Planning outdoor living space: core design concepts to consider

By Dave Heinen of Heinen Landscape & Irrigation
Kansas City Gardener

The core basis for a good design of your outdoor living space usually consists of a hard surface area that includes of a mix of elements. The kind of mix depends upon how you wish to use your space. Whether for entertaining, a place for children to play, sports, leisure or utility, the appropriate surface for your application will come from many choices such as decks, patios and walkways. In addition, retaining walls, stairways, playgrounds, hammock/bench areas, pools, ponds and fire pits increase your hardscape design options.

From the utility aspect, the hard surfaces you choose will primarily facilitate foot traffic going from patio doors, walkout basements, garage doors, etc. Take a look at where all the natural paths exist. Try not to impede them or try to encourage them to follow the route you would like for them to take, rather look at the natural flow. This will help in planning your design and avoid the creation of muddy footpaths.

Also look at the space you will need for your furnishings and the use of them. For example, if you plan to have a table with six chairs, be sure to allow room for easy passage and comfortable access around the chairs, especially when they are in use. This will help you determine the complete size and configuration of your patio surface. You may choose to place items such as grills further away from the house, after you examine the affects of the heat and smoke on the usability of the adjacent areas.

Whatever you decide you need in your design, you can then influence the shape, texture, and coloration of each element to tie the landscape and the architecture of the residence or building together. The shape may be curvilinear or freeform to produce a more relaxed and natural configuration or may be rectilinear or angular to accentuate a more formal design. In any case, keep in mind the design of the building structure and the theme that it generally produces.

Next, look where you can incorporate landscape beds into the patio areas to help soften sharp corners. You may also use trees and arbors to create shady areas for trellises hosting clematis or climbing roses.

Interesting elevations play a role in design. You can choose to place your patios at different heights to create various “rooms” or areas lending interest and intrigue to your outdoor space. In doing so, you will likely need to add stairs to provide access. The stairs as well as overhead canopies such as trees provide great options for night lighting. Once lit, the lights in trees for example ultimately reflect back down to the patio, yet in a much softer way creating a special mood and ambience.

Should you decide to elevate your patios from the soil surface, keep in mind that it is strongly recommended to use decay-resistant treated lumber materials for the structural members. Once popular CCA treated lumber has fallen out of favor because of the dangerous chemical properties in the treatment process. In place of this, several new products are now on the market, one of which is ACQ, similar in appearance to CCA but less toxic. Overall, decay-resistant treated lumber tends to corrode metals, a key thing to note when considering the use of nails, screws, and joist hangers for your project.

An extensive array of surface building materials exists. You may choose from blended composite materials in addition to South American hardwoods and the overly used cedar. You’ll want to take time to examine the newer materials on the market as they offer many benefits such as reduced maintenance over traditional materials.

In addition, brick, flagstone and pavers offer relatively durable and maintenance free surfaces for patio and walkway areas on ground level or installed above or below areas adjacent to retaining walls. However, these products cost more to install than concrete surfaces.

The process of creating a design brings excitement and anticipation. All the issues for consideration in the process are too many to list here. Consulting a professional will help. You can aid a designer in creating your own living space by noting other residences you have enjoyed, clipping pictures from periodicals showing items that please you, and by ultimately looking at your home from perspectives you may have not considered.