DesignOutdoor Rooms: Four Strategies for Great Spaces

Outdoor Rooms: Four Strategies for Great Spaces

Featured photograph is an Io design featured on the HGTV Extreme Homemakeover Episode. Read more about the project in our portfolio, and the story in our other blog post.

The biggest mistake that most property owners and inexperienced designers make when creating landscapes of all types, from residential gardens to parks and plazas, is that they neglect to think about the creation of outdoor space.  

You can think of outdoor spaces like rooms in the landscape that have some level of spatial enclosure. Ground, vertical, and overhead planes (floors, walls, ceilings) help to organize, frame, and provide scale and context to the human body.  Achieving the right level of spatial enclosure is what makes a space FEEL comfortable relative to its proposed use.  

The mistake that most people make when they approach landscape is that they think of it as “other” non-building and leftover space. It can become this formless, shapeless, visually cluttered blob.  

Or, they create TOO much enclosure like a 10’ high deck, or an overly-deep recessed patio.  Generally too much structure results in outdoor spaces that feel confined and disconnected from the surrounding landscape. 

History of Outdoor Space

Design of outdoor space is a fundamental tenant of the practice of Landscape Architecture.  It’s literally the architecture of the landscape, and quality outdoor spaces are essential to creating inviting and memorable places.  

Italian renaissance villas were groundbreaking in their manipulation of outdoor spaces, treated as an extension of the architecture.  In fact, the term Villa refers to BOTH the house and the garden: the design of indoor and outdoor spaces as a cohesive whole.  

Renaissance outdoor space were typically very architectonic, with the delimitation of place defined in large part by the placement of architecture and landscape structures such as walls, stairs, and terraces carved into the hilly Italian terrain.  

French renaissance landscapes conversely are defined with strong and often very formal ground plane delineation. There is common use of hedges and bosques to create vertical wall planes and frame distant nightlines.  

English Romantic landscapes built off of rolling terrains, using informal/naturalistic masses of trees and hedgerows to create comfortable park-like spaces often framing scenic compositions of buildings and follies.  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 landscape architects James Rose and Dan Kiley, and contemporary masters like Michael Van Valkenburg and Andrea Cochran.  

Regardless of the stylistic nuances of any given era, these fundamental principles of spatial delineation remain true to this day.  The most successful, memorable, and enjoyable spaces to be in are carefully planned and designed using some level of spatial enclosure through the implementation of these strategies:

1. Ground Plane.

Ground plane delineation is the same principle as using an area rug in a large room to imply a smaller space within a larger one.  Similarly, good outdoor spaces begin with a material change on the ground surface. This can look like pavement within an otherwise vegetated area, a lawn surrounded by shrub beds, or a change of paving material/pattern within the context of a larger hardscape.

2. Elevation Change.

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

3. Vertical Planes

Vertical planes form the walls of your outdoor space. They can be short, tall, open, or closed, depending on the level of enclosure that one is trying to achieve.  Vertical landscape elements might include a low wall or raised planter that creates an edge that can also double as a functional seating element in the landscape.  In some cases, a vertical plane might be a fence or screen, or a hedge that creates both a vertical element and works to create a more solid wall enclosing a space and forming a solid barrier between areas in the landscape.  Trees when placed in rows or a bosque, especially columnar trees, 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 elements such as shade sails or overhead string lights, organically defined by the overhanging branches of large trees, or more structured through the creation of a pergola.

Warning: Don’t be too literal. The key to defining outdoor spaces is to have just the right amount of spatial delineation.  Too little and you won’t achieve any space at all, too much and you risk creating an uncomfortable outdoor cave that feels cold and cutoff from the landscape.  It’s also important to remember outdoor rooms don’t necessarily need to be rectilinear.

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

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