by Michael Hohmann in the early 1960s. Or it could be taken one step further and the porch could become a feature, channelling the spirit of Corbusier’s Villa Savoye where the sink and bathing area in the entrance is part sculptural installation, part functional space.

Again, the porch could better equip our homes for changing transport habits, such as storage and charging points for folding bikes and e-scooters. Similarly, with many rediscovering a love of nature and local green spaces, when more than now do we need changing and storage space for shoes and coats?

Although the porch is a modest functional space, it could be a small change that would make homes more desirable, with benefits ranging from efficiency, security (such as for those who prefer not to use bike stores), and potentially even energy savings, when they are insulated buffer spaces between the exterior and interior of the home.

In larger housing schemes and built to rent (BTR) typologies, integrating porches into individual units may not always be viable. But as developers and managers are constantly seeking an edge in an amenities ‘arms race’ for the best facilities and marketing opportunities to attract residents, one way to remedy this could be by focusing more attention on lobbies – essentially porches on a much grander scale. The lobby need not be a purely transitory entrance space, particularly if more thought is given to integrating useful services and facilities for residents such as post rooms, cycle workshops, and recycling points, as it is simply reallocating dead space and ultimately adding value for those that live there.

Similarly, I’ve often wondered why hotels don’t provide a ‘porch’ as part of their guestrooms. A porch requires minimal space provision but allows a guest to mediate their relationship with the hotel staff and other travellers. It provides an area to take in and dispose of room service, without the need to enter the ‘public’ space of the corridor, again protecting the sanctity and privacy of the room.

At this time when we’re all speculating on what our homes might look like post-Covid-19, a pragmatic view is that is far more likely to comprise a series of simple clever shifts and pivots, than a tidal wave of change. Reinstating the porch may not be as revolutionary or glamorous as AI-led appliances, touch-free tech, or body temperature monitors, but it is one simple solution that deserves a little thought.

Jonathan Clarke is a director at Arney Fender Katsalidis

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