Story by Frank Stickney and photos by Katie Reali
According to the calendar, fall has officially arrived. But those of us who live on the Eastern Shore know there’s plenty of heat still ahead. Though central air conditioning has made spending time in triple-digit heat less appealing, I aspire to reclaim the personal, social, and environmental benefits of bumping up the thermostat and getting back outside. Unfortunately, my front porch is little more than a place to retrieve a UPS package, and my deck a place where potted plants find a crisp brown grave. If I was serious about finding a solution to those problems, I’d need to escape the frigid interior of my home and hunt down some local professionals.
I started my quest by reaching out to my friend Rebecca Bryant, an architect here in Fairhope. If you live on the Eastern Shore and want to make your home more livable, aesthetically pleasing, environmentally responsible, and “in tune” with its surroundings, you go to Watershed, the architecture and design firm of which Rebecca is the founder and principal architect. Even if you didn’t already know Rebecca was a “Living Building Ambassador,” “Passive House Consultant,” or “Permaculture Designer,” a visit to her home makes clear she’s a person for whom form and function are inextricable.
As I began to ask Rebecca some questions about outdoor living space, it became clear I needed a refresher on the full scope of porches and patios and their like. Rebecca gently laid down some definitions for guidance:
“I would define a porch as a covered space attached to the house, a patio as a paved space in the landscape, and a deck as an open air platform, but frequently attached to the house, like an unroofed porch.” Her thoughts and feelings on this subject were copious, to put it mildly – our chat was an architectural and design course in miniature. But I did find a moment to ask Rebecca for some practical advice on updating existing outdoor living spaces to better complement their natural surroundings.
“Consider adding plants that offer shade, or scent to enhance the experience of being in the space. A row of shrubs can direct breezes towards the space. And when landscaping, use native plants. They require much less water and maintenance, since they are adapted to this climate … and can create valuable habitats for song birds, butterflies, and other visitors you’d like to welcome to the garden.
“Shade structures are also an invaluable addition. Water elements like a little kettle with a recirculating pump or even just a bird bath will also make the space more inviting. The sound of water not only relaxes you, it makes you feel cooler.”
I took our conversation into a more “global” direction, which is often at the front of my mind, since I was in the presence of a professional whose bread and butter is sustainability. I asked Rebecca for her thoughts about what a warming climate means for our outdoor living spaces.
“I think that porches are more important to have because of a warming climate. By buffering a house from the sun, they help reduce cooling demand. And I have new appreciation for how houses designed with good porches – shading and natural ventilation are much more resilient after a storm or in a power outage. We survived an extended HVAC outage last July by opening our windows and french doors to the screened porch. The “thermal chimney effect” is a great way to create air movement even if there is no wind – the hot air exhausts out the upper windows and draws cooler air in the lower ones. On the coast, we really need these passive strategies to keep people safe and buildings habitable after a storm event or during a power outage.”
I thanked Rebecca for her breadth of knowledge, and proceeded to my next stop: Old Tyme Feed & Garden Supply, a place where everyone in town knows you go when you need something for your porches and patios, among other things. I spoke with owner Cecil Christenberry, who stepped from behind the counter with a warm handshake and invited me back to his office to chat. I started by asking what kinds of questions he gets about outdoor living from his customers.
“I’d have to say it’s kinda seasonal … like in the fall, it’s more tailgate parties in the back yard. I get a lot of that. I get folks that have a big screen in their back yard. And they want plants, pots, beds … they want some décor back there, a paradise in their back yard centered around some kind of sporting event.
“I’m excited because I found a new firewood supplier that brings us these amazing kiln-dried bundles of wood. In the winter when the weather turns cool, people will come by here several times a week to get firewood to use in either a chiminea or some type of little fireplace on their deck or back porch – their fire pit or whatever. We have fire pit chairs here too, Adirondack chairs that a fella in Tuscaloosa builds. Up there, they’re known as fire pit chairs. The same chairs down here are known as beach chairs.”
When I asked for help with our deck’s planters that were drying out too quickly, mentioning they were black plastic pots; Cecil’s advice went straight to the “root” of the problem (pun intended):
“The black planters absorb the heat – and it dries out the roots faster than maybe a terra cotta or a bright color that would reflect the heat. But there are crystals that you can buy, moisture release crystals – I told somebody it’s the same thing that’s in baby diapers! – that can help with what you’re talking about.”
No matter how specific my questions about improving my outdoor spaces, Cecil had an answer, and it felt like the right one – not because it had received the most 5-star ratings from thousands of strangers I’ll never meet, but because it did the trick for the people right here in Fairhope. I returned to my home with a feeling of hope, fueled by the energy one can only get by stepping away from the internet’s endless DIY tips and product reviews, and getting out into the Real World to connect with members of one’s own community. It might be hot and muggy out there, but it’s worth it.