Under Spacious Skies

Move over, family room—full-fledged outdoor living is taking over.

Under Spacious Skies

Norman Rockwell couldn't have painted a more reverential American picture: A lazy Minnesota summer spent on the front porch, with cool hilltop breezes rustling the leaves on the nearby trees. And there I was on that old porch, curled up in our weathered rocking chair re-reading Brewster's Millions for the umpteenth time.

Recently, something made me miss the magic of that place.

Trying to recapture the nostalgia of long, warm days spent reading before life became so rushed, I scoured used bookstores in search of George Barr McCutcheon's masterpiece. Now, after years of designing, I'm certain it wasn't the stacked brick-and-board bookshelves, mom's worn rocker or the old iron daybed that made me crave the feelings I found at the farm. Really, it was all about the porch?a place to relish the sound of a robin's song, the smell of the lilacs and the armies of fluffy clouds.

People are trying to recapture these kinds of safe, peaceful feelings, which is why bringing the indoors out is the new frontier in home design. Fresh air, natural light, open space and a seamless connection between the indoors and Mother Nature are key elements in today's home design trends.

Floorplans might call these rooms loggias, patios, lanais, balconies or porches if they're attached to the home and covered; courtyards or decks if uncovered; and gazebos or cabanas if freestanding. Whatever the name, our own back yards have become the great vacation destination in recent years. It's easier, it's cheaper and we like everyone we meet there.

Your Own Outdoor Room

The boundaries between indoor and outdoor environments will blend into one big comfortable space, according to a recent International Furnishings and Design Association research report. A furnished outdoor room extends your home's livable space, although it's tied to your architecture and landscaping more than any room within your timber-framed walls.

The walls of your outdoor room will consist of both exterior materials such as rock, brick, stucco or wood, as well as softer, natural 'walls' comprised of trees, flowering bushes and potted plants. Land-scapes take the place of pictures on the walls, and trim might be porch railings, an open timber-framed gable or some other timber decorative elements.

In addition to blue skies, the ceiling of your outdoor room can be an extension of interior ceiling surfaces with its own outdoor persona. My favorite outdoor room is a full timber frame bent that's an extension of home owners Caroline and Jim McKee's Texas great room. The same 1-by-6-inch tongue-and-groove pine ceiling is used in both areas, and only a wall of windows and doors separates the indoor and outdoor rooms. Guests congregate at semicircle seating situated near the area's far side. This enables them to enjoy the view of the tree-lined ravine while the barbecue grill and the open firepit warm the senses.

Practical Considerations

If your home's outdoor room is an elevated deck or patio, an adequate, yet decorative, railing around the perimeter will be both a safety and architectural feature. (A railing is normally required if the deck is more than 18 inches above the ground. Check your local building codes for railing requirements.)

In addition, balusters should be no more than 4 inches apart so that a child's head can't fit between them. If you have babies or toddlers, also consider having the deck designers include an attractive gate at the top of stairs to prevent falls and keep pets confined.

When it comes to flooring in an outdoor room, it must be slip resistant, low maintenance and waterproof. Some materials that I've used include stained or stamped concrete, flagstone, slate, porcelain tile, washed aggregate, vinyl decking and, of course, wood. By layering a water-resistant rug on the floor, you'll anchor the conversation area and soften the hard surface. If properly protected, hand-painted floor cloths, manmade fibers, sisal or hemp area rugs will last two to three years outdoors.

Befitting the Outdoors

The main interior element that makes the exterior covered area an outdoor room is comfortable seating. The climate in your area will determine what materials are suitable.

Acrylics are awning-type fabrics created specifically for outdoor exposure. They dry quickly and resist fading and mildew. The seating's framework might be made of teak, aluminum or vinyl faux wicker. You also can choose natural wicker, rattan, sea grass, iron or painted wood if your outdoor room has limited exposure to rain and direct sunlight. And be sure to include a place to set your glass of lemonade and extra lighting to read your paperback well into the evening hours.

For an added dose of creature comfort, install a cozy outdoor fireplace or a central firepit. It not only lends some warmth on cool summer evenings, it also adds visual warmth throughout the year. Gas fireplaces with multi-sided views, can be enjoyed in multiple areas or from different perspectives in the same area. There are even gas fireplaces designed specifically for indoor/outdoor use.

These dual-sided fireboxes use a special glass enclosure system that enables you to enjoy a fire from both your great room and your outdoor room without having to build two separate fireplaces. Of course, the full-masonry, wood-burning fireplace is still popular and might include added features such as a log storage passthrough and even a brick pizza oven.

For those seeking fung shui harmony, refer to our Summer 2004 issue of Timber Frame Homes for the full article.

Story by Mary Sorenson