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Landscape Design Ideas & Tips

Open Air Rooms: Containing Boundlessness

May 14, 2019

By Julie Moir Messervy. Photos by Grey Crawford from Outside the Not So Big House by Julie Moir Messervy and Sarah Susanka, used with permission by The Taunton Press.
Landscape Architect: Richard Shaw, FASLA, Design Workshop, Inc.; Architect: Larry Yaw, FAIA, CCY Architects.

Open Air Rooms for living, dining, and fireside chats extend the inside, out.

No matter whether you live on a tiny urban lot, a quarter-acre suburban yard, or a vast rural property, the exterior of your house can feel much harder to design than the interior. Why? Because in the out-of-doors, there are no walls, floors, or ceilings to help contain the boundlessness of space.

Landscape designers like us find ways to subdivide, enclose, and give cover to the exterior spaces we create for our clients, in order to make them more usable for the different activities that they do there. At Home Outside, we call these spaces “Open Air Rooms.”

A screen door opens outward to a stone patio. Just as you divide up space into rooms inside the house, you can do the same outside.

 

In fact, you can use the same ideas that define space inside the house, outside. Here’s how.

Floors: Ground Underfoot

Inside the house, we install elegant parquet floors in our public rooms, soft wall-to-wall carpeting in our bedrooms or playrooms, and moisture-proof tiles in the mudroom, bathroom, or kitchen. We can think about the outside in a similar way.

When we lounge, dine, or gather outdoors, we most often prefer to have a hard surface underfoot. Decking, natural stone, or pavers work well as flooring material because they are sturdy, support weight and movement, and are easy to keep swept and clean. It helps to locate these gathering spaces adjacent or close to the indoor living area or kitchen, allowing ease of movement from inside to outside.

The perfect vantage: a comfortable armchair that sits on a private roofed porch set just above the treetops. From here, visitors look out to a distant view—alone.

 

But sometimes we prefer the softness of a carpet of lawn for setting out lounge chairs, camping under the stars, or for any form of outdoor play. Grass—and grass substitutes—bring color, form, and texture to our landscape floors, and also do a great job of sequestering carbon.

Red, white, and pink Sweet William seed themselves with abandon in this wildflower meadow.

 

Walls: Subdividing Space

Inside the house, we make choices about how much to enclose our different living spaces. Bedrooms and bathrooms work best when designed for full privacy, but many of us love open floor plans for the easy flow they give between kitchen, dining, and living areas, which can be subdivided with half walls, interior soffits, or large openings.

Outside, we can do the same. We often enclose the perimeter of our yards with fences or hedges to give privacy, keep in children and animals, and define the space as ours. And we may decide to build freestanding walls for sitting, or as a backdrop for a garden, or to sub-divide one space from another. We can even use our garden beds as low enclosures around a stone terrace or to define a lawn area.

An intimate dining space, shaded by a market umbrella, nestles into an enclosure of low hedges.

 

Belts of aspen trees provide an important windbreak while also subdividing space.

 

Ceilings: Sheltering Sky

Inside the house, our ceilings block out sound and light to bring privacy and separation to our rooms. They can be flat or sloping, coffered or beamed, even latticed or trellised to create a play of light and allow air circulation.

Outside, we create ceilings in our landscapes in order to keep out the elements, as with porches or outbuildings, or to buffer the sun, as with pergolas, arbors, or even shade trees. These overhead structures bring us a sense of shelter under an otherwise vast sky and help us find sanctuary in the out-of-doors.

The Gambel oak post holds up a corrugated fiberglass-covered trellis structure that lends shade to this comfortable living space between house and landscape.

 

You know so much about designing the inside of your house to make it cozy and comfortable. Now try applying that same knowledge to your outside space!

We’ll be sharing more Open Air Room tips and inspiration in the coming months. Follow us on Facebook and subscribe to our blog for updates.

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