Creating Your Ideal Outdoor Room

A home’s outdoor space is no longer just a grassy backyard for kids and pets. From luxury pool patios to sprawling gardens to designer kitchens, outdoor rooms can be both fun and functional.

By Alyson McNutt English | Updated Dec 18, 2013 5:40 PM

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Outdoor Room

Photo: Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet

No matter what climate you live in, chances are outdoor rooms are hot in your area — and with good reason. Outdoor rooms have become extensions of the home and are living areas, recreation areas, and more. They bridge a design divide between the interior and exterior of the home. They also allow for self-expression. Often a developer has taken the liberty of choosing the exterior style of the home, but each homeowner can evoke his or her own style in the interior. Here are some tips for bridging the design divide and creating your ideal outdoor room.

Take a Holistic View of the Space
One problem with some outdoor rooms is that the space has evolved casually over time without a real master plan, which can create a cluttered area that doesn’t work well for any of the functions it’s supposed to serve. Experts say making the outdoor area an overall creation, as one would with the interior, is a must.

Another mistake people make when conceiving their outdoor space is thinking only about what they want and not how they’re going to accomplish it, says master gardener Roger Boike, a garden design specialist for the Susan Fredman Design Group in Chicago. “One way to make sure you accomplish your goals for the space and still maintain good design is by breaking the area into smaller ‘rooms,’” he says. “We try and get clients to define how they’ll use the outdoor space, then we create the areas to fit their unique needs.”

Don’t forget Mother Nature, since she’ll have a role in how inviting your outdoor space turns out to be. “Think about the sun and check it at different times of day,” says Deidra Darsa, media relations manager for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. “See how the wind blows in different areas of the yard. Just get a feel for your backyard climate and arrange the space around that.”

Consider Your Entertainment Style
“People want to be able to entertain in their outdoor spaces, and it’s important to really consider how they’ll use that space while entertaining,” Boike says. For example, anyone wanting to have a gazebo or pergola in the yard should consider issues like the distance from the cooking area to the eating area. Otherwise, you may end up with a beautiful entertaining space that’s rarely used.

It can also put a kink in your party plans if your guests can’t move around the outdoor and indoor areas in a logical way. “People will get really excited about this wonderful room they have but then discover when it’s being used that it just doesn’t flow,” Darsa says. “Think about flow and access to and from your home.”

While the idea of backyard entertaining may bring up images of iced tea and finger cakes, that’s far from the new reality. “There are so many different kinds of products out there now,” Darsa says. “Just about anything you could have indoors now has an outdoor version.” TVs and stereos, for instance, are becoming more popular for outdoor entertaining areas. Boike says the price is still high for these all-weather electronics, but the quality is excellent. “These televisions can withstand the elements,” he says. “The only thing you need to worry about is placing them to minimize glare from the sunlight.”

Cook Up Great Outdoor Kitchen Design
The other major movement in deluxe outdoor spaces is outdoor kitchens. Why are these masculine culinary spaces so in vogue? “My theory is that men — who are usually the driving force behind these projects — are becoming more open and demanding about the space and equipment they cook with,” says Bruce Frankel, former restaurateur and founder of the outdoor cooking website SpitJack. “Since men have been traditionally relegated to the backyard, this is the domain they’re expanding.”

It’s important to look at an outdoor kitchen the same way you would an indoor kitchen to make sure you create a functional space. “I urge people to consider the same things they’d think about when planning any kitchen, like what kind of food they’ll be cooking, how often, and for how many people,” Frankel says. “Think through how you want to express yourself as a cook in that space.”

And you won’t be limited by what you can and can’t take outside. “Every year it seems there’s another appliance that’s been altered to withstand being outdoors,” Boike says. “It used to just be a grill, but now it’s sinks and wine coolers and refrigerators and dishwashers and storage areas. But they last year after year.”

Grow Your Garden
Focusing on outdoor kitchens and luxury entertaining areas is exciting since they don’t naturally belong outdoors. But while these items often get most of the attention, it’s critical to remember the importance of gardens and greenery in your outdoor area. Boike gets many requests for custom gardens, and people aren’t just asking for vine-ripe tomatoes and blooming hydrangeas. “I like to make the space functional, and that goes beyond pretty flowers,” he says. “I’ve designed gardens with outdoor showers, stone pathways, and fountains as part of the design.”

But flowers are important, and Boike says that for those who enjoy digging into the earth, creating a custom growing space can be a fun experience. “We still use the ‘room’ concept with the garden,” he says. “We can create a cottage garden, a kitchen garden, an area for perennials, and even a laboratory where people who love to garden can ‘play,’ testing out where different plants do best.”

When deciding about gardening and planting, however, Boike cautions against just going out to a garden megastore and grabbing whatever catches your eye. “People need to educate themselves on planting and know their USDA zone,” he says, referring to the standard map that gardeners use to determine which plants will grow well in different geographical areas. “You can waste a lot of money on materials if you don’t do some research. Take drives around to see what grows naturally. Ask at local garden centers to find out what’s indigenous to the area — things that are natural are beautiful.

Delight in the Details
While it’s important to take a big-picture view of your outdoor space, don’t forget to consider details like landscaping, lighting, and materials. Experts say that great lighting and landscaping are often overlooked in place of a great pool or barbecue. While these are not expensive upgrades, and they show off the home very well,  people often forget the value and the longevity they provide.

Lighting entertaining areas is key, Darsa says. “There are lamps now made for outdoors that are just like what you’d have in your living area except they’re weatherproof,” she says.

Boike says that choosing the ground cover for your areas is another detail that deserves some serious thought. “Think about how the space will be used and if you want a wood deck, a stone patio, or even limestone and pea gravel,” he says. “Of course, budget is a consideration here as well, but it’s an important decision that will affect how the space is used.”

Use Water Your Way
Water is the centerpiece of many successful outdoor spaces. But even if you want an aquatic atmosphere, that doesn’t mean you have to splurge for a pool. “Many clients ask about water features, and we first decide what it is exactly they’re looking for,” Boike says. “Do they want a pond or just the sound of the water?” For clients who just want a sense of water, a fountain that just recirculates water can be a more conservative option. But pools, hot tubs, and spas are still popular outdoor features, particularly in hot-weather areas. They create a mood and atmosphere that are vital to the overall use of the space.

Enjoy Your Relaxing Retreat
Above all, make sure you invest in good design to create the space you really want because it can be your vacation even at home. At a time when many people are cutting back on travel,  enjoying your home both indoors and outdoors has become very important. Outdoor spaces have become an extension of the home and are now living areas, recreation areas, and more.

Kids’ and Pets’ Safety in Outdoor Rooms
Fire pits, swimming pools, and poisonous plants are just a few of the hazards that children and pets may face in outdoor rooms. Yet while parents tend to think cautiously indoors, they may not be as stringent with safety outdoors. That’s a mistake. “Parents need to safety-proof the outside of the home just like they would the indoors,” Darsa says. The Consumer Products Safety Commission offers these tips for making your outdoor area safe:

  • If you have playground equipment, be sure the ground has at least 12 inches of wood chips, mulch, sand, or pea gravel or has mats made of safety-tested rubber or a rubberlike material.
  • Check outdoor surfacing regularly to ensure it’s in good condition to avoid trips and falls.
  • Carefully supervise children to make sure they’re safe, particularly around water or fire features.
  • Never leave children unattended around water features.
  • Be aware of the dangers of drains in hot tubs, pools, and spas.

Meri-K Appy, president of the Home Safety Council, stresses that while safety precautions are always important, there’s no substitute for the watchful eye of an adult, particularly in areas with major hazards like pools or fires.