Recently I was asked why Bahamian homes no longer have porches, and once again I tried to answer with a one-liner. But as I walked away I realized that I had given a partial answer again, which might not been satisfactory.
“They thought it was wasted space”
They say Bahamians don’t read (not really true, but we say it) except for fashion, style and gossip. Sometime in the 1960’s one of the architectural style magazines (I believe it was House Beautiful) published an article that suggested that you could “reclaim” the wasted space in your house by just enclosing the porch.
For northern climates, where the porch is only available for short periods during the summer, this might have made sense. For many of them, the porch is “disposable” space, a good place for leaving wet shoes or the snow shovel, but not part of the family’s living space. It could be re-fitted to function as part of the home’s interior with benefit.
But the porch has a very different function for the house in the sub-tropics. For us, the porch is not throwaway space at all. It is, first and foremost, the most important part of our energy-management system. It is also a functional family space, part of the social functioning of the house. Architecturally, it provides the welcoming, shady “look” of a tropical building, important for the perception of a building as appropriate to the climate.
The major requirement for energy in buildings is for the creation of creation of comfort conditions. If the building is not “naturally” comfortable, we use a variety of devices, most requiring electrical power, like air conditioning, to make ourselves comfortable. In our climate, the major source of discomfort is heat, mostly from the sun, so traditional designers make sure the sun never comes directly into the house. And the two main devices used to accomplish this are the push out shutter and the porch. The porch’s main function is really to keep the sun’s rays away from the major openings (especially open doors) and prevent its direct penetration. Protected by the porch, open doors and windows are left open to take advantage of the cooling southeast breezes, reducing the cost of power for air conditioning.
The second reason cited is that it has been eliminated in an effort to develop a more “modern” Bahamian style. Our observation has been that foreign designers have no difficulty creating whatever style they wish, with porches and with our admiration. The requirement for the protection of openings is not removed because the “style” of the building is based on some distant imagery.
Finally, and perhaps most tragically, we have seen the elimination of porches because bargain-conscious Bahamians have chosen to buy their “plans” online or from a catalogue without a concern for energy management or appropriateness to the climate. They make their purchase based upon the cost of the “plans”, the seductiveness of a rendering, the suggested construction post and the idea that they would only need someone to “sign off” on adjusted drawings. Even with competent design assistance, they choose inappropriate designs, without reference to the climatic concerns and therefore without porches.
I accept that it is self-serving to suggest that architectural fees should be the last “economy” when spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. But if the energy-management function of a porch is not considered as a result, the “saved” fees are miniscule compared with the additional cost of operating the building over time. The traditional, over-the-hill clapboard house had both the porch and the push out shutters, and was more comfortable (and less expensive to live in) than today’s sophisticated, porch-less mansions.
I agree. I don’t know why we’ve lost the porch as part of our building vernacular.