365 Days of Fresh Air

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Posted: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 12:00 am

365 Days of Fresh Air

Sleeping under the stars without leaving home.

By Chris Christen

Omahans Ruth and Jim Keene get incredulous reactions when they tell people that they sleep outdoors year-round. As well they might. Rest assured, the Omaha couple stays quite comfortable in the open air.

Camping out? No, camping in.

The couple retreats each night to a screened-in sleeping porch just steps away from the usual comforts of home.

"You can't beat fresh air for a good night's rest, no matter the season," Ruth says of the cabin-like sleeping conditions they've preferred for more than 30 years.

"Most people can imagine sleeping on a porch in the summer when the weather is pleasant. But they can't imagine doing it when it's really hot or really cold."

The Keenes stay toasty in winter in a queen-sized bed equipped with an electric mattress pad, a down comforter and a custom coverlet made from moisture-resistant awning material. His and her caps also stay handy for sleeping comfort on nights when it gets frosty.

"It's like leaving the campfire and crawling into a sleeping bag," Ruth says. "At first, you're shivering. But when you pull up the covers, an aura of warmth envelopes you."

The sleeping porch isn't a novel feature. Lots of houses built between 1900 and about 1940 included them. What is unusual is that the Keenes added theirs expressly for year-round use.

"People always ask about protection from the elements," Ruth says. "We don't have windows. We have screens."

And canvas shades that shield rain, wind and snow.

The sleeping porch gives them a retreat that complements their outdoor-focused lifestyle and keeps them attuned to nature. It also gets them away from forced-air heating and cooling for part of the day.

"It's amazing how confined and stuffy a conventional bedroom or hotel room can feel after you've gotten used to a sleeping porch," Ruth says.

Neighbors and good friends, Annette and Steve Huff, watched the Keenes' porch project with great interest back in the late 1970s, and wasted no time copying the idea. "We had a flat roof at the back of our house, so we just built up," Annette says.

The Huffs enjoy their sleeping porch about nine months out of the year. “We're not as tough as Ruth and Jim," Annette says. "We head inside when the temperature is lower than 50 or higher than 80.”

But when they do snuggle and snooze on their second-level porch off a guest bedroom, they enjoy it immensely. "We like the sense of being outdoors and close to nature," Annette says.

The Huffs' porch is screened on three sides and overlooks a pond and fountain in the backyard. She loves the sound of running water day and night. “It's so calming and soothing.”

And bug-free.

Ruth delights in hearing the birds in the morning, going to sleep watching the clouds and smelling spring after a good rain.

There's a little fun too.

"Sound carries quite well" in the stillness of the night, Ruth says. "We hear couples' tete-a-tetes in the alley, and we know who's house the kids are going to TP (toilet paper) next."

Sleeping porches are enjoying a resurgence in popularity across America for reasons the Huffs and the Keenes have extolled for years.

“From Florida to New England, Oklahoma to California, Americans are opening up long shuttered second-story porches, adding sleeping porches to new houses or converting first-floor porches into places to snuggle down and snooze,” writes Dorothy Foltz-Gray for HGTV. “It's a phenomenon fed by sealed-in working quarters and smothering technologies. By the time we end our asphalt commutes, many of us see fresh air as the new gold, something to spend on ourselves, a nighttime extravagance minus the camping trip.”

Former Nebraska resident Mary Morris says her website, PorchIdeas.com, attracts thousands of porch lovers every day. "They come to find decorating tips as well as construction and design ideas."

She and her husband, Dave, spent 14 years in Bellevue, where they made the most of a screened porch on the back side of their home. “The best times were when Dave and I slept out on our porch, usually on Friday or Saturday evenings,” Mary says.

The couple, now living in Nashville, Tennessee, regularly headed to their porch in Bellevue with a big bowl of popcorn and a pile of quilts and pillows.

“We loved sleeping 'under the stars' yet inside on our porch,” Mary says. “It was the best of both worlds.” Even when the weather turned rainy or windy. “Unless we got wet, we didn't mind a bit.”

SLEEP TIGHT

Tips for staying snug as a bug in your sleeping porch:

- Invest in a comfortable bed with a good mattress.

- Dress your bed in layers that can be swapped out as seasons and temperatures change. Select bedding in durable, machine-washable fabrics and colors and patterns that hide wear and tear and dirt.

- For cold winter evenings, add warmth with flannel sheets, an electric blanket, a down comforter and an electric space heater.

- Furnish your space with artwork and creature comforts like a colorful, cushy indoor-outdoor rug that is soft on your feet.

- Place a small side table next to the bed for books, an alarm clock, a radio, etc.

- Hang curtains for a touch of whimsy and privacy. Use store-bought curtains or make them from painter drop cloths or bedsheets. Porch blinds can give you maximum privacy and keep the morning sun off your face.

- Consider a gentle wind chime or tabletop fountain to lull you to sleep.

- Use storm window inserts to block wind and snow.

- Periodically check furniture for loose connections, rusty bolts, and (ugh!) spiderwebs.

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