Fences? This may seem an odd thing for an architect to write about, but I think it is about time these got some attention. Fences are usually the least thought about and yet visually most jarring structures on any property. 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 of the cheapest timber design that money can buy, pandering to buyers who want to tick ‘security’, ‘privacy’, and ‘shelter’ off their list, and who assume this is the best way to achieve it – because that is all they know. Unless you want to live behind razor wire, fencing provides little meaningful security yet creates a great opportunity for thieves and other home invaders to operate with privacy. Blank, tall and unrelieved expanses of fencing also create a strongly anti social ‘keep away’ message, destroying opportunities for chance encounters with neighbours, eroding community engagement and friendliness, and sending a subliminal signal that yours is a dangerous neighbourhood, requiring defensive barriers. Often wrong on so many levels, fences can reveal less than flattering things about the design sensitivity and civic pride of their owners, create wasted, unloved, gloomy and seldom visited alleyway spaces alongside houses, reduce sunlight to your outdoor spaces, as well as making for unnecessarily obstructed outlooks and even quite depressing views from inside your house.
No need to despair! There are things you can do to reduce or completely eliminate the adverse impact of fencing, while still achieving all the privacy and shelter to outdoor spaces you need:
Integrate design of the house with design of the fencing. Considering both house and hard landscaping as part of an coherent and integrated whole will enhance the experience of anyone approaching or moving through the house and garden, and ensure that no part feels like a clumsy afterthought.
Basic strategies include:
Ensure the colours and materials and textures of your fence or garden walls match the cladding of the house.
Treat garden walls as part of the house spatially- for example interior walls that pass out through full height glazing to become exterior garden walls, create combined indoor-outdoor view shafts and spaces. (you can also extend suitable floor finishes outside, further strengthening the connection)
Minimise or 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.
Even with a narrow section, there is seldom a good functional reason the entire perimeter of your property a needs a fence around it, unless the house has been poorly designed, or unless local planning setback rules are poorly considered for your section type.
A properly designed house can provide for outdoor space that is sheltered and private by use of full or partial courtyards.
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. 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.
Consider the impact of fence opacity (solidness) on the quality of adjacent space, and perception of your property. Even where a fence is required, it probably does not need to be solid along its entire length. Solid areas framing more open areas of fencing (eg consisting of vertical bars of slats), or eplanted alcoves and other 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. Solid fences are also much more vulnerable to wind pressure, and over time the fence may start to tilt over and weave in and out.
Avoid cheap looking fence design details, particularly 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 home handyman and developer fencing in New Zealand, unfortunately). Solid masonry garden walls, if visually consistent with the cladding of your house, and with appropriate interventions along its length, can convey a sense of timelessnes and permanence, and make a more sculptural and thoughtful contribution to the neighbourhood, as well as your own experiance as occupant. Well detailed timber fencing, that looks good from both sides reveals a concern for craftsmanship and care for others who have to look at it, particularly if the fence is not solid.
Avoid continuous fencing along sloping ground if possible, or at least avoid sloping the top of your fencing. Unless this is a farm fence, employ stepped level segments of fencing, 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. Your fence is the typically the part of your property that is first touched or seen by the wider world, and as such acts like a billboard, conveying your values and design sensitivity (or lack thereof) to the world. Thoughtless detailing creates a terrible first impression and demonstrates a lack of concern for the very real visual impact your fence has on your neighbourhood, your immediate neighbors, passers by, and your own family.