Designing Outdoor Spaces: Not Your Parents’ Patio

Photo Credit: Scott Podjasek

With the weather soon changing to winter, I want to reflect back to the subject of outdoor spaces.  At this time of year, it’s really too late to start thinking about a new outdoor project for this year.  However, now is the time to start thinking about next year.  Many people start looking at their existing rear yards and wonder how to make them more usable and enjoyable. One thing I’ve noticed in designing outdoor spaces for my clients is that things don’t always turn out the way they first imagined, mostly because of regulations, but my clients still end up happy. It used to be, if you wanted a patio, then you quickly prepare a simple drawing, obtain a permit, and it’s soon done. Today, there are more regulations regarding what’s allowed, including lot coverage and storm water management, and of course the required setbacks from the property line.  All the planning takes time and that’s why you need to start planning now for next year. 

So what are the favorite features to include in your new outdoor space?  Let’s start with the walking surfaces.  Obviously, hard surface areas can be built with natural stone or concrete pavers. Pervious paving materials have also become very popular these days.  I avoid wood decks because of maintenance issues unless the grading of the lot requires an elevated deck area.  Non-combustible surfaces are a must if a real wood burning fire pit is part of the plan.

Providing a sense of space and enclosure is in high demand.  It can be as simple as a canopy of patio string lights overhead and expands to pergolas and pavilions, which provide various levels of shade and shelter.  These structures can also include outdoor kitchens, from something as simple as a built in grill to more sophisticated amenities such as an outdoor refrigerator or beer tapper.  A pizza oven is another amenity that has crept into the outdoor space.

Lighting is extremely important, especially since these outdoor spaces have a tendency to be used in the evening.   I prefer dimmable low-voltage LED lighting of various types. We accent the columns for dramatic effect, while providing down lighting in a pavilion or pergola for various activities including a game of cards.  More intensive lighting can be provided in the grilling area to provide the chef with proper lighting for the task at hand.  Pathway and landscape lighting are also important amenities for most outdoor spaces. In my opinion, controlling the lighting by providing dimming is imperative. 

For dimming controls, I like to specify Lutron Caseta dimmers. They are relatively inexpensive and are easily programed by owners using Smartphone technology.  The Caseta system can program lighting to specific levels at a preset time, or a time relative to sunset.  Besides using the phone, you can also choose tabletop remotes with all of the actual switches located inside the home. 

Water features such as ponds and waterfalls are another amenity that can drastically transform a landscape. Such features can add significant cost to an outdoor project.  However, if you are just looking to create a calming effect from the sound of water in motion, then a decorative fountain may just be the answer. 

My favorite feature however is the fire pit.  There are natural gas fire pits, but my personal favorite is a true wood burning pit. Maintaining proper distances to combustible materials is a must, usually around 15 feet.  There is nothing more mesmerizing than watching the flames dancing in the breeze.  Comfortable movable chairs are preferred over fixed seating, especially when the wind becomes unpredictable.

Finally, don’t forget to provide outdoor audio speakers for music, and possibly an outdoor TV as well.  Nothing is better than a cold beer or a sip of bourbon on a cool autumn evening, with a fire burning in the pit and a football game on the TV.  Life doesn’t get much better than this.    


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