Living July 9, 2008

Create an Inviting Outdoor Living Space

While yards were once the domain of swing sets and barbecues, today’s homeowners are turning the great outdoors into additional living space, complete with comfortable furniture and decorative lighting. This trend is so popular that the U.S. Census Bureau shows one-third of nearly $150 billion Americans spent on home remodeling in 2005 went to outdoor living areas; that’s money that will often yield a good return on investment when it comes time to sell.

Where to begin?

home updateDesigning an outdoor space is much like designing a room in your house-you’ll want to think about the space’s purpose, appropriate furnishings, décor and dimensions, which can be defined outdoors in much the same way a room’s floor, walls and ceiling define them indoors. You’ll also want your new space to flow from the aesthetic of the rest of your home. For instance, a Spanish Colonial home is best complemented by a patio or terrace of the same style, in colors and materials that are true to the era.

Consider the function of your new “room.”

Think about what you will use the space for. Is it principally for entertaining? For contemplative moments with a good book? For family dining? Will you be enjoying it primarily in the evenings, or by day? These considerations should drive the design of your space. When space permits, you may want to incorporate seating areas for more than one purpose. Upright chairs are ideal for dining, but you’ll want some more relaxed and comfortable seating arranged in intimate groupings for conversations or reading. For lounging by the poolside or catching a nap, chaise lounges and hammocks work wonderfully. You’ll also want to consider placement. Seating areas should offer the best views, while barbecues, chimineas and other fire-containing items should be kept away from flammable brush, grass and structures, and away from windows that might carry the smoke indoors.

Establish boundaries.

You may not have thought of your outdoor area as having a floor, ceiling or walls, but defining your space can go a long way towards making it feel like a natural extension of your home. There are almost as many types of outdoor flooring available today as there are indoor types. The default, of course, is lawn. But wood and synthetic decks are also common, as are cement patios. Pavers can quickly convert a patch of lawn into a defined patio, and old cement can be spruced up with a coat of stain or paint, or with some of the outdoor rugs now available. Defining the walls of an outdoor space is easier than you might think. You can go the manmade route with fencing, lattice screens, trellises, retaining walls or planter boxes. Or let Mother Nature help out by planting shrubs or trees, or using large potted arrangements. To top it all off, you’ll probably want something to keep the weather out and extend the useful season of your outdoor area. This could be as simple as a lawn umbrella affixed to a café table, or as elaborate as an awning, gazebo or pergola. Mother Nature can help out here as well with an appropriately located shade tree.

Add some fresh air to your decorating ideas.

Your outdoor area should have a focal point- an element that serves the same kind of function as a fireplace or TV screen in your living room. A fountain, outdoor firepit or sculpture works well for this. Again, you’ll want to keep in mind the mood you’re trying to establish. If this is to be a quiet space for reflection, think pastels or earth tones. Party areas deserve more festive colors and perhaps some colorful string lights or tiki torches for the evening hours. In fact, lighting should be task-oriented just as it is indoors-you might want to add pathway lighting for safety, decorative lighting to highlight landscaping and an outdoor chandelier or simple candles for the dining area.

Sound is also part of the overall ambiance, and can be added in many ways. Water features offer soothing background sounds, as do wind chimes. At the other extreme, outdoor speakers allow you to bring your favorite music outdoors with you and can even be inconspicuously disguised as rocks. It’s easy to see that your outdoor living area can be as simple or as elaborate as you like. And whether you have a small condo balcony or an acre of landscaping, a little attention to detail can result in an inviting space that makes you want to sit and enjoy your environment. Tips for entertaining in your new outdoor space Once you’ve gone to all the trouble of creating an outdoor living space, you don’t want it to go unused. Plan a Grand Opening party to show it off to friends, and ask them for suggestions on other ways you could highlight the best features of your yard or patio. You might be surprised that they spot opportunities you may have missed. Here are some tips to ensure that your inaugural outdoor celebration goes off without a hitch.

Food tips

  • Set up various “food stations” in different locations to keep people mingling and keep lines short.
  • Consider a “fondue night” to make your job easier and get guests involved. Set chopped ingredients on a bed of ice, and place small hibachi grills at tables for guests to cook their own selections.
  • To keep salads crisp and fresh, nest the bowl in a larger bowl filled with ice and cover the top.
  • Reduce cleanup by serving condiments and dips in hollowed-out bell peppers, cabbages or round loaves of bread. You can also serve punch in a hollowed-out watermelon.

Table tips

  • Weigh the corners of tablecloths down with washers or small stones to keep them from catching the wind.
  • If you don’t have enough table space, lay a sheet of plywood or an old door over a couple of sawhorses, then cover it with a tablecloth.
  • Add a touch of elegance by using real plates and silverware instead of disposables.

Decorating tips

  • Decorate tree trunks and branches with small white string lights for a magical look at night.
  • Line the path leading to your backyard soirée with potted flowers or luminarias.
  • If you plan a formal seating arrangement, place cards can be made from items such as smooth stones or seed packages to keep with the garden theme.
  • Seat children at a table covered with white butcher paper and have crayons available for coloring.
  • Create easy and attractive centerpieces with pots of colorful flowering plants or even glass bowls filled with fresh lemons and limes.

Keep the bugs at bay

  • To avoid lingering pesticide aromas, spray the area well in advance of guests’ arrival.
  • Set up citronella candles or torches around the perimeter of your eating area, well away from the food.
  • For a more natural (and less offensive) repellent, use pots or sprigs of parsley, tansy or rue to keep ants away, and lavender or mint arrangements to discourage flies.

Last but not least-make sure your automatic sprinklers are turned off before the big party!