Outdoor Room Secrets

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courtyard of New Orleans French Quarter hotel

one of countless great outdoor rooms in New Orleans' French Quarter

   There may be nothing you can do inside your house to reduce utility bills as effectively as building great outdoor rooms outside your house. A series of outdoor rooms around a house, if designed well enough, can entice you to spend a lot more time outdoors. Couple this with a great public realm of streets, plazas, squares, greens, parks, and playgrounds, and it's possible to spend enough time outdoors to get acclimated to the local environment. Do this, and you may not need the heating or cooling equipment when you return indoors.

street cafe along colonnade of Palais Royale in Paris

people enjoying the edge of a great public outdoor room in Paris

   People regularly insist I'm an idiot when I say this, but it really works. I'm sitting in my living room in Miami Beach right now, writing this post in the middle of July (the 16th.) With the ceiling fan on. And the air conditioner off. In the town where the basketball team is named the Heat. Condition yourself like this, and you achieve a state I call Living in Season where you can throw the windows open on all but the most extreme days of the year.


   One other note before we get into the principles and parts of great outdoor rooms: it's possible that they might even pay for themselves. In many parts of the US, you can build a great outdoor room for 1/4 to 1/5 of the cost of equal-quality interior space. So if you design it and build it so good that people actually use it as living space for most of the year, then it's entirely possible that you might need less interior space. If the house can be 200 square feet less, for example, that might represent enough savings to build 800 to 1,000 square feet of outdoor living space.

   A smaller house is easier to heat and cool. Especially if you don't need to heat and cool it so often. But there's another type of savings to consider as well. As noted in How Green is Grass? a lawn is the one part of our built environment we'll maintain every week, spending money for gas, oil, fertilizers, and poisons. Every square yard of lawn that's replaced with another surface material represents weekly savings of time and money.


These next several items are principles that should guide the design of outdoor rooms.

Room Types

   The basic residential outdoor room types include the Hearth Garden, the Dinner Garden, the Kitchen Garden, the Breakfast Terrace, and the Master Garden, but in reality, you can build outdoor rooms for many more uses. It's important to know that there are public types of outdoor rooms as well: the plaza and the square are the two most common, although a great street can be formed by a series of outdoor rooms as well. I've put up a gallery of outdoor rooms so you can see how richly they may vary. Please have a look… lots of good stuff there.

   What's the difference between an outdoor room and a garden room? A garden room is a special type of outdoor room that has more green surfaces (floors, walls, and ceilings) than hard surfaces.

   But back to the residential outdoor rooms: The Hearth Garden is the equivalent of a living room, and is anchored by an outdoor fireplace in all except the warmest climates. The Dinner Garden and the Breakfast Terrace are equal to indoor dining rooms and breakfast nooks.

SmartDwelling I illustration

SmartDwelling I included all of these outdoor room types, and

all of them oriented to the south in order to entice the residents

outdoors to enjoy them

   The Kitchen Garden is the fully edible garden, although almost any room can host fruit, nuts, berries, and other edibles. It may house an outdoor kitchen, or just raise produce for the indoor kitchen. The Master Garden is an intimate outdoor room accessible and visible only from the master suite. Entertain your guests in the other outdoor rooms; reserve the Master Garden for entertaining each other.


   Lay out your garden rooms to be generally to the South side of the home. Studies have shown that people generally don't cross a big band of shadow (like you'll find on the north side of a house) even if they're going outdoors to sit under a shade tree. It seems that there's something about sunlight sparkling on the edge of a porch that entices people outdoors.


garden room proportion diagram

   It's actually easier to design a well-proportioned outdoor room than one indoors because the wall thicknesses vary more easily. While interior walls are built of fixed-width stuff like 2x4 studs or 8" concrete block, at least one wall of most outdoor rooms is built with plan material, which can vary between one foot and several feet thick.

   This diagram illustrates the most common rational room proportions (1:1, 1:2, 2:3, and 3:4.) Don't let rooms get longer than 1:2, otherwise they will feel more like corridors than rooms. Irrational proportions like the Golden Mean (1:1.61803399…) and the square root of 2 (1:1.41421356…) are also useful.


garden room shape diagram

   Garden rooms don't all have to be rectangles, of course. This illustration shows several regular shapes, but they can be irregular as well.

   There is one caveat: garden rooms should be convex, not concave. A convex room is one in which you can stand in any point in the room and see any other point in the room. A concave room has a corner that has "caved in," if you will, so that if you stand in some places, you can't always see the entire room. An L-shaped room is one example of a concave room. People are subconsciously uncomfortable in concave rooms, apparently because of a deep-seated defense reflex. In concave rooms, someone could be standing in the hidden corner with a club to hit you with; or maybe it's a lion waiting to eat you. So make your rooms convex so people will be more comfortable.


Outdoor rooms should have each of these parts, but there most important two, without which a place can't really be considered an outdoor room, are some form of enclosure (walls) and somewhere to sit (furnishings.)


New Orleans French Quarter courtyard focused on circular swimming pool

New Orleans outdoor room is enclosed by a building wall

(left 2/3 of image) and a garden wall (right 1/3 of image)

   Walls are the most important part because it isn't really a room if you don't enclose it in some way. Rural and suburban garden room walls are more likely to be hedges, arbors, mass plantings, fences, and porches with building walls used less commonly because buildings are further apart in more rural places. General urban neighborhood garden room walls are more likely to be porches, buildings, fences, hedges, and landscape walls with mass plantings less common because space gets tighter towards downtown. Main Street garden room walls and those in the urban core are more likely to be building walls and occasionally porches.


New Orleans French Quarter courtyard focused on iron fountain

   Floors should be selected appropriate to the traffic load of the outdoor room. Heavily-trafficed rooms require hard pavers. More lightly-traveled outdoor rooms might tolerate pea gravel, ground cover, or even a mulch like pine straw, especially if you use stepping-stones. In any case, be sure to change flooring material when you move from one room to the next so that you highlight the fact that this is a different room.

   One note about floors: I created much of this material for a presentation at Belgard University last week in Orlando. Belgard is a pavers and landscape wall manufacturer, and their parent company Oldcastle makes lots of other products useful in creating outdoor rooms. I work with a number of manufacturers on various ventures, and I've gotta say that I haven't seen one yet that "gets it" better than Belgard about enticing people outdoors. Check them out.


vine-and-arbor ceiling of restaurant at Anacapri, Isle of Capri

   Not every outdoor room needs a ceiling. When you do need a ceiling, the most common type is a tree canopy. Arbors, such as the one shown here, also make a good outdoor room ceiling. You could do an arbor without vines, in which case you likely should use some sort of fabric for shade. But why not use vines instead? They might even be edible vines, like the muscadine and scuppernong grape vines we're using on the arbor at our condo, so that you get both shade and nourishment.


gateway into garden room at Florence Gardens, Gulfport, Mississippi

   We talked about the need to distinguish differences between rooms with floor materials. Doorways are another good technique to reinforce the experience of passing from one room to another. A doorway can be something as simple as two gate posts without a gate, as elaborate as this trellised arbor and gate, as wispy as a tracery of wrought iron joining two gate posts overhead, or as solid as a boarded or paneled door. Gates between the frontage garden and the sidewalk are usually waist height or lower, because the frontage garden is the one room you won't be sitting in because it's too public. Gates to private gardens, on the other hand, are often nearly the full height of the private yard fence or the garden wall.


classic New Orleans French Quarter courtyard with fountain, tables, and umbrellas

   A successful outdoor room doesn't just invite you to walk through it for a few seconds. Instead, it invites you to stop and stay awhile. You'll almost certainly want to sit down and enjoy a great outdoor room, which means you'll need a place to sit in every room. Chairs, benches, and seat walls all fit the bill.

   If a room is designed for more than solely sitting and visiting, you may need to sit things down. Things like plates, newspapers, books, computers, and the like. So you'll need dining tables, side tables, and coffee tables and such in most outdoor rooms.


courtyard fountain in Antigua Guatemala

   The most classic outdoor room fixture is the fountain, and fountains come in countless designs, several of which have been developed in just the past decade or so. But whether your fountain design is a timeless classic or a recent inspiration, the sound and sight of water gives you the perception that it's several degrees cooler than it actually is on a summer afternoon. The second most common type of outdoor room fixture is cooking equipment, from a simple charcoal grill to a full-blown stainless steel outdoor kitchen. You may also choose to have outdoor cabinets so that you don't have to constantly carry plates, cups, and silverware inside and out.

Final Thoughts


   Those who know me well know that I try to practice what I preach. So we're joining with some neighbors to complete a series of garden rooms at our condo. The plan, drawn several years ago, is changing a little as we progress and learn, but here's generally what we're hoping to complete: From left to right is the Kitchen Garden, then the outdoor kitchen itself. To the right of that is the Dinner Garden and the Garden of Conversation (it's too hot in Miami for a Hearth Garden.) The right end is a large ellipse that's basically an outdoor Great Room with two seat alcoves and a double seat nook. Belgard, who I mentioned earlier, is providing all the pavers. Hopefully, this will be a showcase of outdoor room principles and particulars… wish us luck!

   ~Steve Mouzon

© The Guild Foundation 2013