Photo of Dream Porches book Dream Porches and Sunrooms, Designing the Perfect Retreat - Michael Snow
Book Review by Daniel Friedman

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Book review: Dream Porches and Sunrooms, Designing the Perfect Retreat - [purchase at], Michael Snow, Collings Design, 2006, 176pp. ISBN 0-06-084728-x $35.00 U.S. or $46.50 Canada.

As a big fan of porches, and having knocked up (and down) a porch or two and a pergola here and there, I was honestly grateful to be provided with a review copy of Michael Snow's new and handsome coffee table book offering a photo tour of these structures along with a few design tips. A good porch makes a plain house interesting. A pleasant porch makes a home a nice place to live.

I've examined this book carefully and comment on it in this book review. The photo shown here is of the book on one of the porches that my partner and I built - we're familiar with both the beauty and the beast of porch design and materials.

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Dream Porches and Sunrooms, Designing the Perfect Retreat - A Design Photo Book - Review

Photo of Dream Porches book chapter headingsAlso see PORCH CONSTRUCTION & SCREENING, best construction practices.

Opening this book about dream porches and sunrooms, and beginning to read was an experience. Every porch, pergola, gazebo, sunroom, or deck builder who's ever swung a hammer or dug a post hole knows that the march from concept to construction involves a challenge or two, even without the added foul-ups contributed by those architects who spent summers at the beach rather than apprenticing in the trades. To be fair, it's easier to criticize someone else's work than to do it yourself. This applies to book reviews too. Caveats laid, I continue.

The author's introduction warns us that "... every porch, veranda, and sunroom selected for this book is an example of great architecture - which I define as achieving a balance of form and function and a match between climate and convenience, resulting in an optimal living experience for each porch's owner."

Although the book includes porches for both (questionably) modest (a guest house) and (unquestionably) expansive large-scale homes, this is predominantly a picture book of ideas for (often) beautiful, (usually) upscale porches, sunrooms, and verandas. The book works as a tour of spaces, materials, views, expensive waterfront properties, a few modest designs, and lightweight, rather general, helpful tips from the author on choosing materials, connecting a porch space to living space, and design details that indeed make a space inviting.

Most of the book's chapter titles (see photo at left, click to enlarge it) simply describe the particular class of porch photo tour on which the reader is to essay. "Wide Open Places, Positively Porch, Water Views, Sunrise to Sunset, and Linger Here."

In these chapters, photo captions and sidebars offer porch design advice such as "Spun from the corner of a contemporary house, this screened porch offers protection from pests and a place for contemplation overlooking a garden and koi pond. Its minimalist construction employs clear fir columns and a slatted ceiling illuminated by a single fan-and-light unit and accent fixtures on the columns." Koi pond. Seascape views. Spacious porticos help identify the front door." I was struck dumb.

A penultimate chapter, "Designed and Refined" is striking as well, such as "... using your design professional as a resource as you begin the process of outfitting your porch ..." which considers how you'll use the space, what built in amenities you've provided (barbecue, koi pond, spa, pool), and sensible advice such as noticing where the sun shines and from which direction the wind blows.

Armed with this advice, and perhaps forewarned with a shopping tip from your design professional, you're now ready to tour Taiwanese Wicker World or Adirondack chair showrooms to furnish and outfit your porch. Lovely photographs place pricey furniture and plentiful plantings in and on the space you've built (or visualized). We receive nice tips on placement of plants, light fixtures, and chairs.

A final and similarly stunning chapter, "Detail by Detail" offers some photos and illustrations of porches under construction and includes sidebars of tips grouped, one per page:

- New Construction Advantages: with tips such as "design the house and porch together for a cohesive look and feel" and "Amortize and optimize costs as part of the overall project budget".

- The Convertible Porch: "select windows that allow you to swap out glass panes for screens"

- Remodeling Advantages: "Improve your connection with nature and your neighborhood." - Adapting existing space: "Design a supplemental lighting scheme that alters the character and usability of the space, and include outlets for occasional floor and table lamps."

Actually there are no porch or sunroom design or remodeling construction details in this chapter. Not one.

Photo of Dream Porches book detail on porch foundations

This last chapter includes one page of photos and illustrations devoted to the ground-up porch building basics: the porch foundation: "The foundation is the first building block of your porch, anchoring it to the site, outlining its footprint, and providing structural support." It doesn't get much more specific than this.

Pages (one or two each) on porch support framing, porch subfloors, porch roofs, porch steps and porch stair cases, electrical hookups on porches, porch ceilings, windows or looking onto porches, porch and sunroom trim work, and choice of (expensive) wood porch floors, porch finishes, and porch trim, offer equally helpful generalities.

The information in this last chapter on porch construction details forms an outstanding and absolutely necessary background for a porch builder just in from Mars.



Conclusions about Porch and Sunroom Design

Photo of Dream Porches somewhat more traditional, beautiful porch

Some effort, some design advice, and a lot of beautiful photography have been poured into this Dream Porches book.

This is a beautiful, design-ideas book. Through a collection of lush photographs of a wide variety of porch designs, the book helps the reader see how different porch types, materials, furnishings, and use of plants form spaces on and around homes.

The space defined by a porch may be intended to change the appearance of a home from a sterile box to a welcoming structure, to focus views of the landscape, to provide a warm and snug retreat, or to serve as an extension of the living space of a home.

Beyond these visual-aids to thinking about porch designs, the author sprinkles design details and material details through the book, any one or two of which may be picked up to advantage.

Example: P44. "Copper on the underside of the roof, railings, and fascia reflects light and the occasional water ripple off of the lake below, creating interesting light play from daybreak to long past sunset."

In this luminous world of light and reflection, the world of corrosion, shiny copper turning brown and no longer reflecting light, or peeling brown strips of lacquer hanging from last year's coated shiny copper, or on-porch sunburns from heat reflected by the copper, have nowhere intruded on these visual aesthetics.

Photo of Dream Porches book detail on porch railings, these beautiful horizontal railings are unsafe for children

Example: P44. "Railings using horizontal 2x6 or 2x8 lumber emphasize lovely breadth of line on a structure and create an imposing modern crispness to a porch design."

The fact that such railings are easily climbed by a child and that they cannot be grasped by someone falling does not detract from their appearance. Safety and code compliance may need to be considered however, at least for folks with small children who, I can promise you, will climb up and be over these railings faster than you can spear your martini olive as you gaze at the koi. Here I've skipped commenting on the aesthetics versus the safety of the author's mention of "no railings at all" to permit the best possible view (of your porch-poor cousin's frisky four year old suddenly sailing through the air).

Notwithstanding these elevated departures from reality, the author and the book offer both design ideas and basic design advice that are for anyone who plans to design even than the most rudimentary entry -- as the author notes, "... details make the difference between a ho-hum porch and one that is cherished and envied."

I found the language a bit high flown and aimed at the big spender porch proud clan, even when I agreed with the author. "Porches and sunrooms are all about making connections - with people, with nature, with outdoor features, and with the indoor environment. You and your design and construction team will determine the linkages you'll make, and how." (p.29)

My hope is that readers, home owners, carpenters, and general contractors of more modest means will forge past the intimidating views of porches that cost more than many entire homes, trod past images waterfront properties which must, for the lot, be in the 7 figure range, and that they will not trip over the cost of copper clad ceilings.

Just snicker past this tiring display of wealth and extravagance and listen instead to the author's common sense about porch design, fitting, or not fitting a porch to the existing structure, and in particular, choice of materials and details that make the porch more than just something to walk across to get to the front door.

Even a small detail such as choice of a paint color or taking the time to detail trim can make a space inviting to live with and use. If, at the end of the day, you find visitors sitting on your porch rather than in your living room, you will know you and they have benefited from the gift of ideas that are found in this photo tour, or from wherever else you stole them when you could have hired a design professional instead.

The promise of the book's cover jacket flyleaf, that the book highlights the important practical considerations to take into account before selecting a design and embarking on building, and clearly outlines the key choices and elements involved in the construction process, is a fair statement.

This book about Dream Porches will not be useful in the actual construction of a porch. It is not, and does not pretend to be, a "how to build a porch" book. Folks on a tight budget might, however, want to flip through a copy of this book at their local bookstore. It has lovely color photographs of a variety of types of porches and porch designs that might give up some ideas to the attentive reader and it will certainly assist the reader in deciding upon the usefulness of hiring a design professional for assistance in designing a porch.

Photo of a book, a cat, and a porch step that needs some fix-up

If everyone likes your porch you can take full credit and never mention this book.

If no one likes your porch you can blame its designer and never mention if that was you.

Bottom line: Dream Porches - nice photos. Design and build your Dream Porch with care. If you're copying a porch in this book, watch your budget if you want to avoid Porch Nightmares.

The book's author, "Michael Snow is a Remodel Consultant for Strite design + remodel, an award-winning remodeling firm specializing in residential renovation projects."

The author of this review, Daniel Friedman, is a builder, building inspector, and environmental inspection and test worker in New York who has written extensively on building failures and construction methods.


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