The Key to Design Outdoor Living Areas that Work

By Michael Weishan, Michael Weishan & Associates 

To my way of thinking, a relaxing, well-designed terrace or patio is the most important feature of the entire back yard. It’s here, after all, that you get to reap the rewards of all that hard labor – hours spent weeding, mulching and planting come to fruition when you sit down in a comfortable chair with a cool beverage, survey your domain, and drink in the pleasures of a job well done. But for the owner of a traditional home, obtaining this dream space can be full of pitfalls, as outdoor living areas can quickly turn from adjunct to albatross if improperly designed. The key to success is to consider the two most important aspects of any terrace or patio – dimensions and materials – long before you move the first shovelful of dirt.

The Key to Design Outdoor Living Areas that Work

Size Counts

As a landscape designer, I was taught early on that outdoor living spaces “can rarely be too big” and while I’ve found the occasional exception to his dictum, by and large it’s true. Most outdoor living areas built today are too small for their intended use, something that the average homeowner generally doesn’t discover until it’s far too late – after the project is completed.

Unfortunately, this is one arena of outdoor design where appearances can be extremely deceptive. Even when you follow standard advice, physically marking out the boundary lines of a proposed space with paint or string, the area always looks huge, and human inclination is to err on the side of discretion and plan for a smaller (not to mention less costly) terrace. Before you make final decisions on square footage, however, you should do this simple test: Envision the social occasions you think will most often occur on your new patio and calculate the number of people involved: (barbecues for six, for example, a cocktail party for twenty, or a romantic dinner for two.) Next, place enough furniture to allow for everyone to sit down, as well as a few large empty pots or planters in areas where they might occur in the final design. Then, borrow a few live bodies in the form of friends or family members, and have them come and stand within the boundaries you’ve been contemplating. Chances are you’ll discover that considerable expansion is called for.

Material Choices
Once you’ve determined how much square footage you’ll need, your next consideration is the overall look and feel of your space, and here you should be guided by one of the basic tenets of traditionally inspired landscape design: the style of your house and that of your garden must be closely related, and completely complementary. This is especially true for outdoor living areas, which function as an extension of your home’s architecture into the landscape. Thus, when contemplating various materials for your terrace or patio, it’s critical that you limit your choices to materials that are sympathetic to those already found in and around your home. For most traditional building styles, that means familiarizing yourself with the two most traditional of all paving mediums, brick and stone.

Brick
It’s a safe bet to assume that most people think that all bricks are pretty much created equal – that is until they go to buy them, and find out that bricks come in a bewildering array of shapes, colors, and costs. (See my post on designing with brick, here.) To quickly summarze: bricks come in two basic types, molded and wire cut, in an array of sizes and hues. Choosing the right one for your home, and using the correct pattern, is critical to the final look and feel of your place.

Stone
Like brick, paving stones are also divided into two distinct types: flagstones and cut stone. Flagstones are flat, irregular pieces of stone of varying width that are pieced together to form a more or less contiguous surface. The actual kind of stone used varies greatly by locale, but it’s often some type of granite or slate. Cut stone, as the name implies, consists of pieces of stone that have been sawn into regular geometric shapes. Though bluestone is most often used for cut stone, you’ll occasionally see sandstone, limestone, slate or granite as well, depending on the part of the country in which you live.

As you can imagine, the difference in final appearance between cut stone and flagstone is immense. Flagstone gives an irregular, rustic look to paved areas, while cut stone provides a much more polished, urban feel. While you occasionally do find flagstone used for paving outdoor living areas, I find that flagstones are best reserved for secondary walks and pathways, and should not be used for expansive seating areas. Anyone who as ever tried to push back a chair while seated on a flagstone terrace will quickly understand why: the irregular surface of the stone makes for very rough going. As an added disincentive, irregular stones and slippery leather-soled shoes form a deleterious and dangerous combination in wet weather.

Finally, when choosing stone, don’t forget to pay attention to color. As is the case with brick, different hues will make an immense difference in the overall look and feel of your living area, and it pays to bring home a few samples from the stone yard to see how your selections blend with the materials already found on your property. Pattern also plays an important role in stone surfaces, but unless you’re using blocks of exactly the same size (a practice I don’t recommended due to the monotonous effect it often produces) determining the pattern for a stone patio or terrace is a complicated affair best left to professionals. Most stone yards offer a free design service; if you provide them with the exact dimensions of your space, they’ll come up with a combination of differently sized stone pieces that’s pleasingly random and varied.

So remember, if a new terrace or patio is on your agenda for this summer, the time to start planning is now – long before construction begins. The effort you spend resolving critical questions of size and materials will help guarantee that the perfect outdoor living space you’ve been dreaming about turns out to be just that – perfect.

Here's a city terrace I designed very early in my career, which has remained one of my favorites for over 20 years: a combination of brick, bluestone and limestone. Ample enough in size to hold 30 people at a party, the surface provides year-round interest through the play of color and pattern. The central medallion, by the way, is derived from grand staircase flooring on the ill-fated Titanic.