How to Design Inviting Outdoor Rooms
Jillian Chapin How to Design Inviting Outdoor Rooms


A special outdoor space continues to be one of the most in-demand features in a home. It makes sense: Buyers with busy lives need the house to be a sanctuary, an escape. Clients are looking for a way to escape all that, and a well-done outdoor space can provide just such an escape.

When it’s time to design an outdoor room, clients have usually already done all the interior upgrades and have finally decided to move outside. Many times it happens years after they’ve moved and lived in their house. That means that all too often, the outdoor space is an afterthought, rather than part of the original plan or design. Giving ample thought to an outdoor space during the initial phases of construction helps that yearned-for part of the home become a selling feature, not just an afterthought. As an interior designer, I use the same principles to create high functioning outdoor spaces as I do when I’m designing indoor rooms. Take this approach and you’ll actually be able to let the house merge more easily with its site. Hedges can become walls. Seating groups or a fireplace, define conversation areas. Just as you frame views outside from the interior, you need to think the same way when you design an outdoor space. What are the views looking out on to the yard? What kind of views are beyond the yard?

A project I recently worked on is a great illustration of those points. A very large backyard was covered by woods on two sides. The existing raised deck didn’t make good use of the space (it was--you guessed it--an afterthought, built after the rest of the house was complete). The client wanted an outdoor kitchen, fireplace and seating area and wanted to be able to use the space year-round. Though the program requirements were few, the scale of the project needed to balance the outsized backyard. The site was sloped to the property line, and the homeowner had just installed a fence, past which we couldn’t expand. The backyard had a septic system and a drain field. The basement was partially above ground and its small, above-grade windows couldn’t be covered up. The main level from grade was high off the ground. We needed a gradual transition into the yard. Finally, climate posed challenges. Virginia has four true seasons: Very hot and humid in summer, beautiful fall and spring and cold winters.

Don’t reinvent--extend.
Rather than creating a whole new room, we simply extended the home’s living space into the back yard. This was a challenge: The height of the main living space was a story above the yard. We used terraces as the defining concept to organize, unite and define the various functions. In doing so, we created four outdoor rooms and forged a transition from the main level to the ground level naturally. As you’ll see in the drawing, The top terrace is the only covered part of the project and is closest in proximity to the house, it can be used year round. The next terrace is a dining area that seats 8-10 and includes an uncovered lounge. The dining area is defined with a modern pergola. A ceiling of sorts, the pergola defines and shelters the dining area. The other side of the second terrace is the first completely uncovered space from the house. It is a sunny, lounging area.

The last terrace, also stone, match the rest of the terraces for ease of maintenance and allows for overflow seating for large gatherings.

This gradual terracing allowed for an easy flow into and out of the home. The walk from the yard to the house is a natural progression with a defined path. The path leads you to the final room, a 20’x20’ natural stone patio and large wood burning fireplace.

Ensure that finishes are maintenance-free.
We built the new structure out of natural stone; the top terrace uses a pier and pan method to allow for access to the basement windows. All hardscape is natural stone, which blends well with the existing house. The terraced design also eliminated the need for railings along the front of the terraces. This, in turn, allowed for an uninterrupted view from the house and while sitting on the porch.

Divide living and cooking areas. 
The main level of the living space includes two areas: a built-in bar and grill and a living area. The bar and grill area are located closest to the interior kitchen for ease of food preparation. In the same space, a bar that can seat up to 10 people is great for entertaining. The end of the bar is two-sided to fit an intimate dinner for four, if the large table on the next terrace feels too big. Directly adjacent, the living area has a double-sided fireplace that connects the interior living room and the exterior living room both through views and finishes. We replaced the interior wood mantel and trim with oversized honed marble tiles to create a link to the exterior. The covered outdoor living area also has infrared heaters, ceiling fans, and a TV mounted above the fireplace.

Make the outdoor space scaleable. 
By creating smaller rooms within the entire space, it allows the space to feel small and intimate, perfect for just 2-4 people or able to accommodate parties of 20 or more people. When designing outdoor spaces I always fall back on my interior design skills; I make sure there is a reference to the interior (especially if it is a project done after the house is built) and use both architectural elements as well as furniture placement and plantings to help define and create a highly functioning space. A space a client can come home to, and, even if just briefly, kick back and relax.

Memory points:
1. Living room is centered around a television and double sided fireplace, with infrared heaters and ceiling fans that keep the space useable year round.
2. Sky light allows for natural light to spill into the interior kitchen
3. Pergola defines and shelters main outdoor dining area
4. See-through bar allows for chairs to be pulled to the other side, creating a more intimate dining area
5. Walkway leads from house into main yard and patio and large wood burning fireplace (not pictured).