Originally published in STIR®
Outdoor spaces have become an exciting way for homeowners to combine the pleasures of nature with comfortable living areas.

People are extending the comfort, convenience and pleasure of their homes into the great outdoors, and the result is the popular trend called the "outdoor room." Yards, gardens, decks, patios, porches, sunrooms, gazebos, courtyards, balconies, terraces and even rooftops are being transformed in this fashion.

“The line between the house and the outdoor space continues to disintegrate,” said Julie D. Taylor, author of Outdoor Rooms. “Many designers are using the same, or similar, materials both on the interior and exterior to extend the house to the outdoors. It breaks down the barrier and gives a feeling of a larger house.”

According to Dominick Tringali, CEO of Dominick Tringali Architects, part of the reason homeowners are paying more attention to their outdoor rooms is because of another trend: downsizing. Today, many homeowners are seeking quality (over quantity) of square footage, making better use of the space they do have, and looking to connect the inside and outside areas. “People are downsizing homes, but they're making the house more usable,” said Tringali.

The possibilities for outdoor rooms are almost limitless – from large and spacious to small and intimate; from a simple patio-sized eating and grilling area to a grand multilevel deck complete with cocktail bar, fountain, spa and pool. No matter the size, scale or budget, the goal in creating an outdoor space should be “to create a retreat that nurtures your personal lifestyle,” said Anne Dickhoff, author of Outdoor Rooms II. “Don't be led by the latest trends; create a space that reflects your individual taste and accommodates your favorite activities.”

Architect Marc Whitman agrees. “I think color, materials, the way things are laid out … all those things are important in creating a space that you want to go out to and be a part of," said Whitman. “You want to really focus on what the feeling is overall and pick the colors and the materials that are going to create that feeling.”

In an outdoor room, the “walls,” can be an extension of the home's exterior walls or formed by trees, shrubs, hedges, planters, fences, privacy screens or lattice panels. Outdoor “flooring” can be as simple as grass, pebbles or stepping-stones, or as elaborate as wooden decking or tiles installed on a concrete pad. Ceilings may be outlined by tree limbs, vines, pergolas, arbors, retractable awnings or permanent roof structures.

When it comes to outfitting the outdoor space, design experts recommend blending a variety of natural materials to enhance what Mother Nature has already provided. “There's an inherent beauty in wood, in metal, in stone, and the imperfections create their own beauty. And by putting many of these together, you get a juxtaposition of textures and colors, and this creates, so to speak, a symphony,” said Lori Naritoku, architect and designer, whose rooftop garden in Laguna Beach, Calif., contains a metal and cloth gazebo.

Plants add shade, texture and a sweet scent to a space. Besides favorite flowers, try fragrant plants like dwarf citrus trees or herbs. Visually, it's important to consider the container as well as the plant; for a natural look, choose clay or stone or lighter resin designed to look like stone, and add splashes of color with painted pottery.

Elements that stimulate the senses are also natural components of an outdoor retreat. Some examples include fireplaces, fire pits and chimeras; ponds, waterfalls, fountains and wind chimes; outdoor lighting, hanging lanterns and candles; and fluffy pillows, soft throws and nubby rugs.

For more information:

  • The Garden Room: How to Design & Decorate Your Outside Living Space by Tessa Evelegh. (Southwater, 2000)
  • Garden Retreats: Creating an Outdoor Sanctuary by Barbara Ashmun and Allan Mandell. (Chronicle Books, 2000)
  • Outdoor Spaces: Good Ideas by Ana G. Canizares. (Design, 2006)
  • Outdoor Rooms: Designs for Porches, Terraces, Decks, Gazebos by Julie D. Taylor. (Rockport Publishers, 2001)
  • Outdoor Rooms II: More Designs for Porches, Terraces, Decks, Gazebos by Anne Dickhoff. (Quarry Books, 2006)