DesignOutdoor Rooms: Four Strategies for Great Spaces

Outdoor Rooms: Four Strategies for Great Spaces

Featured photograph is an Io design featured on HGTV’s Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Read more about the project in our portfolio, and the story in this blog post.

The biggest mistake people make when creating landscapes from residential gardens to parks and plazas, is to overlook the design. Too often, the landscape is seen as leftover space after a house or building is complete. It then becomes a formless, shapeless blob of visual clutter.

The solution is simple. Just think of outdoor spaces like rooms in a house. Both have ground, vertical, and overhead planes (floors, walls, ceilings) that organize, frame, and provide scale and context to the human body. Achieving the right level of spatial enclosure is what makes a space comfortable and appropriate for its surroundings.  

Be sure not to go overboard though. Some people will create too much enclosure like a deck that’s too high or deeply-recessed patio. Generally, too much enclosure results in a feeling of confinement or disconnection from the landscape.


Let’s look at how to strike the right balance for your landscape. To understand this better, it helps to know how these ideas have evolved over time.

History of Outdoor Space

Landscape architecture is literally the architecture of the landscape. Quality outdoor spaces are essential to creating inviting and memorable places. Many different cultures throughout history understood this.

Italian renaissance villas were groundbreaking in their manipulation of outdoor spaces. They were treated as an extension of indoor spaces. In fact, villa refers to both the house and the garden, together. The indoor and outdoor spaces were designed as a cohesive whole.  

They were typically very architectonic, with the delimitation of place defined largely by the placement of architecture and elements such as walls, stairs, and terraces carved into the hilly Italian terrain.

Conversely, French renaissance landscapes were defined with strong and often very formal ground plane delineation. Hedges and bosques were used to create vertical wall planes and frame sightlines.  

English Romantic landscapes followed rolling terrains. Using informal, naturalistic masses of trees and hedgerows, they framed scenic views as if they were living paintings. These same principles have been masterfully implemented by accomplished landscape architects. Fredrick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York, Jens Jensen’s Prairie School landscapes in Chicago, midcentury designs by James Rose and Dan Kiley, and contemporary masters like Michael Van Valkenburg and Andrea Cochran.

Regardless of the stylistic nuances of any era, these fundamental principles of spatial delineation are still useful today. The most successful, memorable, and enjoyable spaces are carefully designed using some level of spatial enclosure.

1. Ground Plane

Ground plane delineation is the same principle as using an area rug to imply a smaller space within a larger one. Good outdoor spaces begin with a material change on the ground surface. This can be pavement within an otherwise vegetated area, a lawn surrounded by shrub beds, or a change in paving patterns.

2. Elevation Change

The use of elevation change can be used as an element of ground-plane definition, but can also form vertical edges to your space. It’s particularly useful in steeper terrain, literally carving out terraces in the landscape. Also referred to as architectonic treatment, this technique is seen in many classic Italian villas. In an otherwise flat terrain, it can be implemented through raised planters, freestanding seat walls, or a deck. Recessed seating areas are another popular example of this landscape treatment.

3. Vertical Planes

Vertical planes form the walls of your outdoor space. They can be short or tall, open or closed, depending on what you want achieve. A low wall or raised planter can create an edge that doubles as seating. A fence or a hedge can create a more solid wall, forming a barrier to noise or unwanted views. Columnar trees, when placed in rows or a bosque, provide vertical planes at a larger scale.  

4. Overhead Planes

Overhead planes are like the ceiling of your outdoor space. These can be loosely defined by shade sails, string lights, or overhanging tree branches. A more structured approach could be the use of a pergola.

You don’t want to take these approaches too literally. The key to defining outdoor spaces is to have just the right amount of spatial delineation. Too little won’t achieve anything. Too much and you risk creating an uncomfortable cave-like space, cold and cut off from the landscape. It’s also important to remember outdoor rooms don’t need to be rectilinear.

Planning is fundamental to our design process. We begin with site inventory and analysis where we evaluate the existing spatial qualities of the site. Then we move into project planning (programming and schematic design) where we identify the proposed uses for the site. You can learn more about our civic/commercial outdoor design processes here, or about our residential design processes here.

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