Five Pillars of Design for Outdoor Living

As an architect designing high-end custom homes in Florida, one advantage of working in this climate is the opportunity to design outdoor living spaces as an extension of the indoor living space. We find a properly designed outdoor living space works on two scales: getting the big picture right and making sure small details come together. If a client wants a covered area outside and you do not provide it, the big picture is incorrect.

Putting together a list of “must haves” is important; every project has a budget and if you do not properly account for cost, the design will never be properly executed. So set a budget, stick to it and in the end you will be happy you did.

Relating to design, what started out as an internal office checklist for designing exterior landscaping became a journey into what makes a properly designed outdoor living space. The ideas presented here are nothing more than thoughts, and as such are not meant to end all discussion but to begin one.

Looking at our recent landscape designs, they seem to be unique among other contemporary projects in their ability to incorporate process and culture into master planning from the start — the attempt to find that unique combination of control over the environment and harmony within it. Harmony could be measured in terms of a romantic balance with natural elements and mythical Mother Nature.

The intention is to create an aesthetically pleasing result showcasing a respect and harmony for the outdoor environment. The guidelines below are not intended to limit or restrict creativity in design or construction, but rather to assure quality throughout the project.

We divide these guidelines into five pillars of design, which are presented in an order that represents the natural design process. Once these are understood they can be applied to projects of any size, scale or budget.

Pillar 1:
Invent within the rules

The design language of every great outdoor living space is documented in a common set of rules that have shaped the designs of generations of projects. These rules are tools to guide the conceptual layout of the outdoor living space, govern the way details go together and determine the appropriate materials to use.

While studying the historic shapes and decorative details of existing outdoor spaces can reveal what makes them work, designing a new outdoor space is not simply the act of copying the past. Ideas for new designs spring from the rules of traditionalism.

  • Does the outdoor living space demonstrate style, proportion and consistency?
  • When viewed from any angle, is it a unified solution?
  • Does it give evidence of its quality and care over detail?
  • Is it inviting?

Pillar 2:
Respect, complement nature

An outdoor living space complements its setting by respecting the character of the place in which it is built. By designing with the natural features of the land and by fitting into the distinctive patterns of the seasons, the outdoor living space can blend into the setting and be sympathetic to the environment. An awareness of natural attributes like wind or trees, and responding to environment are as important today as in the past. This is the foundation for what we now call sustainable design.

  • Is the design responsible to the environment?
  • Does the outdoor living space respect and complement views from within the yard and from within the dwelling?
  • Does the new ground plane show careful integration of natural and manmade elements?
  • Is existing landscape material utilized?
  • Is new material sensitive to the natural terrain?
  • Are colors, styles and materials comfortably distinct — ensuring individuality without offending the senses?

Pillar 3:
Build for the ages

A properly designed outdoor living space will stand the test of time and stand apart from what we see in most typical developments and subdivisions across the country. Without good composition, proportion and craftsmanship, the results are clumsy and confusing to the eye. Never use poor-quality materials; these make even a properly designed outdoor space look fragile and inauthentic. A carefully executed outdoor living space will pass the test of time and add value to the house for resale.

  • Is the solution long-lasting?
  • Will the design date the house or will it appear as appropriate tomorrow as today?
  • Does the design follow through to the smallest detail?

Pillar 4:
Detail for authenticity

The success of a properly designed outdoor living space depends on incorporating details that are well-executed and true to form. Lack of detail causes unevenness and void of focus throughout the entire design. When decorative details are executed they must not look tentative and impermanent. Details like the shape of a paver or the texture of a finish material will look better if they visually support the large design ideas. The key is executing all details consistently throughout the project, from concept to the final layout.
Will the quality suffer close scrutiny?

  • Does the outdoor space respond to the individual intimately?
  • Does the design process follow through to the smallest detail?
  • Does the construction involve a need for craftsmanship?

Pillar 5:
Incorporate convenience

Most of the essential creature comforts of a well-designed outdoor living space can be woven into the fabric of even the smallest project without being intrusive or overwhelming. New functions also can be integrated into these layouts and these elements may also provide a unique design version for the outdoor space. New technical innovations such as computer networks, telecommunications, LED lighting, water features and sound systems can be concealed within the construction of the space. Seamlessly weaving these conveniences into the design during the planning stage integrates the indoors and outdoors from the beginning.

  • Does the plan encourage a quality of lifestyle?
  • Does the design capitalize on features of volume, scale and functional relationships?
  • Is it technically “state-of-the-art” to ensure gracious outdoor living?

Reviewing the questions within the five pillars of design will help you place your thoughts on paper and reveal how the big picture relates to the smaller details. The result will be a quality outdoor living space that is a true extension of the indoor space.

Jonathan Parks, AIA, is senior principal of Jonathan Parks Architect in Sarasota, Fla., which he founded in 2002 after working with Centerbrook Architects and Planners. He has spent the past decade developing innovative designs suited to the Florida landscape, environment and lifestyle. He was honored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation for his interior restoration of the Cohen House by Paul Rudolph, FAIA, in Sarasota, Fla.

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