Screened Porch: Stylish Protection from West Nile Virus
It started with a West Nile scare and a sketch pad. Eleven weeks later, they finished their screened-in porch—and started enjoying the great outdoors with all the comforts of home.
The mosquitoes drove us to it. My wife, Lorraine, and I love to spend summer evenings outdoors, lingering over a meal or just hanging out with friends. We'd gotten used to just swatting the bugs away, though with three teenage boys (and all their buddies) competing for space, we'd been tossing around the idea of adding a sheltered outdoor living area for years. But when the local paper reported that someone in a nearby town—we live in Reading, Massachusetts—came down with West Nile, which had been killing birds in the area, we figured it was time to act.
I spent the winter sketching plans. I make my living as a biochemical engineer but have always enjoyed woodworking as a hobby. I don't have any architectural training but, as my wife says, I have a "mathematical eye." After scrapping two drawings, we finally decided on a 16-by-19-foot screened porch with rounded columns that echo the home's front portico, and a deck on top that we could access from our bedroom.
We sited the porch off the back corner of the dining room, a 1930s addition that had been tacked on to our Victorian-era house. The room had leaky windows that we wanted to replace anyway. And the sun really beat in there, since it's on the south side of the house. The previous owner had told us the home once had a wraparound porch, and we wanted to make something that at least felt like a full side porch. To do that, we also decided to add a 20-by-12-foot pergola that would extend from the porch to the front of the house, along the living room side. We figured deciduous vines would eventually climb up and filter some sun in summer, while letting in warmth and light in winter.
Once we were ready to build, we didn't have much time to work with. We couldn't start until the ground thawed in April, and we had a nonnegotiable deadline of June 15, when we were hosting, as part of an initiative through our church and the Boston Chernobyl Children's Project, some special house guests—two Russian girls who'd be getting medical care for six weeks at a local hospital. Talk about motivation.
We joke that we started the project by doing everything backwards, first landscaping and then construction. But we had a 20-year-old spruce and some other mature plants in the way that we wanted to save, so we hired landscape architect Jeanie Smith for a consultation on how to design the future yard. She turned us on to landscaper Jack Domoracki, who moved the plants for us. He also saved me a lot of backbreaking work by agreeing on the spur of the moment to use his backhoe to dig a 4-foot-deep trench for four of the porch's eight footings.
Lorraine and I tackled the rest of the pergola landscaping ourselves. We bought some bluestone that we laid in an octagonally shaped patio for an outside table and chairs and surrounded it with 40 boxwoods, which we planted till 2 a.m. while our kids slept. Then we added vines on the columns—clematis, wisteria, trumpet vine, morning glory—so in the summer it's a regular jungle up there.
The building inspector insisted that we use large plastic Bigfoot footing forms under the porch. Beneath the pergola, we used smaller cardboard Sonatubes. I spent a week waking up at four in the morning to get shoulder-deep in dirt and dig out the 3-foot-wide holes for the Bigfoots. But I was grateful we used such beefy footings when we got 4 feet of snow that winter.
Even more fortunately, my wife insisted that her contractor brother-in-law, Bruce Dinwiddie, come to help. In five days, he worked more than 80 hours. Then he drove from Cape Cod on the weekends to oversee my plans, tweak the design to meet building code, and supply the right tools. He's kind of an animal when it comes to his work. Together, we put up the framing, grappling with the fiberglass columns in order to slide them over 16-foot-tall 4x4 posts. We bolted notched 4x4s onto the joists before the roof deck was laid to serve as the posts for the deck's balusters and railings; to keep rain from pooling up there, we ripped a 3-inch pitch into the header beams with a circular saw. While the home's walls were exposed, I wired in about a dozen new outdoor and indoor light fixtures. For extra bug control, I crawled under the porch framing to tack on screening under the newly laid mahogany floor.
The real challenge, though, came in designing the porch's walls. For a cleaner look, we were going to build frames for the screening inside the columns, instead of between them. Then we got inspired by French doors I bought to replace the dining room windows. Bruce had rightly mocked me for getting ones with sliding screens when they'd be surrounded by a screened-in porch. But then we thought, "Wouldn't it be cool to use these instead of stationary screens?" Now a single 4-foot sliding screen opens onto the pergola, and two 3-foot ones open onto a walkway to the backyard.
Then we finished constructing the pergola, creating the upper latticework from pressure-treated 2x4s cut down the middle.
All our hard work paid off, though. We managed to have two debris-free, finished spaces when June 15 finally rolled around. Our visitors, Marina and Vicka, were able to enjoy the fresh air in comfort. And we now start our summer parties under the pergola, then head to the porch as the sun sets and those hungry mosquitoes start moving in.
The side lawn offered plenty of room to roam but no protection from the hot sun or hungry mosquitoes.