Qualitites of a Good Outdoor Room

Our front porch.

One of the features of gardens that I like is that they tend to be divided into smaller spaces, what has come to be called outdoor rooms. The Ecology Center, that we visited on Saturday, is a nice example of how to arrange a large space into many smaller ones. Just like the Huntington Ranch, the Ecology Center is subdivided into distinct spaces that host school visits and classes. Well designed residential gardens, like guest blogger Nancy Klehm’s, also leverage small outdoor rooms to make a small space seem bigger and to provide pleasant spots to read, meditate, use as an outdoor office, or host gatherings.

Our arbor and earth oven.

Outdoor rooms can be as simple as an area of mulch or gravel surrounded by shrubs. Or they can be much more elaborate affairs incorporating arbors, tables and decks. Their greatest benefit may simply be in getting us outside to commune with nature for at least a few minutes a day.

My ugly outdoor home office near the chicken coop.

We’re in the middle of a year of re-designing our garden and there’s still a lot of work to do. As a part of this process I’ve been trying to figure out why I prefer sitting on the front porch to sitting in the backyard. I came to the conclusion that the front porch works better as an outdoor room than the spaces we have in the backyard. I think it’s because the porch better embodies qualities that make for a successful outdoor room. Those qualities are:

  • A sense of enclosure or shelter
  • A view
  • Some shelter from the elements (in our climate that’s the sun)
  • A ground treatment that sets it apart from the rest of the yard (could just be mulch or could be concrete or wood)
  • A place to sit
  • Art, objects, i.e. some human touch

With these ideas in mind, how can I improve the outdoor spaces in the photos in this post? On the front porch I could add a small table to hold a book and a glass of beer. The space with the stove needs shelter from the sun during the morning (in another year the grapes will cover the arbor but until that time maybe I need to string up some shading). The earth oven we built definitely improved the “roomedness” of this space, creating a sense of enclosure and providing a focus. But I clearly need to construct something to hold the wood for that oven so as not to create a cluttered view. The last photo, of the area by the chicken coop, is obviously a disaster. Cleaning up will help, but the space also needs more of a sense of enclosure and a larger footprint to accommodate the table. A vine to cover the trellis would also help.

So what do you think makes for a successful outdoor room? Is there something I left off the list? What is your favorite space to sit in the garden and why do you like that particular spot?

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  1. For those folks with seasons it is good to consider times of year and times of day for outdoor spaces as the sun changes position and the temperatures vary. A west facing space in the cooler times of year can provide a warm sunny spot while that east facing portal is great on a hot sunny day in June.

  2. My favorite spot to sit outdoors is in my wooden swing. The wind chimes are tinkly not jarring. The shade of the wild cherry tree is comforting. I can lie down and sometimes sleep there. The most important thing is the vast greenness I see. I can sit immobile and my mind goes blank with the green. I have been told I am meditating. I don’t know. I can see old garden art from my , now dead, beloved elderly neighbor. Flowers in season and scents from wisteria and honeysuckle help immensely.

    In my yard I have two swings and four garden benches. The one thing they all have in common is a place to rest and view green in my yard. There are two round tables with umbrellas/chairs and a long picnic table with umbrellas so I can work or just sit out of the sun.

    At most times during the day all afford shelter from the sun with the umbrellas or tree shade.

    I don’t want defined areas, not defined by anything underfoot. I want my feet in the grass. Under the cherry tree is definition. By the grape arbor is definition. Of course, a porch is definition and the ultimate outdoor shelter!

    The chicken space you have is great. Chickens are all the adornment it needs…lol. Turn that bucket over and you have a footrest! Those rocks look like a trip hazard.

    For me, more color than you have is absolutely necessary. But, that is a matter of individual taste. I would have blue cushions, striped, or florals with pink. I do have those, just not out all the time.

    The main thing I lack, in my opinion, is separation by using plants to create rooms, sort of lots of secret gardens. At one time, I had more of that, but things happened….sigh.

    Oh, yes, another biggie–along with the furniture that is sort of stationary, I like lots of lightweight, portable chairs so guests can form their own seating arrangements. I have cheap plastic and bistro chairs for that purpose.

  3. One of my favorites was near San Francisco, a porch with elegant tile work and an ancient wisteria that actually held up the lattice “ceiling”.

  4. Your “ugly” outdoor room is lacking something other photos have. Green. How about a Christmas lima bean on that trellis behind, and a basket of over-full roses spilling over onto the table. Starts to look more “French country” than “ugly outdoor.”

    Call it part of your bullet point “Art” but I think “beauty” should be a characteristic on your list. Even if “beauty” is one little precious resting place for the eye, it does a soul a lot of good.

    IMHO the “shelter from the elements” aspect has a lot to do with whether we feel comfortable there. so perhaps you need a pomegranate in a half-barrel or something to give you filtered light if it’s too glaring.

    I know you have a soil issue. But I have seen some cool things done with half-barrels in my neighborhood. One guy has zucchinis dripping over the sides of a full barrel — the ripe fruit tend to dangle for easy harvest. Another house has what I guess you’d call quarter-barrels – they’re half barrels sawed in half with a plank added so that the barrel can go up against a wall. They look handsome and might work well in your outdoor office space.

    Lastly, I know those type of metal chairs. They’re not very comfy. Maybe some thrift store cushions. In unmatched, wildly colorful patterns. Starting to sound too Martha Stewart so I’d better shut up now.


    Creating an Outdoor Room

    By William Hoffman Architect

    Just about any time of the year it’s nice to be able to come home after work to an outdoor room and relax while being “One” with the outdoors. Everyone should have an outdoor room to come home to. Creating one is easy and can be inexpensive.

    When developing an outdoor room it should be a “positive” outdoor space. A partially enclosed exterior space, possibly with the “L“shaped exterior walls of your existing home, flooring material, vegetation, columns, fences and roof covering define “positive” space. The location of the room should be adjacent to your home and look out onto to the garden.

    When selecting a floor material that considers cost, longevity and aesthetic I like using coral textured paving stones. Other materials like concrete slabs and wood decks are complicated and expensive to install. Paving stones are uncomplicated and inexpensive. Laying brick or paving stones directly on a compacted sand base with sufficient space between each stone creates a simple and beautiful floor. It’s good for walking on, for plants, for drainage and for recording the passage of time in its rich uneven character.

    A freestanding column can further define the space and provide support for a roof covering. This freestanding column additionally marks a point at the open corner and together with the “L” shaped wall defines enclosure.

    A simple roof plane can be built with sheets of galvanized corrugated metal on 1×6 pressure treated wood purlins, which are supported by metal tubing that extend out to a 2X12 support beam, can be an inexpensive way of creating water tight protection from falling rain. All the pieces are joined together with simple connections that either bolt or screw together. The corrugated roof defines the outdoor room by enclosing the ceiling plane, while creating a protected and shaded space. The quality of the corrugated roof and wood purlins is quite wonderful, having softness, and a suppleness, which is in harmony with wind, light and sun and it, is easy to dismantle. Other materials like a trellis or structured hard surfaces are complicated and expensive and don’t nearly have the same ability to touch all the elements.

    “Walls” around the outdoor room can be foliage, a fence or hedge creating visual privacy. This “wall” can be placed anywhere between the edge of the flooring surface and the property line. This depends on how large a room you would like, considering site lines, workable yard area, etc. The height of the “wall” should be at least above eye level from adjoining properties.

    These simple elements create an outdoor room with “positive space” defined by the walls of your home, a floor, a roof, a column at the corner and vegetation. Taking the project one step further, replacing the existing windows with double french doors at the adjoining bedroom integrates the interior rooms with the outdoor room forming a virtually continuous living area.

    About the Author:
    William Hoffman is an architect who designs and builds sustainable new homes & home renovations. He welcomes your comments or questions.
    Contact info:
    Phone 954-561-1642 or through HoffmanArchitecture.com

  6. Gosh, I really loved this column today. I am battling with a huge back yard of DIRT! And it has a horse shelter in the back. I have no idea of where to begin and you have inspired me to put in some hedges in groupings to form sitting areas. Please post more on this subject. It sounds like you have some really informed readers and I love hearing what they have to say. Thanks!

  7. the first thought in my head about your gorgeous little porch was – secret room –> so i agree with practical parsimony about the secret garden (or room) concept – i thing even though i love some areas of my yard/garden so much, it always seems that the little private areas are where i end up hanging out the most.
    and agree with joanna about the green being missing in your chicken office.
    i am mad in love with your little porch and your sweet chair and door and windows and railings and columns!!!! adorable – that would be my fav spot.

  8. Your outdoor office could be made more attractive just by adding container plants; annuals that bloom for long periods of time are perfect. It they get leggy or start to look ragged, it’s easy enough to move the pots around. We have lots of property, but I still keep plenty of flowers in pots just so that I can put them exactly where I need some color and then move them to my “nursery” when they need to recharge. I have some fancy pots, but mostly just the heavy-duty black ones (gallon size) that nursery plants come in. They are unobtrusive on their own and blend in with the mulch. Some flowers do well in the shade, but even sun-loving plants in pots can be cycled in and out of shady areas.

    We have the exact same chairs in our back yard. I gave them a facelift by painting them with ivory enamel and they are much more attractive now.

  9. What I see missing in all of the photos is color. This is so totally subjective, of course, but as I move through outdoor spaces it is always the bougainvillea or other flowering vine-draped fences that grab me and make me want to hang out. Any number of flowering plants and vines would work to create walls and cover unsightly views. The right choices would attract bees and such as well.

    Something missing from your list is smell. Luscious smelling flowers are another thing that lures me to an area and makes me want to stay.

    Obviously my preference is for spaces filled with flowers, which is not everyone’s bag I know, but I think well-chosen flowers bridge the wild with the cultivated and the aesthetic with the practical in a way that is perfect for bridging the outdoors with shelter, if that makes any sense at all. Good luck with your designs I can’t wait to see the “afters”.

  10. I take it partially back about wanting my feet in the grass. There are days when the grass is wet from rain, and I don’t sit outdoors because of that. However, walking on anything but grass hurts my knee and back, so I really like grass, lots, especially the lush St. Augustine.

  11. Thank you all! A common thread across several of the comments is that our spaces lack color–a good point, and something I’ll work on. I forgot to note that the space by the chicken coop is in full shade most of the day, so an additional challenge with this area.

  12. I’m in agreement with everyone else who says add LIVE THINGS!!! Plants in containers. LOTS of them. Low water perennials or succulents are so easy. So are vines. Food for the soul, if not for the stomach.

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