Of all the reasons for building a fence, establishing privacy is most often ranked highest by landscape architects. That’s because most people use their yard more often and enjoy it more if they don’t feel they’re on display.
If you find yourself waving at your neighbors every time you’re out in your own backyard, it’s a sure sign that one or both of you should start planning for privacy.
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Solid fences, total privacy
Blocking a view creates privacy. For privacy that’s immediate and total, erect a tall wooden fence. Such fences are typically about 6 feet high (many communities prohibit fences that are higher). Consider board fences, siding fences, paling fences, and slats. A basket-weave fence functions well as a privacy screen and offers some protection from the wind.
Solid fencing that provides total privacy has some drawbacks. If the fence stretches for a long distance, it tends to be imposing and confining— especially in a narrow city yard. Also, if it’s tall enough to provide the privacy you want, it may also cast total shade where you need dappled shade or no shade at all.
A tall, solid fence will also create strong downdrafts on the sheltered side instead of blocking the wind. And although the fence provides privacy, it also obstructs any desirable views you might have from inside the yard.
To solve these problems you might be able to build solid fencing along only part of the lot line. At the point from which you could be observed, study the patio or other area in which you need privacy. One bay of solid fencing that blocks the neighbors’ angle of view may be all you need. To create privacy in a single section of a fence that runs the length of your lot line, build tall sections where you want total privacy and short sections where you want to preserve the view. Or you can install lattice sections (or clear materials, such as acrylic) in the solid infill to let the views in where privacy is not needed. Such variations allow the fence (and you) to breathe.
These fences break up the lines of sight, calling attention to themselves without completely blocking the views beyond. You get privacy without complete obstruction and without feeling you’re hemmed in by a stockade.
Visibility through vertical louvers or lattice is usually not good enough to see what’s going on behind the fence because the eye usually focuses on the solid surfaces. (The privacy afforded by vertical louvers breaks down near streets—people in cars that pass by at just the right speed can see through the fence.) Horizontal louvers block views entirely.
CONTROL NOISE WITH FENCES
Noise is as much of an intrusion on your privacy as are peering eyes. When it comes to noise control, the general rule is that the thicker and more dense the material, the more effective it is in muffling sound.
Solid masonry walls are perhaps the best structures to install if noise control is your greatest landscaping need. A wall is expensive, however, and may not be in keeping with your overall landscape design or your budget. Don’t expect solid board or board-on-board fences to do the job; their flat, hard surfaces don’t absorb much sound. You can improve their effectiveness, however, by planting shrubs, vines, or other vegetation.
Board-and-batten and feather board fences are more effective. Their surfaces have irregular planes that break up the sound waves and scatter them. Plywood and tongue-and-groove fences are slightly better, but high shingle and clapboard fences will do the best job. These fences are built over an enclosure that acts as an air chamber that absorbs some of the sound, while the shingle or clapboard surface deflects it.
Louvers and lattice
Vertical louvers and lattice can be perfect privacy fences because they screen views from the outside without creating a feeling of confinement.
Cut it out
Boards of alternating height stop short of the cap railing to give this tall fence an airy look. Cutouts in the boards form a window and random viewpoints (inset) while maintaining privacy.
Privacy by degree
Although it’s usual to think of privacy in terms limited to completely blocking views, don’t stop there. Just as rooms in the interior of your home have different privacy levels, so can different areas of your landscape.
You may need a tall fence to make a courtyard or patio private, but 4-foot bamboo or open-face grape-stake sections will more subtly seclude a backyard retreat. A 6-foot stockade may be fine for the perimeter of your yard, but low lattice panels with meandering morning glories will screen a utility area.
Lattice also works nicely overhead. Supported by posts and laced with vines, it will block views from above-perfect for tight-fitting urban yards with neighboring apartments or multistory structures.
All shelter, no privacy
Privacy is less of a concern than preserving the view from this patio, so the windscreen is plastic glazing material. Plate glass would be hazardous.
FENCING SLOPES AND OBSTACLES
Don’t let slopes and obstacles (trees, rocks, gullies, and banks) get in the way of your fencing plans. Make them part of your design.
You can remove trees, of course, but removal is costly and disruptive. Besides, it’s not your only option. Build a curved fence portion around the tree (see pages 47 and 59) or stop the fence on one side of the tree and start it on the other (see page 60).
The same is true for large rocks; they are often part of Mother Nature’s original landscape design and can become an important accent with construction techniques that highlight them. If your fence runs along the back edge of one of these accents of nature, change the infill material (or its pattern) behind the rock to show it off.
You can fill a recess in grade by extending the infill down to just above grade level, but building fences next to banks, steep slopes, and cliffs is more complicated. Consult a landscape architect to see whether you’ll need to build a retaining wall—not the kind of incorporation into the landscape you want—to keep your fence from eventually washing away.