At first glance, the little backyard in Ballard seemed like the perfect oasis in the city. It had a small but inviting grassy yard, mature landscaping that kept the kids safely contained and a hot tub that had the potential to be a centerpiece.
But there was one big problem: The neighbor’s two-story house loomed over the yard — and its kitchen windows stared straight into that dreamy spa. Their after-work soaks felt more like a performance than a relaxing escape.
They toyed with moving the hot tub or even getting rid of it, until they hit on a much easier solution: a simple, well-placed privacy screen.
Two days and a few hundred dollars later, a creative little wall separated their private family space from peering eyes. And, with the help of a few plants, what once caused awkward moments became a highlight of their yard.
In urban environments such as Seattle, there is rarely a property that couldn’t use an attractive screen to disguise a heat pump or a derelict RV.
“With homes being built closer together nowadays, we are definitely seeing a rise in requests for them,” says Floyd Tatum, principal of Blue Oak Builders in Seattle.
If fences make good neighbors, then privacy screens make better yards.
As a general contractor who has built dozens of privacy screens for my customers, I’m convinced that they are often one of the best bang-for-the-buck improvements a homeowner can choose.
Tatum agrees. “Typically, it doesn’t really add a terrible amount of cost to a project,” he says. “It also adds a lot of architectural pop. It’s a great opportunity to mix it up a little bit with a different texture.”
An element of distraction
Privacy screens are all about distracting your attention. They’re like a magician who holds up something shiny and asks the audience to “look at this, and don’t pay any attention to that ugly house behind me.”
Typically, screens are not trying to be a physical barrier, like a fence (although they can be used as such). They offer something to trick your eye into stopping instead of passing through to what’s beyond.
By contrast, a fence is essentially a wall. It’s meant to keep things contained.
Because privacy screens are only meant to distract, they don’t need to be enormous. Usually it’s a matter of placing them just right.
There are three places where privacy screens are most commonly used: on a deck railing, as a stand-alone element and within fences.
ON DECK RAILINGS
Since Seattle homes can be built within 5 feet of their side property lines, many houses are only 10 feet from one another. The result is that urban decks almost always have a section overlooking a neighbor’s yard.
Deck railings usually encourage you to look through them and pay attention to the view beyond. But if that view is something you don’t want to notice, an easy solution is to install a taller-than-normal railing with a solid infill.
Instead of standard posts that are 3 feet tall, make them 6 feet tall, and then select fill material that interrupts the view. Or stay with a standard 3-foot-tall railing, but add a visual detail that demands your attention.
To meet code, you can’t have any gaps bigger than 4 inches for the first 3 feet of height. And the material you choose must be durable enough to also serve as a railing. For this, I like using 5/4-inch-by-6-inch or 5/4-inch-by-4-inch cedar deck board to fill the screen; since it’s solid enough to serve as flooring, there’s no question that it will be strong enough to be safe.
AS STAND-ALONE SCREENS
Often, a single screen or two is enough to strategically block what you’re trying to hide.
Designing a stand-alone screen is much like building a fence. Use pressure-treated 4-by-4 posts set in concrete, and cedar or pressure-treated 2-by-4 posts run horizontally between them, to create a basic frame. Then use whatever material you want to fill it in. As long as you’re only trying to interrupt a view, the infill options are practically limitless.
The simplest material to use is 1-inch-thick cedar trim, leaving small gaps between the strips.But you could use a combination of wood, metal or even planters that allow greenery to form a living screen.
Two posts are usually sufficient for a screen less than 8-feet wide. If you go wider than that, you’ll need additional posts.
In Seattle, the code restrictions for privacy screens are the same as fences. A permit is not needed as long as they are under 6 feet tall (or 8 feet tall when the top 2 feet contain architectural details, such as a lattice). And you can put them anywhere on your property.
Fences are a classic visual barrier. But because they are typically solid, they can trap heat, limit air flow or be downright unattractive.
An existing fence can be retrofitted with creative touches. In some cases, the addition of an attractive lattice or post caps can spruce up a boring fence.
You can also make a fence more of a screen by installing the fill horizontally. Another option is staggering the fence boards on either side of the frame. Most fences have an attractive side and a side that shows the frame. But if you alternate your fence boards, putting them on both sides of the frame, you allow more air flow without sacrificing privacy. Plus, neither property owner gets stuck with the “ugly side” of a fence.
Screen building and design tips
Choose the right materials. Cedar is naturally rot- and insect-resistant, so it’s a good outdoor material. Pressure-treated wood is rated for ground contact, so it also does well, although it’s not as attractive as cedar. If using metal, select galvanized or stainless steel to avoid rust.
Compression is key. Attach fill material securely in a screen by using compression. After your posts are installed, run cedar 2-by-2s or 1-by-2s vertically on both posts. Once you fit your fill material, run another set, and use the squeezing pressure between the two to hold the fill material in place.
Don’t forget the caps. The top of a screen takes a lot of abuse from the elements. If water pools there, it will rot faster, so be sure to cap your screens.
A good option is a cedar 2-by-6 with a sloped beveled top that sheds water. Square-edge composite decking is another good option, especially if you want to match your deck.
If the tops of your posts are exposed, you can put caps on them. Simple pyramid caps can be screwed into the top of the posts, or you can upgrade to a style that slides over the cut ends of posts.
Plan for wind. Wind sheer can threaten a privacy screen — especially a freestanding panel that’s not installed correctly. “Work with a designer or licensed contractor to ensure your supports are adequate,” recommends Floyd Tatum, principal of Blue Oak Builders in Seattle.
Use plants. Using live plants in lieu of wood or metal is a time-tested method for creating privacy. Natural growing material softens edges and breaks up hard lines. If you’re starting with an empty yard, it will take longer to achieve the desired level of privacy. But if you have patience or can invest in mature plants, they are very effective.
When using plants, consider how big they’ll grow to be and how much work they’ll be to maintain. A living screen can take over a yard in a few years if you choose the wrong plants or don’t prune them.
Some of the popular choices in Seattle include bamboo, arborvitae, boxwood and Pacific yew.
A more modern lattice
My customers often get a pained look when I say the word lattice — usually because the traditional angled style (sometimes nicknamed “granny lattice”) has an old-fashioned feel.
However, modern lattice screens come in a variety of styles. When using them in screens, they’re nice enough to serve as infill, or they can be blended with other materials. Some are sturdy enough to be used as deck railing.
For example, Northwest company Woodway’s Moderna style (seen pictured above and on the cover) has a clean, modern look with a rectangle pattern that’s easy to cut and install.
Panels aren’t cheap, at around $100 for a 4-by-6 sheet, and they are tedious to stain, but I’ve never met a customer who wasn’t happy with the style.
About the author: Writer and general contractor Jeff Layton specializes in outdoor building projects through his company Open Space Design.