Common Design Mistakes #1: Fencing

Common Design Mistakes #1: Fencing

Fences?  This may seem an odd thing for an architect to write about, but I think they are long overdue for some attention. 

Fences are usually the least thought about structures on your property, and yet can be visually very obtrusive and functionally almost worse than useless overall, needlessly eroding the amenity and value of your investment. Badly considered fences are found surrounding nearly all New Zealand suburban properties.  Often as not, when you buy a section any fences have already been built by the subdivision developer and are likely the cheapest that money could buy. 

The main purpose of such readymade fencing is as a shortcut allowing prospective buyers to tick ‘security’, ‘privacy’, and ‘shelter’ as features offered when comparing sections.  Few buyers stop to consider whether this is actually true. Most suburban fencing actually performs quite poorly at even these few tasks, creating unnecessary compromises that are often worse than the problems they purport to solve.

Poor Security – Unless you want to live behind razor wire, most suburban fencing provides little meaningful security, and if anything actually creates a great opportunity for thieves and other home invaders to attack you or your property in privacy.

Poor Privacy – Blank, tall and unrelieved expanses of fencing may give you privacy, but of a very low quality.  It is typically only achieved at the expense of creating a strongly anti social ‘keep away’ message, destroying valuable opportunities for chance conversations with neighbours, eroding community spirit, engagement and friendliness, and sending a subliminal signal to anyone visiting that yours is a dangerous neighbourhood, requiring defensive barriers.

Poor Shelter – Wind tunnel testing confirms that the typical solid timber fence styles most often used in New Zealand are actually quite poor at providing shelter from the wind; apart from a small area just inside the fence, they do very little and can actually worsen wind turbulence experienced just  a few meters downwind.  They are also more vulnerable than other approaches to slowly tilting out of square under prevailing wind pressure (typically with sections weaving in and out of alignment)  or even being completely destroyed under gale force winds.

No need to despair!  Here are 10 tips you can follow that should reduce or completely eliminate the adverse impacts of fencing, while still achieving all the privacy, shelter and security to outdoor spaces that you need:

Tip 1: Integrate design of the fence with design of the house.  Considering both house and hard landscaping (paving and fencing) as parts of a coherent and well integrated whole will very much enhance the experience of anyone approaching or moving through your house and garden, and ensure that no part feels like a clumsy afterthought.  Here are a few basic design strategies that architects often use:

  • Ensure the colours and materials and textures of your fence or garden walls harmonise with the claddings of your house.
  • Treat garden walls as just another part of the house spatially – for example they can define outdoor ‘rooms’ that flow from one to another.  Interior walls that pass out through full height glazing to become exterior garden walls can create wonderful combined indoor-outdoor view shafts and spaces. You can also extend suitable floor finishes outside, further strengthening the visual connection.
  • Make garden walls visually thick and sturdy rather than than thin and flimsy looking where you want to create a feeling of solidity, cosiness and permanence.  Do the opposite, and use an open paling  or slat design for example, where the wall needs to feel ‘light’ and to filter but visually remain connected with world beyond.
  • Ensure fences are carefully planned to define discrete outdoor living spaces within the section, rather than just as a ‘dumb’ perimeter around the boundary as a whole.

Tip 2: Minimise or simply eliminate boundary fencing wherever possible.   To be fair eliminating boundary fencing is made more difficult than it should be by NZ  legislation (The Fencing Act, which compels both neighbours to share the cost of a basic fence, even if only one neighbour wants it). You may need to select sections in subdivisions where there is a ‘no boundary fences’ covenant, or council planning rules banning or limiting boundary fences, because otherwise, even if you do the right thing, there is no guarantee that some obnoxious fence -loving neighbour won’t spoil things for the neighbourhood.

Tip 3: Avoid long unbroken fences, particularly street facing fences that detract from the experience of people outside the fence, and make the street feel sterile and unloved.

Friendler fence (yet just as private)
Unfriendly fence

Such choices degrade the neighbourhood, and can be seen as excessively antisocial.  If you want a high degree of privacy, and want to feel no obligation to neighbours, and make no contribution to the life of your street, you should probably live in a rural area.  If you must have a long fence, you could make it sculptural, or integrate points of interest along the length, with things like curves in plan, or steps in and out for planters and trees on the boundary. Even where a fence really is required, it probably does not need to be solid along its entire length.  Solid areas framing more open areas of fencing (e.g. consisting of vertical bars of slats) with visible greenery, or planted alcoves and steps in plan can add life and interest to the fence, and make your property feel more generous and open, and less like Fort Knox.  As already  noted, solid timber fences are also much more vulnerable to wind pressure, and over time the fence may start to tilt over in places.

Fence designed for privacy, respect for the street, and for the house

Tip 4: Avoid cheap looking fence design details, particularly the very common situation where one side ends up being uglier than the other, with inelegant exposed rails and posts facing one way, and a homogeneous wall of planks facing the other way (this describes most DIY and developer fencing in New Zealand, unfortunately). Solid masonry garden walls with the right plan layout and interventions can look sculptural and they feel much less like a temporary afterthought. Well detailed timber fencing (that looks good from both sides) can reveal a concern for craftsmanship and care for others who have to look at it – particularly  if the fence is not attempting to create a solid barrier.  The right ratio and placement of gaps to solid structure improves wind shelter performance as well. Here are a few ideas that don’t look as cheap and flimsy as most kiwi fences:

Tip 5: Avoid continuous fencing along sloping ground if possible, or at least avoid sloping the top of your fencing.

Don’t do this
Do this

Employ stepped level segments of fencing instead, or even better, reduce the length enclosed and work out your landscaping design and position the house and any outbuildings such that stepping (or sloping) fences are not required in the first place.

Tip 6: Avoid building up soil against timber fencing.  Timber fences never look good or perform well as retaining walls for long.  Timber in ground contact will soak up moisture, causing any finish to degrade even if the timber itself is ground treated. The timber is also likely to warp and bulge and grow mossy over time.

Timber fence rails and palings, just like the weatherboards on a house, need to be kept well clear of any dirt and debris.

Tip 7: Be wary of picket fences and other low fencing types – a functional farm fence to keep livestock in is one thing, but in the suburbs, unless you happen to live in a neighbourhood of Victorian villas and are striving for historical consistency, low picket fences and the like serve little purpose other than to demonstrate your concern that people won’t notice where your legal boundary is.

If you are expecting to keep your kids contained so they can play unattended on the front lawn, free from the attentions of malicious passers-by, a low fence likely won’t cut it.

Not just a matter of taste

Unless the match with the house and streetscape is just right, these are too often just odd looking ungenerous things, reflecting prissy narrow minded middle class social anxieties; attempts to symbolically distance oneself from the riff raff, or even one’s less clumsily pretentious neighbours.

Have I offended everyone yet?

They can also make your street frontage look smaller than it needs to, by separating it from your road reserve (which you could otherwise visually claim as your own).  ;

If you must have a low fence (or any fence), at least ensure it is sensitively designed with respect to the house, and the streetscape.

Tip 8: Avoid chopping and changing fencing styles and heights from one boundary to the next – especially if the fences touch.  As people move around, any unplanned discrepancies from one fence to the next become quickly evident, informing a visitor’s impression about your concern for detail . Fences don’t always have to match, but if no thought is given to how you articulate the junction and relationship between two adjacent fencing styles, the result is usually a just clumsy visual mess.

Tip 9: Avoid thin free-standing fence ends.  This emphasises that your fence is cheaply built and lacking in substance.  You could swap the fence for a thicker garden wall, use thicker than normal fence posts (not just at the ends) or form a return at fence ends to address this perception.

Spite fence

Tip 10: Avoid outcomes with lower fences hard along taller structures like sheds, garages or other fences.   Functionally this is a double up, and it certainly looks like a clumsy blunder.  You could either visually integrate and match the original structure with the fencing, so the result looks deliberate, or in the case of an outbuilding you could put the wall right on the boundary (ensuring the construction meets fire regulations), and just eliminate any boundary fencing where the outbuilding is, planning the change in height and/or materials as a deliberate contrast for visual interest.

Or just be a good neighbour and seperate the two elements completely. Certainly nobody wants to see your outbuilding or fence thoughtlessly pushed up against their fence, even if planning rules allow it.

Take home message? In a nutshell, you should remember that fences can easily dominate the appearance and amenity of your property, and are very much like billboards that express things about you and your values to the world, whether you intend them to or not.

So easy to get wrong, poorly designed fences can be socially isolating for you and your family, reveal less than flattering things about your design sensitivity and civic pride, create wasted, unloved, gloomy and seldom visited alleyway spaces beside your house, reduce sunlight and amenity to your outdoor spaces, as well as potentially making for needlessly obstructed and even quite depressing views out from inside your home.

If you have a section with existing ‘typical’ fencing to contend with, then your options are going to be more constrained than in an unfenced section where there there are design-friendly subdivision or planning rules to limit the damage fencing causes to urban environments, but even so, the more you can do to correct what you find, the more you can lift your property out of the thoughtless mediocrity that plagues and detracts from most Kiwi suburban houses.

If you don’t have an architect or landscaper designing your fencing, at the very least you will need to consult your local authority and incorporate their guidance as to what you can and can’t build in your particular context. Achieving council compliance as a bare minimum will keep you out of trouble, though on its own obviously provides no certainty at all as to the performance or visual amenity generated by your fencing.

A good outcome is however definitely within reach if you apply to the design of your fencing every bit as much thought and sensitivity as you would apply to the design of your house.