Get Out and Stay Out
We don't want to be indoors when the weather's warm, and we're betting you don't either. Here are more than a dozen ideas for open-air rooms you'll want to live in
More than a multipurpose deck, an outdoor room is typically designed and outfitted for a specific function, whether it's lounging on an all-weather sofa in an open-air den or cooking in an alfresco kitchen packed with rust-resistant stainless-steel appliances. And though the room can be located almost anywhere—as an extension of your house or a separate, secluded retreat in a quiet corner of your property—there are some general guidelines for creating one.
Typically, an outdoor room requires some sort of floor to establish the footprint. (Pea gravel, paving stones, or steppable ground cover will do.) You'll also need walls: A border of potted plants or a stacked-stone sitting wall can create a feeling of enclosure. And you'll want a roof, which can be as refined as a beadboard porch ceiling or as rustic as a natural arboreal canopy.
The location of an outdoor room depends primarily on its purpose. “If playing bocce is what you want to do, it's a whole lot different than if you want to drink wine with friends,” says Tina Skinner, author of Outdoor Rooms: Fresh-Air Kitchens and Living Areas. A dining and entertainment area, for example, should be close to the house, to minimize the hassle of ferrying food and beverages between indoors and out. A game room or sports court is best far from the house, to prevent errant balls from cracking a window and to give kids ample room to run. If you're planning more than one outdoor space, it's important to consider the flow between them; strategically placed focal points, such as a fireplace or fountain, can help draw people from one area to the next.
Schechter advises starting any outdoor-room project by taking into account four fundamentals: wind, light, view, and privacy. You want gentle breezes, not whipping winds; sunshine is great, but not when it brings baking heat; and while you may like your neighbors, you don't want them as voyeurs in your backyard retreat.
Privacy is a key consideration because it affects both location and design. “An outdoor room is simply a place within the yard that has a feeling of enclosure,” says Skinner. “You need a sense that you can be there without the neighbors intruding.” Where houses are close together, a tall wooden fence or vine-covered trellis will shield views. A sunken patio can give a sense of privacy without making you feel hemmed in.
Leveraging existing features of the house and property is one of the best—and most economical —ways to create intimate spaces. If your yard has low spots, for example, you can use the contours as natural walls and create a room in the valley between rises. A cluster of leafy trees can serve as both a wall and a ceiling, while a stream or pond can establish borders. Closer to the house, a seating area nestled against one exterior wall takes advantage of a built-in boundary while it provides a transitional space between inside and out.
In an outdoor room, landscaping is both ornamental and functional: A row of hedges can serve as a wall; climbing roses snaking over a pergola can act as a roof. Borders can be formed with potted plants, which also serve as decorative elements. Just as indoor rooms need a fresh coat of paint every few years, those outside require maintenance, too. Choose between plants that are meant to grow wild, like ivy in an English country garden, and more formal privet hedgerows that demand regular shaping.
Also think about which months you'll use the space. Selecting plants that change with the seasons will provide visual interest year-round. Outdoor rooms require both short- and long-term thinking, and patience. Shrubs grow and flowers blossom, but for a lush and layered look, you may have to wait. “Create what you can now,” says Julia Hubbard, a garden designer based in Sagaponack, New York. “Then sit out there and think about what you're going to do next summer.”
Here, a shady nook of holly, white pine, and hydrangea makes a natural shelter for a rope hammock suspended from a pair of barn beams. Spaces that incorporate a sense of discovery—through the bushes, out of sight around a bend, at the end of a pathway—feel like true getaways, even if they're in your own backyard.
The closer an outdoor room is to the house, the more you need to incorporate some of the same architectural elements and materials to visually tie the two spaces together. “It's extremely important for the outdoor rooms to look like they're a part of the house,” says Schechter. For an open-air kitchen tucked against the side of a house in Santa Monica, Schechter specified marble counters similar to the ones used indoors. “It's as if we extruded a piece of the house,” he says.
The materials you choose for floors and walls should reflect your home's style. Antique brick pavers work well with a traditional Georgian or Colonial Revival; rustic flagstones or wood suits a more casual setting. You can look to local history for inspiration, too. To design a brick patio and cedar pergola for a family in Sag Harbor, New York, Hubbard consulted images of the late-19th-century outbuildings and garden structures typical of the area's Shingle-style houses.
If you want people to congregate in your outdoor room, give them something to gather around. A built-in cocktail bar or fountain is a mingling magnet, as is a wood-burning fireplace, which also extends the open-air entertaining season.
When selecting furniture, consider the weather-worthiness of the materials. Metal can rust, wood can turn gray, fabrics can mildew, and some wickers can quickly fall apart. Properly sealed, teak tables and chairs will retain their honey hues for years. Other practical choices are synthetic wicker made from resin and furnishings crafted from Poly-Wood, an extremely durable material made from recycled polyethylene plastic. Outdoor sofas and lounges —even recliners!— now come with cushions clad in fade- and mildew-resistant fabrics, in a slew of styles and colors. For outdoor kitchen appliances, as well as portable food and beverage carts, corrosion-resistant stainless steel is the safest bet.
lluminating an outdoor room can be as simple as setting candles on a table, hanging a string of whimsical lights under a shade umbrella, or planting tiki torches around the patio. Solar-powered lanterns can provide an ambient glow around dining and lounging areas without the need for wiring.
If you want something more permanent, consider low-voltage path lighting, which can safely lead the way from the house so you don't have to traipse blindly through the yard. Strategically focused spotlights mounted in trees can help define the perimeters of the space, but beware of the baseball-stadium effect. “You want to light up a discreet area, not the whole neighborhood,” says Schechter. If your outdoor structure has a solid roof, weather-resistant recessed cans and hanging pendants offer task lighting, which is especially useful for prepping food in a kitchen area.
Of course, the beauty of any outdoor space is that it lets you take advantage of nature's own light-up-the-night sources: the moon and the stars.
A freestanding fireplace turns this backyard living room in Los Gatos, California, into a year-round destination.
Materials: The same fieldstone that sheaths the fireplace is used on the pool-house exterior, giving the entire property a unified look. The mantelshelf, firebox opening, and hearth are made of local Santa Rosa stone. A clay chimney pot extends the height of the chimney, helping to improve draft.
Boundaries: The pool and a low concrete-block wall faced in stucco form the room's borders. Rather than siting the fireplace near their outdoor kitchen (located at the opposite end of the pool), the homeowners kept the two areas separate to cut down on foot traffic congestion and create distinct backyard destinations.
Plantings: Potted plants and fruit trees surrounding the room will provide more privacy as they grow. The vine-covered pergola behind the fireplace helps block breezes that can cause the fireplace to smoke.
Lounging areas away from the house give the owners of this property in Sag Harbor, New York, a place to relax while keeping an eye on the kids playing in the yard.
Pergola: A freestanding cedar pergola provides a feeling of privacy and enclosure without blocking sunlight and breezes. The design was inspired by historic images of local outdoor architecture.
Landscaping: Bamboo stakes draped in climbing roses and clematis that blossom at different times of year are positioned alongside each of the pergola's eight posts. Once matured, the foliage and fragrant flowers will envelop the structure, providing shade and protection during light rain showers.
An amenity-packed kitchen and dining area lets the owners of this Santa Monica house cook and entertain entirely outdoors.
Materials: Using a similar marble for the countertops and backsplash in both the indoor and outdoor kitchens creates interplay between the two spaces. The muted gray palette of the slate-tile flooring echoes the shingle siding, and a border wall of the same stacked stone that lines the house's foundation
Shelter: The porch overhang in the kitchen provides full-time protection from the elements, and a retractable awning can be unfurled when the sun starts to heat up the exposed bar seating area.
Proximity: Situating the outdoor kitchen against the wall of the indoor one let the builder tap into interior plumbing and electrical lines—easier and less expensive than running utilities to a remote destination in the yard. A sliding window above the countertop functions as a pass-through for plates, ingredients, and cookbooks.
Ringed by a low boundary wall built from salvaged granite stones, this sunken-patio dining area in Reading, Massachusetts, feels intimate even though the neighbors are just a few yards away.
Materials: Beige and gray concrete floor pavers and a stacked-stone wall define the footprint of the space. The wall doubles as a buffet table and extra seating at outdoor dinner parties.
Furniture: A patio umbrella keeps diners from baking in the sun while also providing a rooflike sense of enclosure. The teak table and chairs
are treated with tung oil to maintain their natural color and prevent rot. The cushions are covered in a quick-drying fabric that resists mildew.
Landscaping: Granite slab steps lead up from the patio into a shade garden that's bounded by rose of Sharon bushes. When in bloom,
the bushes form a living wall that completely shields the patio from the property next door.
By dividing the yard into distinct spaces, the owners of this Los Angeles property created separate outdoor areas for reading, eating, socializing, sunning, and gaming.
Shelter: Two pergolas topping a pair of porches off the back of the house create protected, denlike seating areas. The overhead structures also provide some much-needed shade in the late afternoon when the areas are awash in direct sunlight.
Landscaping: A vine-draped arbor draws visitors into an outdoor dining area, while a two-level terraced lawn separated by brick steps invites sunbathers to rest in lounge chairs on the lower tier while croquet players hold an impromptu match up above.
Lighting: Copper-topped lanterns match the house's Craftsman style and visually tie indoors and out. Perched on brick piers positioned at the top of the steps, they also provide illumination so guests can safely negotiate the backyard at night.