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How to design an outdoor room

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Seven steps for creating the ultimate backyard retreat

Carlos Chavarría

When faced with a bare and unappealing yard or patio, it can be hard to see the potential for creating a dynamic and inviting outdoor room. But Alec Dakers, lead designer and partner at Rainbow Valley Design and Construction, and landscape designer Lytton Reid, have done just that for numerous homeowners in the Eugene, Oregon area. They shared their process for visualizing the ultimate backyard retreat.

1. Assess the existing conditions

First, the designers do a thorough assessment of the lot as they find it. "We look at the space within the property lines and what it has to offer," says Reid. They evaluate the topography, the sun exposure, wind, and drainage—even the view into the neighbor’s yard.

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"I often look beyond the property lines and assess both the pros and cons of the surrounding area," says Reid. "What are the long views out of the space? What are the views that are dynamic and enjoyable?" Such views can determine the best spot for the new outdoor living room.

Additionally, they like to incorporate existing elements into the new scheme, if possible. "Were not big fans of just tearing everything out and starting from scratch," says Dakers. "We try to do things in a way that’s as sustainable as possible." For example, old cedar fencing might be planed to become new planter boxes, or an old concrete patio might be salvaged into stepping-stones for a path.

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2. Determine what you want to do in the space

Next, Dakers asks homeowners to jot a list of all the activities they will want to do in the new backyard. Alongside each activity, he has them note how they want to feel while they are engaged in it.

"A lot of times when we talk to clients we ask them how they want to feel in the space," he says. "Then we design around those specific needs." If someone wants a spot to read and nap, Dakers and Reid want to know if they see themselves lounging in an open and sunny expanse, or would prefer to feel more cozy and tucked into a sheltered nook.

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3. Plot zones effectively

Once the designers know what clients want to do outside, they begin to zone the activities in the available space. While doing so, they are careful about how the zones will interact and connect with one another.

"Understanding the needs of every zone and how they relate to the other zones, as well as how they connect, is really the essence of coming up with a rich plan for the backyard," says Dakers. This attention to detail ultimately makes the resulting space feel more layered and inviting, as opposed to rooms "plopped down next to each other."

The designers think of the connection points between the zones as "thresholds," which are shaped by their own hardscaping elements and plantings. "That threshold can be an experience on its own," says Reid.

Also, says Reid, it’s important to check how each zone interacts with the existing house. "The proximity to the amenities inside the house is critical," he says. "It’s less attractive to have an outdoor dining space that is on the other side of the yard when you need to carry something from the kitchen sink."

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4. Create both public spaces and private nooks

Along with mapping out zones for separate functions, the designers also pay close attention to the quality of the rooms they create. "There are three basic types of spaces: the private, the semi-private, and the public," says Reid. "I think all three should be represented in a good outdoor room design."

A public space could be the main entertaining locus, open enough for many people to comfortably gather together, while semi-private and private spaces would provide more screening and shelter from the neighbors. Certain outdoor structures can come in handy for defining these spaces, as an open pergola can delineate a group dining space while a roof overhang and privacy screen produces a good nook against the house. Including the latter is especially significant.

"The very traditional, very old garden design principle, is the idea of prospect and refuge," says Reid. This concept says that humans prefer to feel protected (refuge) while also able to look out and see who’s approaching (prospect).

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5. Evaluate drainage and utilities early on

"Thinking about drainage is a very important issue," says Dakers. "Not only to protect the house, but you also don’t want a backyard that’s soggy nine months out of the year."

The main rule regarding drainage is to keep water away from the house and its foundation. Every homeowner’s site will have different needs for doing so. It’s best to proceed with caution and consult professionals to get proper drainage on your site. "Big mistakes are made when people don’t consider drainage," says Reid. The designers plan for drainage from their very first assessment.

Similarly, they also like to know early on where utilities will need to be located, such as plumbing for outdoor sinks, gas for a fireplace, and electricity for lighting. "All of the utilities go through that early assessment process," says Dakers. This way, there’s no need to rip up that fresh laid patio because you have to dig for a gas line.

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6. Design for all of the senses

A fun aspect of outdoor rooms is being able to design for all of the senses. To do so, Reid starts by asking himself: "What are the views and the sounds and possibly even the smells that come into the space from neighboring spaces?" Then he evaluates how he can work with those existing factors or possibly remedy them.

"Sometimes there are smells that you really want to enjoy," he says. "And sometimes you can mitigate the bad smells with good smells." Fragrant shrubs or perennials might alleviate the smell of the neighbor’s nearby trashcans. On one project, Reid installed a water feature to cover the sound of a nearby roadway, creating an antidote to what had been a nuisance.

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7. Take style cues from the home

With regards to an overall style, the designers will often take the house’s existing architectural features into account. They don’t want to tack an ornate colonial-style structure onto a low-slung mid-century, modern home.

"I think most people think of the backyard as something separate," says Dakers. "But I think good design requires that you consider it as an extension of the house."