Renovating a Front Porch in Washington DC

by Fran Donegan

Renovating your front porch? Here’s what you need to know about renovating (or building!) one, including style, materials, and size

Front porch

A well-designed front porch is an important part of the home’s design. Plus, it serves a function; like a place to relax or a space for greeting visitors. Sadly, many porches don’t suit homeowners’ needs. 

This is especially true of porches on older homes that have been remodeled in the past. Previous homeowners often selected design details that clashed with the character of the house. Some removed the front porch entirely, damaging the integrity of the home’s design.

Take note: Porches for historic houses need to be approved by the Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) for Washington DC. 

It’s a good idea to list what you don’t like about the current porch. From this starting point for the front porch renovation, Sweeten outlines the path to building a structure that works with your lifestyle and the house’s architectural style.

Sweeten matches home renovation projects with vetted general contractors, offering advice, support, and up to $50,000 in renovation financial protection— for free.

How will you use the porch?

Porches are transition spaces between the outside world and home. At the same time, they are an extension of living space that is not quite inside or outside. Start your project by determining how you will use the porch space. Will it be a space to greet guests? Will it be a family gathering spot? Do you plan to eat on the porch?

Your answers will help determine the features of the new porch. In the Washington DC area, a ceiling fan will make summer evenings more pleasant. The way the porch will be used also determines its size.  Importantly, not all porches extend across the entire front of the building. Want to estimate the space needed for renovating your front porch? 

  • A covered entry for greeting guests or judging the weather before venturing outdoors can be about four feet deep.
  • Porches for relaxing and living on require more space.
  • Comfortable seating requires a porch that is at least five feet from the wall of the house to the railing. 
  • Add a dining table and you will need a wider, or deeper, porch. There should be at least 36 inches from a dining chair to an obstruction, like the house’s wall. 
  • To be comfortable when using the table, plan on a 10-foot-deep porch.

Fitting with the house

Sometimes renovating a front porch is done to enhance curb appeal.  A well-designed porch can certainly do that, whether it is a renovation or building a whole new structure. However, it’s important that the porch complement and contribute to the design of the house. It should not look tacked on.  This is especially important where the original porch was renovated in the past or removed altogether. 

Renovating or adding a porch to a period home requires a little research. You can take cues from similar houses in your neighborhood.  And there are historical references, including some online, that list period details. Local designers and contractors can also help get the details right. 

Porch designs can relate to the house in a few ways, including using similar materials, roof style and architectural details. Matching roof styles, such as gable or hip roofs, will help the porch integrate with the house. 

Match exterior materials

Wood frame houses usually have wood porches. Brick houses have brick or other masonry foundations. The roofing material on the porch should match the material on the house. 

Architectural details

Architectural details can be anything from moldings, decorative brackets and medallions, railings and banisters, and columns. The goal is to incorporate the house’s style characteristics into the porch design. For example, the trim style around the windows might be used for the fascia of the porch.

Using the correct style columns

Columns not only support the roof, but they play an important role in porch design. The trick is to use columns that match the style of the house. A colonial home requires classical columns that are in proportion to the porch and house. A craftsman, or bungalow, house can have stone columns or columns that are clad with siding that matches the house. Also, columns should frame doors and windows. They should not be added where they block a window, for example. 

Railing design

The right railing can make or break a porch design. Victorian homes usually have elaborate “gingerbread” type railings. Simple railings with clean lines work well with contemporary home designs.  Your own research and advice from experts can help you settle on the right railing system. 

Adding a new porch

Placing a porch where one does not exist should follow the same design rules as renovating a front porch. But the process includes building everything from the foundation to the roof. You will be selecting materials for the flooring, ceiling, and the railing that work with the original house. In addition, the porch space has to be in proportion to the original house. And that is important because a house and porch not in proportion will never look right.

New porches planned for historic homes in Washington DC have special provisions. Basically, a new porch, as well as a renovated porch, must be historically accurate. Approval for changes come from the Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) for Washington DC. It is best to check what is and is not allowed before spending too much time on the design process. 

Expanding on the back porch

Back porches are another matter. There is a 20- or 25-foot setback from the rear property line, depending on location in Washington D.Cthe city. But you cannot build out beyond 10 feet from an adjoining house.  So if your back walls lines up with your neighbor’s, you can build a 10-foot-deep back porch. But if their wall or porch is five feet beyond your wall, you can build out 15 feet. 

Building permits for porches

DCRA is the body that issues building permits. The process from application to approval can take two to four months. DCRA circulates the permit application to a number of government agencies, including the Historic Preservation Division. Navigating the process is difficult. But an experienced designer or general contractor will handle the permit process for you. 

DCRA will consider property setbacks in the process. In the front, you cannot build beyond an existing structure that is closest to the street. So if houses on your block have porches, you can build out to the porch nearest the street. 

Considering your own front porch renovation? Porches provide valuable living space, plus they can enhance the curb appeal of a house. But remember—the design, whether a renovation or new construction,  should look like an extension of the main house.  

Ready for your own front porch project? Sweeten can connect you with the right general contractor!

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