We are in the midst of a mental health crisis. After two years of a global pandemic, culture clashes, and now war in Eastern Europe, mental disorders represent a leading global health concern. A study in The Lancet found a 27% increase in major depressive cases and a 25% increase in anxiety disorders globally between 2020 and 2021. The Kaiser Family Foundation similarly reported an increase from 10% to 40% of U.S. adults with these mental afflictions.

Two age-old practices—meditation and contact with the natural environment—are receiving increased attention as potential remedies for this crisis. A marriage of the two is of particular interest to the medical community, given the combination’s demonstrated efficacy in improving mood and a sense of connectedness. For example, a 2020 multi-study review of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found strong correlations between mindfulness in natural environments and psychological well-being.

The intrinsically ephemeral nature of Hailey’s porch—and all porches in low-lying or coastal zones near natural environments—conveys a pathos and urgency to readers, who confront an imminent and lamentable loss.

“With heightened awareness, people may notice features of their surroundings, such as sounds, smells, or colors, which may otherwise evade their attention,” claim the authors of a 2019 study about mindfulness in nature in the Ecopsychology journal. “They may also notice themselves, in relation to this context (nature), with a different sense of self-awareness, and thus understand the self/humans as one piece of a larger natural environment, i.e., self-transcendence.”

Charlie Hailey’s The Porch: Meditations on the Edge of Nature (University of Chicago, 2021) embodies aspects of this practice through the lens of a fundamental—yet diminishing—architectural feature. An architect and professor at the University of Florida School of Architecture, Hailey writes about transitory and experiential approaches to building within natural contexts—such as campsites, human-made islands, and public interest design-build projects. The Porch is one of his most personal and poignant works to date. A collection of interwoven essays written from—and about—his island cabin on Florida’s Homosassa River, the book is a ruminative examination of a simpler and more meaningful existence experienced from this space along architecture’s perimeter.

Left: Sleeping porch on the roof of the White House (circa 1909 to 1932); right: Porch of the Maidens at the Acropolis, Athens.
Left: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Left: Sleeping porch on the roof of the White House (circa 1909 to 1932); right: Porch of the Maidens at the Acropolis, Athens.

A fundamental building feature that has been under-appreciated in recent decades, the porch represents the in-between. A porch is both inside and outside, public and private, protected and exposed. The porch satisfies the primordial human need for both prospect and refuge. According to geographer Jay Appleton’s theory, we are evolutionarily hardwired to prefer settings with unobstructed views of the environment (prospect) while remaining physically protected (refuge). Given its function in fulfilling an innate need, it is no wonder that the porch is likely as old as architecture itself. Hailey writes about the significance of the porch in ancient Greek architecture and literature as a sheltered location for visitors located outside a building’s interior chambers.

The narthex of Trinity Church, Boston, circa 1900.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division The narthex of Trinity Church, Boston, circa 1900.

In the book, readers take a rambling tour of many historically significant porches, both real and fictional. We encounter the weeping “Flentes” in the outer narthex or “Porch of the Oratorie” of the early Christian church; Harriet Beecher Stowe on her writing porch in Mandarin, Fla.; Woodrow Wilson in his sleeping porch on the roof of the White House; musician Roscoe Holcomb on his stoop in John Cohen’s documentary That High Lonesome Sound; and Scout and Jem sleeping on the back porch in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Through these and many other examples, Hailey establishes the porch’s influential role in the human experience. It is therefore all the more painful to revisit the porch’s slow demise due to the widespread adoption of air conditioning. Incorporating mechanical systems to create artificial interior climates in the early 20th century resulted in our labeling of spaces as “conditioned” versus “unconditioned,” mechanically speaking. Hailey reveals the contradiction in this nomenclature: Porches may be unconditioned from an HVAC perspective, but they are “intensely conditioned by nature,” he writes. “On the porch, I am regularly stirred by all that is around me…"

With the newfound ability to control indoor climate, we replaced one kind of conditioning with another. The porch became optional—an expensive and unnecessary add-on. As Hailey laments upon visiting the 1770 Chatham Manor in Fredericksburg, Va., now stripped of its porches, “Today, I feel as though I am a witness to a crime scene.”

Sealing ourselves off from the outdoors has increased our apathy toward our changing climate, since the thermostat now functions to compensate for ever-hotter days. The Porch emphasizes the gravity of climate change’s consequences on coastal communities.

As Hailey states in the introduction: “The porch where I write will soon be underwater.” For its first seven decades, the structure weathered winter storms and hurricanes. In its next seven, “the sea will cover the boards where three layers of flaking paint sandpaper my bare feet.” Hailey brings a palpable appreciation of the changing atmosphere by flipping the conventional paradigm. Instead of describing the northward climate migration (in the northern hemisphere), he writes of buildings moving south. He estimates that his porch moves 100 feet south every day—50 miles in seven years. Within the next decade, “north Florida will have become south Florida,” he writes. Hailey estimates that the water’s rise on his porch—once it reaches the outer edge of the structure’s tilted slope—will move two feet closer to the interior each year. “Even this gradual slope can play host to catastrophic change.”

Porch on Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.
Porch on Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.

The intrinsically ephemeral nature of Hailey’s porch—and all porches in low-lying or coastal zones near natural environments—conveys a pathos and urgency to readers, who confront an imminent and lamentable loss. In this way, The Porch is a poignant and multi-sensory feast in the grand tradition of wilderness writing by the likes of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir—told from an architectural perspective. Hailey’s perch on the rising Homosassa River is a testbed for many activities: He writes, sketches, photographs, meditates, entertains, and sleeps on the porch. He describes his various experiences—shaped by a wondrously biodiverse and meteorologically dynamic environment—in assiduous and vivid detail. I am entranced by his descriptions of manatee breaths wafting across the porch screen, rain falling from the cedars, or an osprey diving from a palm trunk. I can imagine spooked needlefish leaving a wake, the radiance of the morning sunlight, and the mental lucidity that comes with fresh air. I am there with Hailey at the edge of the water, witnessing the dancing sunlight on the ceiling reflected off the river’s burnished surface.

Hailey’s book does more than examine history or convey an argument; it delivers an experience. Reading The Porch, I feel my blood pressure drop and my anxiousness fade away. I have a tangible sense of the power of porches—even through words—in delivering a deep sense of mindfulness and connection with the natural world. Who knew porches could be so pivotal, and so urgent in today’s turbulent world? “Porches have a necessary immediacy,” Hailey writes. “They need to be experienced now.”

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.