Not long ago, I came across a house that was set back some distance uphill from the street. The house itself was rather charming, but this is how you got to the front door: Assuming you spotted the narrow flight of concrete steps hidden among the shrubs and didn’t clamber up the driveway instead — as most baffled visitors did — you were rewarded with an additional hike over uneven and badly spaced stepping stones that drifted aimlessly up the hill. At the last minute, the route swerved to avoid a huge tree and then just barely squeezed you in at the foot of another narrow, L-shaped stair leading up to the front porch.
Climbing up to the first landing got you an excellent close-up view of the electric meter, the gas meter, and a tangle of assorted power and telephone lines, along with the corresponding paraphernalia belonging to the neighbor’s house. A final flight of steps to the left aimed you straight into a spiky, towering juniper bush, enroute to which you might just happen to notice the actual front door in a recess to your right.
This is a textbook example of how not to reach your home’s front entrance. So let’s look at each of these problems in turn:
1. The beginning of your entrance approach should always be clearly discernible from the sidewalk. If it isn’t, call attention to it with a lamppost, a mailbox pylon, a gate or some other distinguishing feature. The approach should also be entirely separate from the driveway, so that people don’t have to pick their way around parked cars and oil stains to get to your front door.
2. Outdoor stairs and steps need to be both broader and shallower than the ones used inside a house. Make them at least six feet wide, and even wider if appropriate. Stair risers should be no more than 6 inches high, and treads no less than 11 inches deep. Traditional porch steps can be a bit steeper, but in general, the easier the climb, the better.
3. Your entrance path should follow a clear, rational course. If you’re after a formal approach, derive your layout from just a few basic geometric shapes. For a more naturalistic result, combine no more than one or two strong curves, and avoid feeble, tentative changes of direction — you cannot get a picturesque effect just by making your approach meander aimlessly. Avoid a layout that points people toward immovable objects like trees, bushes or blank walls — a path in nature invariably winds between obstacles, not directly toward them. Above all, whether your approach is formal or informal, don’t make the layout too complicated, or it’ll lose its visual power.
4. Lead people past the best features of your front yard, not its worst ones. Consider potential vistas from various angles, ways to showcase favorite plants, opportunities for benches or other stopping points, and the possibility of water or arroyo features, however modest. Conversely, avoid routes that look onto gas and electric meters, garbage cans, garage doors, heat pumps, and other utilitarian features.
5. Lastly, make sure the final leg of your entrance approach points people clearly toward the front door, and nowhere else. This is especially important if there are patio doors or other exterior doors nearby. There should never be any doubt about which door is the entrance.
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