Outdoor Space Design Guide

Three Elements of a Great Outdoor Space

Increase the livability of your outdoor space with the elements of fire, water and earth.

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Big or small, inexpensive or extravagant, your outdoor living space is an investment toward creating your own personal sanctuary. But it doesn't have to be overly complicated: just include fire, water and earth, says landscape designer Michael Glassman. Here, he describes several ways in which you can use these elements to create a cozy open-air refuge.

Fire
“In a recent national survey, the No. 1 one request for an outdoor room is the outdoor kitchen," says Glassman. "The idea of dining under the stars is wonderful. Have you ever noticed how food just tastes better when you eat outside?"

Although outdoor kitchens can involve pricey, extensive projects, the idea is to extend your home's living space into the backyard. So if a built-in gas grill with all the accoutrements isn't in the budget, a charcoal grill will cook your meals up nicely. Whether you're serving a few or a family feast, you can find a variety of stylish outdoor dining tables and chairs to suit your needs.

On a cool, crisp evening, cozy up to a heat source — like an outdoor heater, chiminea or fire bowl — with a cup of tea and a good book. Or enjoy the ambiance and smell of a wood-burning fire in a custom-built or pre-fabricated fireplace.

Water
The sound of a gurgling fountain is a soothing addition to your backyard oasis. Keep it simple with a tabletop fountain or get more elaborate with a professionally installed bubbling stream at the patio's edge.

Overhead structures like a gazebo or screened porch provide comfort and protection from rain, giving you more opportunities to spend time outdoors.

A palapa, or thatched roof structure, also provides protection when it's rainy, hot, bright and sunny. Call your local building or planning department to find out if you need a permit for a structure like this (in most communities you don't need one). Electrical outlets for a fan, heater or other device usually require some type of authorization.

Earth
Earthen elements, such as plants, rock, and other natural materials, provide year-round interest. Some elements, like stone paving and rock walls, anchor the space, while others, such as trees, shrubs and flowers, are fleeting and change throughout the seasons.

Incorporate earth tones into your accessories to connect them with nearby plantings, mulched beds and stonework. For example, outdoor carpets provide the indoor look outside. They're made from a weather-resistant fabric that's durable and won't mildew. They're easy to clean, and they dry quickly.

Outdoor furniture can also enhance the earth element by incorporating pieces made with different grains and colors of wood. When selecting furniture for your outdoor room, aim for comfort. Then consider the size; don't over- or under-scale your furniture for the size of the space. Finally, consider durability. Select items of good quality that won't easily fall apart in the elements.

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