Mother Nature’s Living Room

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As Michael Fitts and Jill Fredricksen of Denver know, an outdoor room can be a mini retreat— a personal space to cool off, relax, and rejuvenate right in your own back yard.
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A grape arbor-patio can provide a sheltering space in nature to enjoy a leisurely breakfast, a romantic dinner, or coffee with a friend.
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River rock and wood-plank flooring create a rustic feel in this unscreened sleeping porch in Tucson, Arizona. Located off the home’s master bedroom and bath, it’s used for sleeping about six months out of the year.
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Architect Ken Ronchetti designed an ultra-modern outdoor living room for this southern California home. A transparent fabric wall can be drawn across the opening of the space to protect it from flying insects.
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Brick walls and a periwinkle-blue faux picture window enclose an outdoor living space in the garden of this Tucson home.
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Southwestern Native Americans build what the Spaniards called ramadas to extend their living spaces outside. The simple, elegant, open-air structures are constructed with native wood and use cut vines for privacy and wind protection. This ramada, in Tucson, provides shade and privacy for outdoor dining.
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The first step in creating your outdoor room is to map out the gifts and challenges of your spot. Diagram the sun’s path, the wind directions (prevailing and storm), the best views, and any other features that you want to include or exclude. Then site and design your outdoor room to take advantage of nature’s bounty. This is an example of a site plan that showcases an ideal outdoor room.
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Imagine sleeping outdoors in a nurturing nest like this bale (pronounced BAH-lay) and waking up to the whirring of hummingbird wings. In Point Reyes Station, California, James Stark and Penny Livingston-Stark don’t just dream about it—they do it.

Imagine waking up on a summer morning to a gentle breeze on your face, the chattering of birds, and the scent of flowers opening their petals to the dawn. You lie there, warm under your wool comforter, recalling the bliss of falling asleep with frogs croaking in the nearby pond as you gazed at the stars before closing your eyes. All this, yet indoor plumbing is only a few yards away. This is the joy of outdoor living spaces.

Outdoor rooms, porches, and pavilions are back in style. Tired of being cooped up, people are moving their dining, socializing, sleeping, and sometimes even work spaces outdoors. The success of these spaces depends a lot on understanding some basics about climate and design. If you want your investment in outdoor living to pay off, you’ll want a place that’s comfortable in a range of weather conditions.

Our ancestors, who lived without central heating and cooling, knew a lot about building sleeping porches, gazebos, and summer kitchens. These structures allowed them to escape their hot, stuffy houses in summer. After decades of burning fossil fuels with wild abandon to keep us warm in winter and cool in summer, we’re beginning to realize that these people were on to something. Well-designed outdoor rooms are the epitome of ecological design; they get their heat and light from the sun and their cooling from shade and breezes.

In fact, creating an outdoor space for your home is a great way to increase your grasp of climate-responsive design. It’s an exercise in paying attention to the ecosystems you participate in. By noticing where the prevailing winds come from, and by being aware of the sun’s path across the sky, you can create a garden room that keeps you dry in the rain, unruffled by the wind, cool in summer, and warm in all but the worst of winter without burning a drop of fuel.

Outdoor structures can also expand your home’s living space for much less expense than adding a normal room. And an attached outdoor room can increase your home’s energy efficiency by protecting it from heat, cold, and wind, or even–in the case of a sunspace–by collecting solar heat to be used indoors.

But that’s only the beginning. Outdoor living is also good for your health and well-being. Sunlight, fresh air, and greenery nourish body and soul. The sounds of birds by day and crickets by night, the scent of flowers, the feeling of warm sun and cool breezes on our skin, and the sight of birds, butterflies, and bees nourish our senses and restore our participation in the web of life.

A world apart

Michael Fitts and Jill Fredericksen know all about the sense of renewal that comes from living in the garden. They’ve turned their entire backyard into a living space, including lush plantings, a pond, fountains, a flagstone patio shaded by a grape arbor, and a Balinese outdoor pavilion known as a bale (pronounced BAH-lay). “We’re six minutes from downtown Denver, but when you’re back here it feels like you’re far from the city,” says Michael. “It’s like relaxing in nature without leaving home.”

Denver summers are hot, but the arbor and bale make outdoor living comfortable. Michael and Jill furnished the grape-arbor patio with a wrought-iron table and chairs, while the bale has a low round table and pillows for floor-level living. “We wanted to be able to spend summer days in the garden without feeling hot,” Michael explains. “Between the shade, the breeze, and the stone floors, it’s definitely cooler in these structures.”

From spring through fall, Michael and Jill start each day with breakfast in the garden. At the end of a workday, they have dinner outdoors and relax there well into the night. “I’d never trade it for sitting indoors surrounded by four walls and a ceiling,” says Michael.

Others are magnetically attracted, too. “People love to spend time here,” Michael notes. “Our musician friends hang out here after gigs; it helps them get centered and forget about the rest of the world. I think they’re restored by the natural energy from the plants and the sound of frogs and flowing water,” he says. “People ask if they can give parties here or if they can bring friends over for tea in the bale or under the arbor. Everyone enjoys smelling the flowers and watching the fish in the pond–it’s a wonderful escape.”

Nurtured by nature

In Point Reyes Station, California, James Stark and Penny Livingston-Stark like to wake up to a hummingbird alarm clock. In summer, they sleep in their own version of a bale: a bed-sized open bamboo pole structure with a raised bamboo-mat floor and a thatched roof that provides shade by day and keeps the dew off in the mornings. Around the bale, they grow flowering plants to attract hummingbirds. “There’s something special about waking up to the whir of hummingbird wings,” says James.

The bale is a great place to hang out during the day, too. James notices that visitors are particularly drawn to it. “They want to see the garden from this marvelous little space, which defines the garden and divides it into four directions. It’s a different feeling than being totally exposed, yet the breezes come through and the bamboo and thatch blend with the natural world.”

A pond near the bale adds more layers of sensory richness. Fish swim lazily in the water, plants thrive, and birds and insects drop by for a drink. Egrets, blue herons, and even a kingfisher are regular visitors. Strong winds rarely disrupt the calm because James and Penny treated their entire garden as an outdoor room, using fencing and plantings as windbreaks.

“People spend too much time living in boxes,” observes James. “Our joy comes from experiencing the rest of the living world, but we wall ourselves away from it. We forget that much of the year we need very little structure to make the outdoors comfortable for activities we normally do indoors–reading a book, having a cup of tea, knitting, or chatting with a friend. The ecosystem is our community, and we want to come home to it.”

In summer, guests can relax and reach up to pick grapes from an arbor that Penny and James built from a locally milled fallen tree. In winter, the grape leaves die back and admit the sun’s rays to warm the flagstone floor. Freshly baked bread from the adjacent earthen oven completes the outdoor dining experience.

The arbor also serves as a conference room for James and Penny’s permaculture landscape design business. “Clients come here to talk about creating ecosystems for humans in the natural world. It makes more sense to have those conversations in the garden than indoors,” James says. “As soon as people come outside among all the living things there’s a shift; their senses start to open up, and their passion is stirred. They get inspired.”

If you have even a little bit of outdoor space around your home, you can enjoy these delights, too. Start by sitting in different parts of your yard. Notice which areas are sunny, shady, calm, windy, private, exposed, moist, or dry. Notice which spots have nice views, near or far. Think about access: Do you want to walk easily from your indoor kitchen to an outdoor dining room? From a sleeping porch to the bathroom?

When you select a place for an outdoor room, pay attention to how the natural elements interact with this spot, how they vary with the time of day and season, and which elements you’d like to temper for your comfort. Let’s say you want to build a pavilion in a corner of your backyard, but the prevailing wind comes from the northwest–which is exactly the direction of your favorite view. A glass wall on the northwest side will meet both your needs. Or maybe you want to create a warm spot for chilly evenings. You can build a curved stone wall that defines the space, blocks the breeze, and faces south to soak up the sun; build a stone bench against the wall, and you’ll have a toasty spot for relaxing at the day’s end. Overhead shade will make the same spot comfortably cool in summer.

Finally, consider having flexible elements that extend the usefulness of your outdoor space. Add removable glass to a screened porch to turn it into a sunroom in winter. Use heavy curtains in your pavilion to block breezes, rain, or prying eyes. Hang a seasonal cloth roof over a patio, or grow a deciduous vine on a trellis or arbor.

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