Sara Maves says few summer days go by without her meeting someone new in her neighborhood, thanks to the time she spends on her front porch in Chanhassen.
“Sometimes it’s just a wave and hello, sometimes we engage in a conversation,” said Maves, whose family moved into the newly built house in October. “We have definitely introduced ourselves to other people just by being out front.”
In Chanhassen and other suburbs across the country, homeowners like Maves are turning away from the garage-dominated facades of the stereotypical suburb and embracing the old-fashioned front porch.
U.S. Census Bureau figures show that 63 percent of the houses built in the Midwest last year had porches, up 50 percent since 1992.
Meanwhile, the share with decks — typically out back — has fallen from 41 percent to 32 percent.
The trend is transforming the notion of the suburban neighborhood. “We had suburbs getting so sprawled out with those big lots, it was almost unfriendly,” said Bloomington architect Teresa St. Amant. “Heaven forbid you should see or talk to your neighbors.”
Not all the porches in the bureau’s figures are front porches, but metro homebuilders and city planners say front porches definitely have made a comeback.
Before air conditioning, front porches used to serve the very basic function of keeping people cool in the summer, said John Adams, a professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Geography, Environment and Society.
“Once you get air conditioning, who needs one? Then people start thinking they’re kind of neat and realize they miss being out talking to their neighbors,” Adams said.
Builders, too, have noticed the trend.
“It’s a change from the way our suburbs developed around the back of the house,” said Matthew Schmidt, whose family owns and runs AMEK Custom Builders. “You would pull in your garage, go inside and if you wanted to hang out outside you went to your deck in back.”
Schmidt believes front porches fit into homeowners’ larger, altered view of their houses since the recession. “They see their houses as places to live, to be part of a community, not just something to buy and sell,” he said.
St. Amant said that front porches reflect a nostalgic interest in traditional home design and that they encourage interaction and a sense of community. They’re also part of an effort by builders of suburban subdivisions to create neighborhoods, like those in south Minneapolis or the Como area of St. Paul, and not merely bedroom communities, she said.
Cities are welcoming the trend and indeed spurring the increase by modifying setback rules to make porches easier to build on new homes or add to existing ones.
“Along with sidewalks and trails, front porches are part of what city planners are envisioning for large-scale developments to create true neighborhoods,” said Mike Devoe, president of Ryland Homes, the company that built Maves’ house.
And in Chaska, “We see them on most new homes these days,” said Kevin Ringwald, the city’s planning director. “It’s something that people seem to want, and it’s sort of become a standard feature.”
A front porch also can make the garage a less prominent feature, another objective of city planners. “It creates a more pleasing streetscape,” Ryland’s Devoe said.
Nearly all of the homes have front porches at Spirit of Brandtjen Farm in Lakeville, one of the largest metro-area housing developments planned in recent history. Some residents also have patios or fire pits in their back yards, but they seem to spend much of their time out front, said Jacob Fick, a project manager with the developer, Tradition Development.
A popular add-on
AMEK recently designed a home in Prior Lake where the front porch has a see-through, inside/outside fireplace. But Schmidt said much of AMEK’s recent work with front porches has been adding them to existing homes.
About three years ago, the firm added a large front porch on the Woodbury home of Theresa Corcoran as part of a renovation of the house’s exterior.
“When my kids were little I just had a stoop where I could sit and watch them play,” Corcoran said. “We didn’t really have a place where people could come together.”
Corcoran said her family’s use of the porch has evolved. “We like it as a place to sit as our kids come and go with their friends and for neighbors to stop by,” she said. She and her husband, Mike, have coffee out there on weekend mornings.
Family members still use the pool and the deck out back, but they spend more time than they used to out front, she said.
Giving homeowners choices about where to spend their time outdoors may be one of the most important features of a front porch, Chaska’s Ringwald said. People can still use back decks or patios for private dinners, but use the front porch to connect with their community, he said.
“It also allows you to engage with people in a way that’s comfortable for you. You’re out there, but you’re still on your private property,” he said. Besides the social benefits, front porches also can contribute to public safety — “putting more eyes on the street,” he said.
Maves said she and her husband, Brandon, hope to add a deck or a porch in back of their Chanhassen home eventually. For now, they are happy to hang out on their front porch, which she has decorated with potted plants, a small table and a couple of comfortable wicker rocking chairs.
“We like to sit out there in the evening, sip a glass of wine and watch our kids play with the neighbor kids,” Maves said. “It gives us a spot right out front where people can gather.”