If you were, for some strange reason, to be quizzed on common outdoor architecture, a passing grade may be hard to come across. I know it would for me. While most of us can describe what a patio is made of and what a deck looks like, things get confusing when we start talking about verandas and balconies. After all, a balcony is just a small deck, right? And a veranda is… Well, what is a veranda, anyway. We’re about to find out as we ask the age-old question: what’s the difference between a porch, balcony, veranda, patio, and deck?
This is a question that cannot be answered in a few sentences. We need to take a quick look at each of these structures to determine what identifying features each has. Once we’ve done that, you’ll be able to wow your friends with your knowledge of common outdoor architecture. You’ll also be able to accurately describe what kind of feature you may want on your current or future home. Let’s start with porches.
What is a Porch?
When we think of porches, we usually think of those covered, wooden structures that provide entrance to a house. They often have stairs that lead up to them, but not all the time. Different areas of the world use porches for different reasons, making them varied in size and design. As a result, there are many different types that fall under the umbrella term of “porch,” which we’ll briefly cover below.
A Porch in General Terms
Usually, a porch is an extension of the front entrance of the building. Large porches generally have stairs and columns supporting the roof above them. However, they can also be enclosed extensions of the front room or parlor, providing protection from the weather.
Some porches are very small, providing little function and are merely there for style and curb-appeal. Since the porch is an extension of the house, the style matches seamlessly to the house’s construction. The roof over large porches provides shade from the sun and a place for neighbors to gather and talk. Some porches are even large enough to have a dining table, a porch swing, and plenty of outdoor furniture. In addition to exterior lights, some porches even have ceiling fans to help keep the area cool in hot weather.
Porch Safety and Structure Requirements
The requirements of small porches differ widely than those of large porches. On houses where the porch is decorative instead of functional, you don’t usually need railings or a hefty support structure because people won’t be lounging on it.
Larger porches that are above 30-inches off the ground require railings and usually must have specially-built support beams and large footing to support the porch itself and the roof above it. The flooring of a porch is usually built slightly slanted away from the house to keep water from pooling and damaging the house.
Since all porches are attached to the home, they generally require permits and inspections when you’re building or modifying them.
Common Porch Materials
Porches are built from all kinds of materials. Wood is common, but they can also utilize stone, brick, concrete, composite, or vinyl. Some porches use a combination. The roof and columns are usually built from wood, but the stairs, floor, and support structure can use other materials like stone and concrete.
Different Types of Porches
- Screened Porch – Screened in to keep bugs out.
- Back Porch – A covered structure, big or small, that covers the back door.
- Farmer’s Porch – Large porch usually reaching along the entire front of the house.
- Rain Porch (AKA Carolina Porch) – The roof of this porch extends beyond the floor of the porch, providing extra protection from the rain.
- Detached Porch – Similar to a gazebo in that it’s freestanding, but usually only 4-sided. May be connected to the house by a walkway.
What is a Balcony?
A balcony is pretty recognizable and not often mistaken for a deck, although it can be under the right circumstances. Balconies are located on the second floor or above, and they usually provide limited space outside a door.
A Balcony in General Terms
Most balconies are small, with only enough room for two people to sit for coffee. Some balconies are even smaller than this, with only one to two feet of depth. These types of balconies are usually found on apartment buildings.
They can be attached and supported by the building itself, or they can have columns that reach the ground, although the latter is more common on second-floor balconies found on homes rather than apartments. Balconies have safety railings that are often supported by balustrades. They can also have walls or screens for safety and style.
Balcony Safety and Structure Requirements
Since balconies are raised platforms, they almost always require some sort of permission and permits to be built or modified. The height of the railings, the support structure, width, length, and weight capacity all need to be considered and built to safety specifications.
Common Balcony Materials
Modern balconies can be made of just about any common building material. Wood, stone, metal, and composite materials are all used to build these outdoor additions. Flooring can be made of ceramic or porcelain tiles, concrete, brick, wood, or metal.
Different Types of Balconies
- Enclosed Balcony – As the name suggests, this balcony is usually a small room protruding from the building with windows or screens to let the air in.
- Juliet Balcony – Taking its name from the famous Shakespeare play, a Juliet balcony is a kind of false balcony— meaning it doesn’t actually have space for you to step out onto it. Instead, it’s a railing with a very small floor affixed to the structure outside of doors that open inward, allowing you to have a balcony without actually having a balcony.
- Faux Balcony – Where a false balcony has a small floor (usually 4 to 6-inches), a faux balcony is only a railing installed outside a window merely for looks. You may be able to fit plants on a false balcony, but not on a faux balcony because it has no floor.
- Mezzanine – Think of a mezzanine as an indoor balcony. Typically in larger homes and located on the second floor (or above), a mezzanine usually is a functioning balcony complete with a floor and a railing. Sometimes they’re big, and sometimes they’re small.
- True Balcony – This is the most common type of balcony. It can be covered or not, big or small, and made out of any type of material. True balconies are functional and located on the second floor or above.
What is a Veranda?
A veranda is kind of like a porch that goes all around the house, or at least it traverses more than one side. Located flush with the ground floor, verandas provide lots of extra outdoor space around the home.
A Veranda in General Terms
Most verandas have flat roofs and railings. Some are partially enclosed by screens or outdoor partitions. A veranda that covers the entire house gives access to both the front and back doors without leaving the raised deck or coming out from under the roof. However, some verandas only traverse the two or three sides of the house. In order for it to be considered a veranda, it must cover more than one side of the structure.
Veranda Safety and Structure Requirements
Similar to porches, verandas must be built to support not only the weight of people and furniture, but also of the roof above. And since they are attached to the structure, they require planning, permits, and inspections. They often require safety railings and should be specially built to help moisture flow away from the house itself.
Common Veranda Materials
Common veranda materials include wood, vinyl, and composite. However, they can be built with concrete, brick, or stone, typically in the floor and supporting structure.
Different Types of Verandas
- Flat Roof – Many verandas have flat roofs that provide shade and protection from the weather.
- Curved Roof – For a more striking look, you can go for a veranda with a curved roof, giving the space underneath more of an open feel.
- Gable Roof – This is a slanted roof that adds a little to the style of the home and veranda. It also helps the rain flow off the roof.
- Sunroof – You can open or close a sunroof veranda as you please, adding a bit of versatility to that area of the veranda.
What is a Patio?
A patio is an outdoor area, generally uncovered, made of stone or concrete. Patios can be raised or at ground level and they are usually used for dining, recreation, grilling, fire pits, and sunbathing.
A Patio in General Terms
Patios are usually found in backyards. They can be next to the house or located further into the yard. It’s common to find patios around pools or ponds and under pergolas. Most of the time, patios aren’t covered by roofs, but not always. You’ll often see patios that have potted plants and furniture on them for decoration and enjoyment.
Patio Safety and Structure Requirements
Of all the structures on this list, patios are probably subject to the fewest safety requirements. This is because they’re located at ground-level, so there’s no risk of anyone falling off. However, raised patios above a certain height (usually 30-inches) may require a railing or protective wall. Make sure to check your local laws for more information.
Many patios are built right next to the home, maybe a few steps down from the back door. This gives the illusion that they are somehow connected to the house, but they’re typically not. They don’t rely on the house for support and they’re typically not fastened to the house’s structure in any way. Instead, patios use the ground itself as their support system. As a result, most patios don’t require extensive permits in many areas. But, make sure before you take steps to build one.
Common Patio Materials
Patios most commonly utilize different types of stone. The cheapest patio you can get will be made of pea gravel or other crushed stone. Concrete is another favorite for inexpensive installation, whether it be poured concrete, stamped concrete, or pre-made concrete pavers. Brick pavers are another popular option. Of course, you can make a patio with almost any kind of stone you can think of.
Different Types of Patios
- Raised Patio – A go-to when you don’t have a flat area to place the patio. You can level the ground and use supporting walls to build a raised patio. These are popular in place of small decks and when you don’t want to step down out of your home onto a ground-level patio.
- Flat-Roofed Patio – For those who want a covered patio for protection from the elements.
- Gable-Roofed Patio – For those who want a covered patio with a little more architectural flair. These patios have peaked roofs for cover and aesthetics.
- Modern Patio – Some modern patios have roofs that are made out of aluminum or other non-traditional materials.
*A covered patio doesn’t have to be connected to the house, although it can be.
What is a Deck?
A deck is usually a large, uncovered, elevated structure attached to a house. While the style of the deck may be designed to match the house, it’s not usually a seamless and essential construction like a porch is. Most decks are made out of wood slats, have support beams, and require railings.
A Deck in General Terms
Decks come in all shapes and sizes, and so they can often double as balconies, patios, porches, and verandas. Many people used the word “deck” to refer to any wooden outdoor structure either attached or separate from the house. In general, though, decks are found in backyards, are lifted off the ground, and are attached to the home.
Deck Safety and Structure Requirements
Decks are considered an addition to the home, and as such they require permits and inspections during the building process. Since they’re usually raised off the ground, they must have support beams that are fastened into the ground past the frost depth. These beams are usually made of wood and fastened into the ground with concrete.
When a deck is raised, it requires some form of safety railing or enclosure. The same goes for any stairs leading down to the yard. In some areas prone to drought and wildfires, you may be required to use an approved, fire-resistant material when building a new deck.
Common Deck Materials
The most common decking materials are pressure-treated lumber and cedar, which is naturally rot and insect-resistant. In recent years, composite materials made of a combination of wood products and plastics or vinyl have become popular, too. Composite materials tend to last longer than wood. Other materials, like those made of pure vinyl, are also popular.
Exotic woods such as ipe and redwood are more expensive options for decking materials. Although less popular and more costly, aluminum is starting to be used more and more for long-lasting decks.
Different Types of Decks
- Floating Deck – A deck that’s not attached to the home or any other structure. Floating decks are generally built close to the ground and are often called patio decks.
- Rooftop Deck – A flat, open deck built on a rooftop with stairs leading up. These decks are great if you need a high vantage point for a spectacular view.
- Wraparound Deck – A veranda without a roof is sometimes called a wraparound deck. These types of decks extend along two or more sides of the house.
- Pool Deck – A deck next to a pool— either above or below ground. Composite or vinyl materials are often best for these, as they’re in contact with water more often than other decks.
Multi-Level Deck – A deck with multiple levels is great for yards with uneven terrain. You can use the sloping earth to your advantage and almost “stack” the levels to make usable space and a great looking addition.