Modern Fences – Use your imagination

Bob Borson —  July 15, 2010 — 31 Comments

…“Good fences make good neighbors” – Robert Frost, Mending Wall, 1914

Fences DO make good neighbors but having actual good neighbors goes a lot further towards making good neighbors. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t think about writing a post about fences because I think their primary role is to keep the outside out. No, in my neighborhood, that’s what shotguns and democratic party yard signs are for. The reason I wanted to write about fences is because their role is changing – at least the when they are used in modern design.

According to Merriam Webster, the definition of the word fence is as follows:

a barrier intended to prevent escape or intrusion or to mark a boundary; especially : such a barrier made of posts and wire or boards

Okay, that sounds like the definition of a fence but that isn’t the way we approach “fences” anymore. The image that comes to my mind upon reading that definition is that the space that is being defined is enclosed by the fence – like a prison yard. Doesn’t seem very appealing and for the most part, prison yards aren’t apppealing. There is a fundamental shift happening when we design fences where we are trying to use them to define edges or planes instead of defining spaces. It might seem like semantics but I assure you, if I had a better vocabulary and could describe it better, you would be sending me the tokens of your appreciation in $10 increments.

“Love your neighbor; yet don’t pull down your hedge.” – Benjamin Franklin

Because more and more of our designs are about extending the inside into the yard, we want to design our fences to read more like walls. This allows us to create a visually pleasant and viably usable exterior area while trying to capture that random 10′ of side yard space. One of the ways we avoid our fences actually looking like fences is to use alternate materials and/or different scaled components to build the fence.

fence made of of many smaller components

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Gabion rock fence

Another method for having fences read like walls is to turn the boards horizontal. Sounds like a simple little trick…and it is, but it works really well. There are things to try and avoid when turning your boards horizontal – the main thing being the joints where one board ends and another begins. You have to stagger the boards in order avoid having your fence look like is was built out of fence panels from aisle 12 – not that there s anything wrong with that. Yes there is, what am I saying. It isn’t always about how expensive a thing is, it’s about putting in a little time to think about something differently. But I suppose that’s where I come in.

The other problem when not staggering the boards with trying to deal with the warping and cupping of the boards all happening in the same place. It really destroys the look that this is a continuous plane. If you look at the picture at the very top of the post, you can see that they didn’t stagger the boards – so there is a vertical material line every 6 feet. They also didn’t put a pressure treated base board at the bottom so that they could sink it into the ground. If you have a small dog, or even one that sorta kinda likes to dig, the bottom of that fence wall is an open invitation for a doggie jailbreak.  See? It’s the little things. It’s a great looking fence wall but it won’t ever be able to go down into the ground and provide a safe enclosure for their pets (if they have any). And if they pile the dirt up against that bottom board to address the gap issue, that board will rot…and quickly.

Okay – so I know these aren’t the best graphics but they are enough to make my point. (if Google reads this – I am awesome at sketch up! I totally made this model in 15 minutes)

What I have put together here is a crude series of diagrams to show how you can build an extremely durable and long lasting fence with horizontal boards. I have built this fence before and while it isn’t the cheapest fence you can build, it is on the same expense level as a board on board fence.  

#1 – this is a sacrificial board and needs to be pressure treated since it will be in contact with the ground. When I calls this a sacrificial board, I just mean the lowest level board will get trashed by weed whackers and will also receive the most amount of water damage.

#2 – metal post are definitely that way to go but they add the most expense to a fence. Generally, the metal post needs to extend 1/3 of it’s total length into the ground – i.e. a 6′ fence will need to extend a minimum of 2′ into the ground. The last project I priced out had a 10′ metal posts and their cost, plus the labor to dig the hole and the bag of concrete brought the cost of each post to roughly $65. Yikes! It adds up quick but set properly, they will last the length of your fence and are worth the expense. In the diagram above, I have the posts sets at 4′ centers but generally you can get away with 8′ centers.

#3 – 2×4 horizontal rails which will eventually provide the medium for attaching a secondary vertical rails.

#4 – Viola! Secondary 2×4 vertical rails! Since we are designing a fence that will have horizontally oriented dress boards, we need a stable surface to attach them. In this case, unlike the metal posts which are on 8′ centers, the vertical rails are on 3′ centers. Yes…I know that they don’t align with one another. Relax Grasshopper – there’s a good reason for this. By placing the more expensive posts at a greater interval and using traditional horizontal rail placement, we can then place the vertical rails at an increment that works out with standard size (and cost effective) 6′ 1x dress boards. We can achieve our “wall” look by staggering the ends of the boards so that the joints are not one right on top of the other.

#5 – 2×10 cap – this is an important piece because it protects the end grain portion of the vertical 2×4 rail from long term water damage. We also use a 2×10 cap, sometime even a 2×12 cap so that the edges can extend enough in the rear direction so that it will cover the top of the metal post.

#6 – 1x dress boards – in the diagram above, I used 1×6′s but you are only limited by your imagination. when installing 1x boards horizontally, you can make a jig that is essentially a straight line of 8 penny nails so that as you stack on board on top of the other, you have provided the boards room to expand and contract without buckling.

This is the finished product – or at least one of countless possible patterns. If you wanted to reduce the expense, you could use wood posts (instead of metal posts) and nail the boards directly to them – it’s what we see most often on DIY fences. The fence I showed above is a fence that is appropriately priced for a modern home and  it is designed to last more than 10 years. We also specify that the boards be seasoned, than they are dipped to apply the stain rather than having the stain sprayed or painted on after installation. This little step by itself will extend the life of this fence by a factor of 3 over a non-treated fence and probably twice that of a stain applied by spray.

This fence post could go on and on – and it probably should have stopped about 800 words ago but despite the possible probable sky-high boredom, I could easily continue. But I won’t.

If you have good pictures of your fence (or one you like) send it along, I really would like to see it.

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  • AHarris

    Great post! Speaking of post(s)… I’m geeking out right now… In your opinion, can a setup like this (metal posts @ 8′ centers) support boards on both sides or would 4′ centers be a better call? I have an 8′ tall cedar privacy wall around my property, however, the “pretty side” faces outward and is vertical. I’ve always loved the look of horizontal fences, and I’m thinking this is my opportunity to have one by adding to the existing structure. Thanks!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      if your horizontal rails are 2x’s, you should have no problems.

  • KGriff

    Bob, this looks great. (I imagine you’ll continue to receive interest on this many years more after the original post date.) So, I’m planning to apply your approach to build my own fences (one in the front and a longer one in the back). A couple of questions:

    I want to use square fence posts in the front … for the reason that I have an old concrete front “yard” area (Brooklyn, New York). It just lends itself to square posts attached by bolting through the post flange into the concrete. Having a hard time finding square post brackets though. Know of any? Any other considerations to keep in mind?

    Also, can I do a similar assembly without the cap board at the top of the secondary posts? Or perhaps I can obscure it by nailing it flush to the front of the posts and continuing the horizontal boards high enough… ?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Are these wood or metal fence posts? If they’re wood, no need for the brackets as you can nail your horizontal boards directly to the post. If it’s metal, you could probably use a bent angle – I’ve never had to solve this problem so I don’t have a solution “in the can” for you.

      The job that the cap board is performing has more with protecting the end grain of a wood post or the interior of the metal pipe than anything else.

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  • Flock and Rally

    Thank you for this post! I will be showing it to my contractor, there’s not a lot of horizontal fences in Columbia, SC. Could you also do this with 2 x 2′s or 1 x 1′s? I’m looking at incorporating it into an arbor as well. Thanks!

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      of course! Some of the pictures in this post have 1″ and 2″ boards in them

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  • Traci

    I just came across this post in my search for ideas to “disguise” metal posts to be used to build a horizontal wood fence. (The posts are already anchored from the chain link fence the previous homeowners had up.) Any ideas on how to pretty up the metal posts if they are used?

    Thanks for the great article, it’s really helpful!

  • http://www.facebook.com/ToddAPrice Todd Price

    I know the is an old post, but I just ran across it.

    I’m interested in a horizontal fence, but I live in New Orleans. Are they more likely to get blown over in a hurricane than a vertical fence?

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Hi Todd,
      The orientation of the dress boards will not make a difference in the fences ability to avoid getting blown over in a hurricane. In either scenario, the structure that is doing the real work is the same – and they are a combination of both vertical and horizontal.

  • Mohan

    Thank you for this info. I am designing my small backyard(finally!!) and loved the idea for the horizontal fence so googled and reached your blog. Very informative since I am a complete begginer and am starting from scratch.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Vadim-Ivanov/728887444 Vadim Ivanov

    Interesting, but I came across the problem of “how to block direct visual connection with the interior of the property using the fence design and came up with a working solution of fencing with triangular posts. you can see it here. How do you like it?
    http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150343646412445&set=a.10150313682672445.361612.728887444&type=3&theater

  • Mfw8512

    sorry, they are 1x6x8 cedar boards

  • Mfw8512

    Thank you for posting this design. I’ve used your sketch as a layout for a DIY project in my backyard using 1x6x6 cedar board and 4x4x8 posts with 2×4 supports about 112′ all together. I’d like to know how you would approach a subtle incline with this design. I have about 30′ that inclines about 12″ from a level plane.

  • http://www.benlannoy.com Ben

    I love this style of fencing. We’ve just put up some similar to this in red cedar for a garden design we are just about to finish. We painted the fencing behind black(as it couldn’t be removed and built this fence baton by baton! It was pretty reasonable but very slick and modern. Here is a link to our blog to show how we did it mixed with slate paving, pleached trees and rendered walls. http://www.benlannoy.com/blog/  Great article by the way! 

  • Corishaner

    i love this article. any ideas for a fence that you can see through? we did a cattle panel/cedar post fence for a ranch house we own, but i’d like to do something differently for our new home. the neighborhood association doesn’t want us to block the view of the house. any ideas?

  • Patrickslatin

    Great ideas. Here’s one I built with hardi board siding and metal conduit from the depot.
    http://marumodern.wordpress.com/2010/10/31/design-lives-here/

  • bdog

    Is ‘… they are dipped to apply the stain rather than having the stain sprayed or painted on after installation. …’ a DIY project? If not, what is the cost range on this piece of the project?

    • Anonymous

      Dipping is not a do it yourself project. The process involves submerging the wood in the stain and then allowing it to dry in a manner that doesn’t involve stacking the pieces of wood on top of one another. It was a two week process from time vendor received the wood to when he delivered it to the jobsite.

      If memory serves me right, it added approximately $6 to $8 (client cost) per linear foot of 8′ fence.

  • http://twitter.com/mondo_tiki_man Jonathan Brown

    I love the gabion mesh as a barrier. I really want to do an outdoor shed with walls like that and a good floating roof…

  • bobborson

    That's part of the reason this fence is so great. The horizontal rails are attached to the metal posts in the traditional manner + the vertical rails are attached to the horizontal rails. This is what allows you to space the more expensive metal posts at 8' on center, ubt then space the vertical rails at an increment that is suitable for the length dress board you want (e.g. if you use a 6' dress board, you would space your vertical rails at 3' on center to stagger your board joints). This way, the horizontal boards can be attached to the vertical rails simply with nails.

    Since I know you love you some Google SketchUp, I'll send you the model I made and you can explore what I am talking about.

    as far as a 16' cinder block wall, that sounds a little harsh to be in the front yard. Since I know your goal is to sell The Brick House, that would be a consideration. (Unless you were using a 'Jali' type block wall.

    Cheers

  • thebrickhouse

    I've been desperately trying to talk my mom into a gabion fence at her new place. She thinks I'm nuts. I love them.

    We are going back and forth on doing a 16 foot cinder block wall or a horizontal slat fence or a gabion wall in our front yard. All I know is I want privacy, I want to be able to DIY, and I want it to be cheap and stylish….as well as look good with our front slats.

    How do you attach the wood to the metal supports? Are you thinking aluminum or steel verticals?

  • bobborson

    I'm actually not a huge fan of either but once you hear the correct version of those very popular expressions, it will drive you crazy from now on when you hear the incorrect versions.

    Oh, and a little fence knowledge can carry you a long way – it doesn't have to look like what I drew but then again, that was sort of the point that it didn't.

    Cheers.

  • http://twitter.com/chamwashere Chamois Green

    My husband was just fixing his sister's fence last weekend. If only we'd known about the benefits of horizontal fencing! We could've properly detested the shoddy job of the previous homeowners! Will definitely file this away in the back corners of my mind for the day I finally have my own home. (ie – years from now when I'm finally able to make my bum sit down and stop moving every year or so to another city)

    ..and oh yes, thanks for clarifying the “eating your cake and having it too” – I have never understood the phrase because I've only ever heard the misquoted version. As for pudding, well I always hated the stuff, so I'll just take your word for it.

  • bobborson

    John,

    I'm glad you pointed out the use on non-dimensional lumber. I have a personal design philosophy that whenever you get used to seeing something a particular way (i.e. a wall switch) you stop actually “seeing” it. Just by using lumber that is slightly different proportions, you are going to bring attention to the design and take a nothing utilitarian item and make it a feature…sort of a 2-for-1. In my world, that's called good value.

  • bobborson

    Gabions are really interesting and we are using some in a weekend house are retaining walls/ visual screens around a car park on a sloping site/ There is an abundance of rocks laying about so it was a natural fit. I love them and you don't see them being used for much more than creek-bed retaining walls and erosion control.

    Send me a picture once you get it done!

  • John

    Bob-

    Another great topic. Most fences are put up in a hurry with little or no thought put into the design. A few years ago I designed and built a front yard fence using “golden mean” proportions (with a little research into the Fibonacci sequence). Another great fence design “trick” is to use non-dimensional lumber in the design – it just makes the fence look better than the typical “off the shelf” variety.

    http://bit.ly/cMLElK

    John Paulsen / Sparrow Builders

  • http://stuff2eat.blogspot.com Lori Jablons

    Bob, this is excellent! We have to put up a new fence in our backyard and this got me thinking much more creatively. The rock fence, I thought, was especially fetching.

  • bobborson

    Culbeast – I wondered if and when someone would tell me that…. I put that excerpt in because most people are familiar with the quote despite not knowing the context so it serves my purpose to a certain extent. I think of it in the same way that people say:

    “the proof is in the pudding” or “you can't have your cake and eat it too” – both are horrifically misquoted but the intended message is still delivered.

    (for those who want to know):
    'The proof of the pudding is in the eating' – meaning you won't know if it is any good until you actually eat the pudding.

    'You can't eat your cake and have it too' – because you can have your cake and eat it…..but you can't eat your cake and have it (because you ate it…see?)

    Now my grammar…that's something entirely different isn't it?

    Thanks

  • Culbeast

    Dear Bob,

    Love the fence pictures, but I must make a nit-picky English teacher comment. Robert Frost was using irony in the poem “Mending Walls” when he quotes the cliche “Good fences make good neighbors.” The entire poem is about the idea that fences make unnecessary divisions between people. If you took out the Frost citation the quotation would be better…