The definitions of the terms porch and patio are somewhat dependent on the region where you live. In some areas of the country, there is a clearly understood distinction—porches are elevated structures attached to the house, with floor, walls, and roof framed with wood, serving as a protected area for the front or back entries on the home. A patio, on on the other hand, is always viewed as a ground level structure with a paved floor material.
But in other regions, especially those with slab-on-grade foundations, the distinction is less obvious. Here, both patios and porches may be paved outdoor living spaces appointed with outdoor furniture. They can be found either in front yards or backyards, and can be left open to the sky or covered with an overhead arbor or roof structure.
What Is a Porch?
Basically, a porch is defined in most regions as an outdoor structure with a roof that is usually open at the sides. It is attached to, or projects from, the main residence and protects the entrance or serves as a resting place for occupants to entertain and enjoy the fresh air. It is sometimes referred to as a veranda or loggia.
The word "porch" derives from the Old French word porche, from the Latin root word for passage. The structure has its roots back in ancient Greece and Rome, where structures like the Acropolis in Athens included an roofed, open-air "porch of the maidens." In the Italian middle ages, porches took the form of loggias—open-aired, roofed galleries used to provide shelter from the hot Italian sun.
The American front porch appeared by the early 1700s, and 100 years later became a fixture of American architecture. Some of the first porches in the United States were built by immigrants and slaves from Africa. Others most likely were built by Europeans who adapted homes and architecture for a warmer climate. Early French and Spanish Colonial houses featured verandas, or porches, that featured covered roofs and often wrapped around the residence. Other architectural styles also featured porches, including Italianate, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival, Stick Style, Second Empire, Romanesque Revival, Queen Anne, Shingle, Craftsman (Bungalow or Arts and Crafts), and Prairie. The post-World War II housing boom brought an end to the popularity of front porches, as privacy and entertaining were pushed to the backyard.
In colder climates or those plagued by insects, it's not uncommon to wall-in the sides of a porch with removable screens to protect against insects, or to even include window panels to extend the usefulness of the porch into the cooler months.
What Is a Patio?
Unlike a porch, which is always attached to the house, a patio can be either an attached structure or a detached landscape feature. It is almost always a paved surface, using natural stone, concrete pavers, or poured concrete as the underfoot surface. Usually left open to the sky, a patio is a more versatile outdoor structure than a porch and is usually much larger. One of the most important considerations when building a patio is to create easy access between the the indoor kitchen and outdoor kitchen or dining area. When planning, consider who will use the patio and what activities will take place. Patios are regarded principally as places to cook, dine, and entertain.
The word patio comes from the Latin word patere, which means to "lie open." Originating in Spanish or Spanish-American architecture, it is often an outdoor space that is open to the sky, although it can have a protective structure overhead. During the 15th century in Spain, square central patios surrounded by galleries and porticos became popular. During the post-World War II years in the U.S., patios were backyard slabs of poured concrete in various shapes. More recently patios are often paved with bricks, natural stone, or concrete pavers.
When to Choose a Porch Over a Patio
A porch is typically a covered transitional space protecting the front entryway of a home (sometimes the back entry). It often serves a utilitarian function, such as a place to prepare to leave or enter the home or to store outdoor accessories. Porches are also often used for quiet relaxation or small social gatherings. In some regions, the porch is seen as an energy-saving feature, a buffer zone or "airlock" between the home's entrance and severe outdoor weather.
A patio, on the other hand, is typically a large paved backyard space intended expressly for outdoor cooking, dining, and entertaining—not a utilitarian space. A patio is the best choice if you want to enjoy sunlight, as it generally is left open to the sky.
Always attached to the house
Provides a transitional entryway to the house
Floor is often wood-framed
Always has a roof structure
Traditionally a front-yard feature
May be adjacent to the house or detached
Usually used for dining or entertaining
Floor surface is paved
Usually open to the sky
Usually a back-yard feature