If “good fences make good neighbors,” as the oft-quoted line from a Robert Frost poem noted, then great fences certainly might make great admirers and possibly friends.
As South Carolina grows and evolves, fences are among the features blossoming with creativity and whimsy beyond the historic wrought iron, the standard suburban picket and the utilitarian stockade.
The new breed of fencing runs the gamut, from high-end elegance to urban hip and earthy understatement, the latter using materials such as bamboo, climbing plants and even pallets.
A common feature of some of this new fencing is its tendency for horizontal formats, rather than vertical ones.
One of Charleston’s landscape architects embracing the element of fencing is J.R. Kramer of Remark Studios. Some of the firm’s work includes fencing at both commercial and residential properties on the Charleston peninsula, including Blue Acorn, Lewis Barbecue and residence at Radcliffe Place.
When evaluating fence options, Kramer says it’s important to consider several factors.
“When a fence is needed, we look at whether it’s needed for screening or scale. If it’s the latter, it may be about bringing the architecture into the landscape. We look at material and height. We look at everything to make it cohesive,” says Kramer, pointing to Lewis Barbecue as an example.
"We were trying to use screening and incorporate (existing) materials,” says Kramer of a 6-foot fence that doubles as storage for wood needed to make barbecue.
More urban features of a fence at Half Mile North, Kramer says, incorporates Corten steel with masonry. Corten develops a weathered, rusty patina which actually protects it from additional corrosion.
While Kramer says he and others in the profession still have difficulty getting contemporary designs past the Board of Architectural Review, he hopes that as Charleston evolves it will be more open to those designs. Creative fences at very public commercial structures, he adds, likely will spur more interest in having them on residential properties.
“What we’re adding is very modern and relevant today and it can be done in a timeless manner,” says Kramer, noting that he is currently working on modern fence designs at projects on Society Street and in Florence.
Craftsmanship in fences
Gregory Duckworth of Environmental Concepts in Myrtle Beach also works on fences that make a statement.
In many cases he seeks the help of craftsmen, such as blacksmiths and other metal workers, to help create borders of beauty. One of those is Miller’s Wood & Iron in Andrews.
He noted how L.F. “Cuda” Miller and son, Mark Miller, created copper finials that looked like the tops of pineapples at the entryway of Seaside Plantation. Similarly, a fence at a new home in Little River featured steel sculptures.
“Every project is unique. If a project has a fence or gate opportunity in it and it makes sense to become more than just a functional gate, we’ll talk to the client about that opportunity,” says Duckworth.
Tips for homeowners
While some of Duckworth’s projects are high-end, he says homeowners exploring fencing options need to do some homework before spending money.
“Don’t get excited about doing something, then realize you can’t do it because of zoning requirements in area. Check ordinances and HOA covenants at the start of the project,” says Duckworth. “The last thing you want to do is build it and get a nasty gram in the mail in violation of X, Y and Z.”
After that, Duckworth says people should think about materials and how they will work for a fence.
“There’s all kinds of things that come into play. Fences are made out of more than metal. It can be brick or wood,” says Duckworth, adding that fences can combine stock panels with custom-made “fancy stuff on top.”
“You have to find someone who knows what they’re doing and do it in a tasteful way. Most of the work we get done is (by) a blacksmith. There are fence contractors who put in basic fences, but if you want to take it to the next level, you have to seek out craftsmen.”
Natural or found materials
On the flip side of the high-end is using natural material, such as bamboo, living material such as climbing vines, or repurposed materials, such as pallets.
Matt Kip, garden manager of Sustainable Carolina at the University of South Carolina’s Office of Sustainability in Columbia, has used natural materials for fencing for hands-on teaching and to create a boundary for a chicken yard.
Among the natural options Kip has use is wattle and cob.
“Wattle is an ancient art of creating boundaries by cutting long saplings or using bamboo. You put posts in the ground and weave across them. You can wattle vertically or horizontally … It’s very functional,” says Kip. “Everyone has branches and saplings. You can up-cycle that into something that has both beauty and function.”
Similarly, cob is an ancient practice of mixing of sand, straw and clay to build structures, such as homes and ovens, more common in western England than in the United States.
Kip notes that one fence style found in other countries but could work well in the Southeast are “living fences,” in which people plant fast-growing trees, such as willow, as the “posts” and then connect them.
“I like them because they serve multiple functions. They are a fence, a habitat, they are sequestering carbon, you can plant edibles with it,” says Kip.
Fences using found or repurposed materials offer everyone an opportunity to create art.
“My biggest calling has always been that I’m an artist, but I don’t want to make art that just hangs on the wall," Kip says. "I’m into functional art. I want to continue to teach this stuff because you learn a skill that’s also serve an artistic and functional purpose. “