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Montreal Gazette

Divided by fences

Backyard fences define spaces, create privacy and extend homes into outdoor rooms - and they are growing in popularity and style

Donna Nebenzahl, Canwest News Service

Backyard fences, usually in metal or wood, are a common extension of many houses, duplexes and triplexes, creating garden oases, secluding pools, supporting vines and climbers, providing access to lanes, generally embracing whatever lifestyle a homeowner wishes to pursue.

This year, perhaps fuelled by the government tax credit, fences have been going up non-stop, says Montreal-based fence builder Alex Kolmel. While some handy homeowners will take on the job of digging holes for the four-by-four or six-by-six posts and building the fence - wood is the material of choice in this case - many leave it to a professional like Kolmel, who has built more than 50 fences this summer. "We work from the first week in May until mid-November," he said.

We work from the first week in May until mid-November

Some fences are complex, with pergolas and lattice screens, or can be made of chain link or even PVC coated material. Some enclose yards with sand boxes and dog runs, others frame spaces designed for quiet contemplation.

Even a small area can be transformed with a fence. Concordia University professor Maria Peluso had a six-foot-tall cedar fence with latticed arches installed at the back of her Montreal duplex a decade ago, and it still gives her pleasure.

"A fence has a number of purposes; it divides the property and it can also turn your garden into an outdoor room," she said.

Hers combines the Mediterranean style of stone paving with an Asian influenced grotto and latticework.

"I love it because it creates the effect I wanted - privacy and light. It's like a window." Fences can be pared down or ornate, and will vary in price depending on complexity and material.

"Red cedar is so nice to work with, it smells great and lasts, but it's expensive," Kolmel said. "When it comes to wood, it's the best."

When it comes to wood, [Red Cedar] it's the best

Kolmel and his company, Fantastik Fences, installed one fence with a heavy Brazilian wood; another of baked, or torrified wood, both more expensive than cedar and chosen because they won't rot. But his first choice remains cedar.

"What's great is that it's all natural and lasts more than 25 years," he said.

What's great is that it's all natural and lasts more than 25 years

But whatever the wood - torrified, cedar or pressure-treated - all will turn grey after two or three years unless they're coated, he says.

"Most people think they don't want to stain or varnish, and while these fences will last without varnish, if you don't want the grey colour, then every two to five years you've got to coat your fence."

As for the commonly used pressure-treated wood - a mixture of spruce, pine and fir - it's more environmentally friendly than in the past, when the wood was treated with arsenic. But untreated wood is too expensive for many homeowners, he says.

"Before treated wood, it was all cedar, and metal fences used to be twice the price of wood," Kolmel said. "Now it's the opposite."

Fences are usually six feet high, depending on the rules in a municipality. And while it's up to the homeowner to get a permit, most often needed for a new fence, Kolmel makes sure no gas or hydro lines are affected by his fence building.

"I check every single property I work on," he said.

I check every single property I work on

He builds two basic styles of wooden fences - palisade fences, in which the boards are side by side, and good neighbour fences, in which the boards are staggered on each side. Either can be trimmed with a lattice section in varying heights. Lattice, either diamond shape or square cut, is popular with a lot of homeowners, he says.

"But 25 per cent of people hate the stuff. They don't want to see it, smell it, come across it. Nobody's really in the middle on that."

He advises using six-by-six posts, which are more solid, although many people choose the four-by-four at about $5 less per foot, which could be a saving of hundreds.

But you never know, he says. Even four-by-four posts will last a long time.

"One place, after 40 years, the fence was still upright, not rotting," he said. "At another, after 15 years, the fence fell down."

He believes it's the water in the earth that makes a difference.

"Avoid having eavestroughs coming down at the fence post because then you have water leaking by the base," he said. "We tell people move the water because eventually the water will damage the fence."

He likes to put the posts in concrete below ground level because at ground level he has seen the concrete crack or the posts shrink.

While all his fences are custom-made, Kolmel works from a template that includes curving palisades with flat tops and various heights of lattice inserts. Then a customer, like one in St. Lambert, will show him a magazine photograph and ask him to copy it. "I built the same thing," he said, "a lattice screen and in the middle it had holders for plants. It was great."

Kolmel, 31, has been making fences since 2003, when he branched out from working with deck builder Stephan Beaulieu.

"I enjoyed building the fences more than the decks," he said. "Rather than building a deck on my hands and knees in the hot sun, I loved, on a hot summer day, the notion of creating shade with my fences."

Montreal Gazette
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