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Questions to Ask When Planning An Outdoor Living Space

Before you begin to actually design your yard by yourself or with an architect or landscape architect, ask yourself a few questions.

1. What activities do you want to provide for? Adult entertaining? Children’s play areas? Pet needs? Kitchen garden? Write down all the possible uses. You can narrow this down later to what fits in your budget and space.

2. How much space do you have, and how much of it can you realistically allot?

3. What is your budget? Do you need to get financing, or will it be a build-as-funds-allow project? Be realistic about what you can spend. Also, do not overbuild for your neighborhood! Always know what homes in your area are like and what their value is. You don’t want to be adding $50,000 of improvements if you cannot recoup that money. Make an outdoor living area an investment, not a financial loss.

4. Do you want a garden? Are there existing plants to consider? Plants provide shade and absorb the heat of the day. They will visually soften the edges of a patio or deck. You can build a kitchen garden, which could be beneficial if you do a lot of outdoor cooking.

5. Do you only want to install hardscaping (patio, deck, walkways, etc)?

6. Do you need privacy? You can put up a wall or fence, or plant vines or a hedge. Proximity to neighbors is a consideration, as are your views to block or retain.

7. What time of day will the space be used? How much sunlight will be in the area when you want to be using it? You don’t want your guests to be having cocktails in the late day heat of the sun. Plan for shade.

8. What sort of lighting will you need? You can light pathways to and from the house and living areas, spotlight plants and focal points, and have subtle lighting near the kitchen and patio.

In the northern hemisphere, our outdoor living season is upon us. After tolerating months of cabin fever, it’s time to take advantage of warm weather, fresh air, and longer days.

I had a landscaping client who had just bought a new home. There was no landscaping included, so we sat down together to design. The front yard had a long, wide covered porch and a 4’ high wall that created a small, private yard. This allowed a view of western desert mesas and our gorgeous sunsets. I planted native trees, shrubs and flowers and a small patch of grass (about 500 square feet) within that walled area.

I also installed a small three-tier fountain. A door from the master bedroom led to the porch at one end. A couple of chairs and a chaise lounge created a seasonal sitting area. My client said she would frequently get up and sit outside in summer, instead of going to the kitchen first. What a wonderful way to begin a day!

There were chairs and a coffee table at the other end of the porch closer to the living room and kitchen. The family spent quiet time in this area, and it was an inviting entryway for guests. At the back door, there was only a small covered porch and a 5’ high wall to block road traffic. Mountain views were visible, and they became the focal point for a huge outdoor living room.

Aside from more native plantings and a larger piece of lawn, we installed:

  • a large fountain – a semi-circle with a 10’ diameter
  • an outdoor fireplace
  • a flagstone patio
  • a large covered area for a grill, oven, refrigerator, sink and seating
  • a hot tub off the master bathroom with a wall for privacy from the outdoor living and kitchen areas

This place had it all! Obviously, my client loved to entertain, so this was very elaborate. The outdoor space equaled the size of her interior living and kitchen areas. She could have large parties or smaller, more personal gatherings. The front yard was simple for intimate conversation or quiet relaxation. Either way, she had created more square footage for her house with outdoor living areas.

Take advantage of summer weather, and create an outdoor living space that will suit your needs and be as comfortable as the inside of your home. This is also a wonderful, effective and inexpensive way to seemingly increase the square footage of a small home in all seasons.

Outdoor Living Space Design: 5 Best Practices

Here are some best practices to keep in mind when designing an outdoor living space.

1. Create unity
Visual unity between the indoors and out  through your color scheme and furniture style is important. Be sure the entryway to the home is of an appropriate style, too. To equal the comfort of the interior of your home, choose fine outdoor furniture and accessories – rugs, curtains or shades, throw pillows and lamps.

2. Divide your yard into various rooms
It’s just like the interior of your home. You can create an outdoor kitchen that would lead to an outdoor dining room through a vine-covered archway. A properly lit walkway can take you and your guests to an outdoor living room complete with a fireplace. Another walkway could lead to a private gazebo where you have hung a hammock.

3. Think about your outdoor living space in all seasons
Build an interesting walled courtyard with varied structural plantings for visual interest in winter. Snow on a branch or small, well-defined leaves is a beautiful sight!

4. Think about continuity and space
In a small home, you should be able to see your outdoor living space from a large expanse of glass windows to give the illusion of more space. If your eye can be carried outside, your home will feel larger. Add small outdoor rooms that lead from various rooms in your house. A small seating area off a bedroom, or a children’s play yard off the family room give you more space without having to build.

5. Choose the right lighting
Lighting creates atmosphere and ambiance. It should be subtle to enjoy the evening, but you want to be able to see, too! Install plugs for lamps and lanterns. Plants create interesting shadows when properly lit at night.

The Benefits of Outdoor Living Spaces

As you can see, designs can be simple or elaborate. From a grill and some patio furniture on a deck to an extensive system of fully furnished outdoor rooms, you can expand the square footage of your home and increase its functionality and value. This is especially important now that energy efficient smaller homes are becoming more popular.

You don’t need to feel as though you live in a small home if you design for outdoor living. The health benefits of fresh air can’t be overlooked, either! Start planning and designing now for a summer outdoors.

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Nan Fischer

Nan Fischer has been living and building green for over 35 years. Nan’s emphasis on the BuildDirect blog is about how to make your dollar stretch further, while also moving toward a more sustainable lifestyle, as well as upcoming and existing technology to help us live in an ecologically-friendly way. Nan also authors posts on the website of her seed business, sweetly seeds.