I’ve always found it exciting to sit on a porch during a thunderstorm. A porch provides sufficient protection from the rain but lets you experience the storm more closely than from behind closed windows and doors. Porches are desired for many reasons; they come in varying shapes and sizes and serve different functions. Porches can act as outdoor living rooms, can be places to sleep, eat, cook or simply provide shelter at an entry. Ultimately, porches serve as transition zones between the interiors and exteriors of buildings. Porches are essential features of residential architecture and have become key elements to many architectural styles.
The common problem facing porches is that their floors are exposed to nature’s forces-primarily sunlight and moisture. To minimize maintenance and ensure long lasting durability, selecting an appropriate flooring material is essential.
Where I live in the Hudson Valley porch flooring on many of the traditional buildings is wood, often Douglas Fir, and the floors are commonly painted. Over time people replaced the wood floors with concrete slabs on many of the really old homes. Most front porches are relatively low to the ground and moisture gets trapped between the flooring and the ground, which causes the paint to peel and floor boards to rot. To make matters worse, the quality of wood we have today is inferior to wood used for construction one hundred years ago. When cutting boards from trees the most dense boards come from the heartwood or from the center core of the tree. The old growth trees that our forefathers cut into boards had much larger diameters with more heartwood. The wood they used was denser, more durable and less likely to rot. The old lead-based paints adhered better than today’s latex-based paints. For these reasons I do not recommend painting a porch floor. Based on my experience if you build a low sitting porch with Douglas Fir and paint it today, within three years the paint will be peeling.
Stone Porch Floors
My first choice for a most durable and beautiful porch floor is one made with bluestone. A stone floor could arguably last forever with minimal maintenance. Perhaps after fifty years or more, the mortar joints between the stones will need to be re-done. This option is also the most expensive. A stone porch floor requires a foundation capped with a concrete slab and it is labor intensive to install.
Wood Porch Floors
Wood is still a viable option for porch flooring. Unfortunately there aren’t many woods native to the Hudson Valley or even the United States that I would recommend using. Some of the native woods that resist decay such as cedar or cypress are too soft and dent easily. White oak is extremely hard, expensive and prone to checking (splitting). Redwood was commonly used in the 1970’s and 80’s as decking material, but due to environmental concerns its use has been minimized and it has become extremely expensive. The best exotic woods to use are Mahogany and Ipe. Both come from South America and some Mahogany comes from Africa. Ipe is extremely hard and difficult to work with and Ipe floors tend to be very expensive. There are many different types of Mahogany, all resist decay and are a little softer than Ipe and therefore easier to work. The ta-bu about using either of these woods is that rain forests are being cut to harvest them. That is true, so the best thing to do is try to purchase these materials from sources that are certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (F.S.C.). At least then you can have some peace of mind that the wood you purchased was harvested from a responsible source. If you can get over the fact that these woods are not native to the United States, they make really nice floors. I recommend Mahogany because it is easier to work. In either case the floors can be stained or oiled and every couple of years should be re-oiled. A well-maintained Mahogany floor can look great and last for an extremely long time. Even if regularly oiled, the sun will cause Mahogany flooring to turn from its reddish color to a grey. This should be considered when selecting mahogany.
Synthetic Porch Flooring
I am slowly warming to the idea of using synthetic flooring material from Timbertech or Azek. As the industry evolves, better looking products have come to market. As an architect specifying materials I tend to be cautious of materials that have been proven to stand the test of time. The new synthetic flooring has only been around for about 15 years. We really don’t know how well they will last. Even if a company warranties the material we don’t know if the company will last. Some of the smaller manufacturers have gone out of business leaving their customers with no warranty. I would only select products from a reputable company. Don’t kid yourself, the better looking synthetic flooring is not cheap. Some of the known problems with synthetic flooring are color fading and their tendency to become extremely slippery when wet or when ice builds up. In general I am not a proponent for plastics. I don’t know what we do with the waste material or with the flooring when its life as a floor is over. What about the dust from cutting and shaping synthetic flooring? I’m fairly certain I don’t want to breathe it. Not all plastics are recyclable. Even though Timbertech and Azek use PVC (which is recyclable) on its out core, the inner core is a resin mixed with wood fibers and I highly doubt that can be recycled. What happens to the flooring once the pvc layer is worn through? I think the synthetic products are getting better but I still have my reservations. I know a stone floor will last forever and a Mahogany floor will last a long time and when the wood is no longer used as flooring, it will safely return to the earth.