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 fences 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, or even relevant. Most suburban fencing actually performs quite poorly at even these few tickbox 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 better opportunity for thieves and other home invaders to attack you or your property in privacy.

Poor quality of Privacy – Yes, blank, tall and unrelieved expanses of fencing certainly can give you a bleak sort of privacy,  in much the same way as a prison exercise yard does – by cutting you off completely from the outside world.  This kind of privacy is achieved at the expense of creating a strongly anti-social ‘keep away’ message to the neighborhood, destroying valuable opportunities for stimulating transitions from public to private space, for chance conversations with neighbours, eroding of community spirit, engagement and friendliness, and sending a subliminal signal to anyone visiting that yours is a dangerous and unpleasant neighbourhood, requiring defensive barricades.

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 narrow sheltered  strip just inside the fence, they achieve 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 over under prevailing wind pressure (typically with sections weaving in and out of alignment)  or even being completely destroyed in a good storm.

BUT NO NEED TO DESPAIR!  Fencing really doesn’t have to sabotage your property investment.  Here are 12 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: Ensure you really do need a fence. Many homeowners put up fences without really thinking it through. Perhaps they do it because that is just what everyone else does, or perhaps they see it as an easy way to ‘improve’ property value at low cost, or just as a fun DIY opportunity? If this sounds like you, you may be throwing your money away.

  • Is the neighbourhood really improved, or is it or worsened when you visually chop it up into little walled fiefdoms?  I would suggest fencing more often than not eliminates any sense of spaciousness and flow, as well as sunlight and views, and it is certainly not a very neighbourly gesture.
  • Would it create better property value and amenity for you and your neighbours if you had more open and park-like surroundings, especially around the front half of your properties?
  • How much more often will you really use your front yard after you put that front fence up?  Probably very little in most cases, if you are honest, and maybe even less often than you did before, given that your front yard just became gloomier than it was, and lost its outlook. And now you have yet another feature that you have to run the weed whacker along every time you mow the lawns!
  • And just exactly what kinds of bizarre secretive activity were you planning on doing that requires fencing right the way along every boundary line?
  • Do you really think so poorly of the neighbours that you need to completely wall them out?  Just how interesting do you think you are, that you think strangers really want to peep in through your windows?  Do you really think a fence would stop anyone committed to trespassing (or worse), or would it actually encourage it,  by giving the intruder more privacy?

If you decide you do need fencing, could you perhaps consider shorter, higher quality fences, just to frame certain carefully crafted private outdoor spaces within a wider open landscaping concept?

Tip 2: Know where (and if) you can legally build your fences.  Check with your local council about the rules applying in your planning zone.  These may govern the height, maximum length, colours, materials and construction of any fencing currently allowed in your area.  Rules can change so be aware that current rules may not correspond to what has previously been build in the area.  You may also be bound by a privately established covenant on your land title, or some other subdivision rule limiting what and where you can build. Some high-end subdivisions prohibit fencing entirely. If you are planning to fence along the boundary, double check your exact boundary location, and that your boundary pegs are in place – do not just rely on existing old fences to mark boundaries, as these are notorious for being in the wrong place. Getting this wrong could prove very stressful and expensive for you later.  You can always get a surveyor to reinstate any missing pegs.

Tip 3: Integrate design of the fence with the 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 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 the 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.
Fences can link indoor and outdoor space

Tip 4: 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 (Where a fence is permitted, the Fencing Act compels both neighbours to share the cost of a basic fence, even if only one neighbour wants one). You may need to select sections in subdivisions where there is a ‘no boundary fences’ covenant, or where council planning rules 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 you and the neighbourhood.

Tip 5: 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 at least 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 likely does not need to be solid along its entire length.  Solid areas framing more open areas of fencing (e.g. consisting of vertical bars or 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 in particular are also much more vulnerable to wind pressure, and to tilting or blowing over completely.

A simple front boundary fence that works:  Private walled garden is short enough to respect the street, while material, shape and colour match the house

Tip 6: 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 7: 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 leaf litter build up.

Not just a matter of taste

Tip 8: 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 do little other than 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 or wandering dogs, a low fence likely won’t cut it.

Unless the match with the house and streetscape is just right, picket fences (and their contemporary equivalents) are nearly always a bit odd looking and clumsily pretentious  – serving no functional purpose, they reflect mostly the prissy narrow-minded middle-class social anxieties of their owners.

Any front fence, tall or short,  can also make your street frontage look meaner than it needs to, by separating it from your road reserve (which you could otherwise visually claim as your own), so any reason you can find to avoid this pointless expense is a generally a good one.

Have I offended everyone yet?

Tip 9: 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.

‘Ran out of ideas’ fence

Tip 10: Avoid visually 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 at the very least form a return at fence ends to address this perception.  Design your fence with the side view in mind!

‘Spite’ fence

Tip 11: Avoid outcomes with lower fences running alongside taller structures, such as 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 building wall as close as possible to the boundary (ensuring the construction meets fire regulations), and just eliminate any boundary fencing where the outbuilding wall is,  returning the fencing to meet the wall at each end, planning the changes in height and/or materials as a deliberate contrast for visual interest.

Or just be a good neighbour and separate the two elements completely. Certainly, nobody wants to see your outbuilding or fence thoughtlessly pushed up against their fence, even if planning rules don’t explicitly prevent it.

Tip 12: 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 an afterthought, while well detailed timber fencing (that looks good from both sides) can reveal you have a concern for craftsmanship and do care about other people who will look at it each day – particularly if the fence is not attempting to create a solid barrier all the way along the boundary.  The right placement and ratio of gaps vs solid structure can improve visual amenity and wind shelter performance as well.

Here are a few design ideas for you that don’t look quite as cheap and inept as most kiwi fences:

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 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.