- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

The mosquito screens of 150 years ago were made of horsehair. Later, they were made of steel, copper, aluminum and, most recently, Fiberglas. But whatever the material, most people agree that screens make for nice, bug-free summer evenings on porches and in gazebos.

“In this area of the country you have to have screens,” says Vince Butler, owner of Butler Bros. Corp., a Manassas-based home-building business. “You’ll just have too many insects otherwise.”

Mr. Butler says the “in” thing about 20 years ago was decks. So, his company built a lot of decks on houses all over Northern Virginia. Since then, many of the same customers have contacted him to have porches built.

“They just realized that a screened-in porch is a much more comfortable space to entertain or have your morning coffee than a deck,” Mr. Butler says.

Most of his clients have had fancy porches built with electrical wiring and finished floors. These porches end up with a pretty steep price tag — as much as $30,000.

“Most folks want a more finished room, an intermediary room between the indoors and the outdoors,” Mr. Butler says. “We haven’t done a rustic porch in about 10 years.”

But just screening in an existing porch is not very costly, he says. If you hire a contractor, you might spend a couple thousand dollars.

If you do it yourself, the price tag may be as low as $100 or $200, says Mike Wixted, who trains Home Depot associates in the mid-Atlantic area to build and assemble Home Depot products and projects.

“Screening in a porch is easy and cheap,” Mr. Wixted says. “Anyone can do it.”

For a professional such as Mr. Butler, it takes less than a day. But even a handy homeowner can do a good, quick job, Mr. Wixted says.

But before you get started, Mr. Wixted says, you have to make sure the space you want to screen in has a roof and some vertical panels to which the screens can be fastened.

“You can’t screen in a deck, for example,” he says. “There has to be a roof, or at least an awning.”

Building a structure with a roof and side panels, such as a porch, onto your house may require building permits, and Mr. Wixted recommends checking with the local building department before getting started.

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In the old days, people would just fasten the mesh screen, whether it was made of horsehair or steel wire, onto the wood frame of the window or door with thumbtacks or nails. But that method often created ripples and sags in the screen.

Today, it’s more common to use screens that are fastened into one-inch plastic or metal tracks with the help of a spline, a rubber strip that holds the mesh screen to the tracks.

These screens and their tracks can then be screwed into the wood frame of the porch.

There are now screening kits, for example a brand called Screen Tight, available at home-improvement stores. These kits contain rolls of Fiberglas screening that can be cut to fit with a pair of scissors, the tracks (which also can be cut to fit) and a cutter (which looks like a miniature pizza cutter) with which the spline and screen are fastened into the tracks.

While the options as far as screening material are narrowing since most screens are made of Fiberglas nowadays, there are still a few color choices, Mr. Butler says.

“You can get them in gray, bronze and brown,” Mr. Butler says. “You try to complement the house and the porch with the color choice. Brown, for example, might look better against cedar, while gray is usually a little lighter.”

Lighting is usually a concern for homeowners who want to screen in a porch. They often believe the screen will deflect too much light and make the porch dark and gloomy.

Michael Dolan, author of “The American Porch — An Informal History of an Informal Place,” says when his wife considered screening in the porch on their home in Northwest’s Palisades neighborhood, he was against it because it created a barrier between him and the outside.

“I just don’t like it because I don’t like the intermediary layer that it creates,” Mr. Dolan says.

The increased privacy that the “intermediary layer” provides was something that courting couples took advantage of in the old days, Mr. Dolan says in his book.

But the light that is filtered out by the screen is almost negligible, Mr. Butler says.

“We’re probably talking about 10 or 15 percent less light,” he says.

The bigger question, he says, is how does the porch itself affect the light flow into the adjacent room of the house, whether it’s a kitchen, dining room or other living area.

“That effect is much greater,” he says. “That’s something we consider in the design phase.”

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Screened-in porches are more common in the Northeast than in the South, where many people opt for a Florida room — a sunroom with windows — instead of a porch, Mr. Butler says. A Florida room can provide much-wanted air conditioning in very hot weather.

But whether it’s a Florida room or a screened-in porch, the intent is the same — to extend the living space, Mr. Butler says.

People who enjoy the outdoors, like Mr. Butler, find porches very appealing: They provide refreshing breezes, a place to socialize and views of nature. At the same time, they provide shelter against rain and bugs.

“We have a porch that stretches the entire length of our house and between mid-April and mid-October I would say we spend most mornings having our coffee there and most evenings eating dinner there,” Mr. Butler says. “I’m a big fan of screened-in porches.”

While the mosquito-borne West Nile virus scare has heightened people’s vigilance against mosquitoes, the nuisance that bugs in general entail is nothing new.

In fact, Mr. Dolan writes that one observer after the Civil War, when horsehair screens had just been invented, said they were “the most humane contribution to the 19th century made to the preservation of sanity and good temper.”

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