Alfresco Essentials

Half-acre yard or cozy patio, shoestring or big budget, you can make the most of your open-air living space with some purposeful planning and imaginative thinking.

Define the Space

An outdoor room represents an investment in a personal sanctuary. Above all, it should be welcoming and engaging, never complicated. At the planning or renovation stage, imagining how the space will (or could) function is a good first step. Lots of uses may spring to mind—dining and entertaining, reading and relaxing, outdoor games. Taking stock of goals—with a license to dream—can spark ideas and the creative momentum you need to realize the space. And if your ultimate vision should exceed your present budget, think of the project in phases. You can always start with a few essentials and add to the space over time.

Outdoor Living Designs

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Site the Room

Apply the old real estate maxim—location, location, location—but from a slightly different angle. The views from inside are important when siting an outdoor room. A good relationship here means inviting access, so that your outdoor room is an extension of your interior living space. If it's an independent spot, such as a pergola or landscaped area, it can be linked to the house with planted pathways and hardscaping. If attached, as with a screened porch, carryover interior cues like flooring and trim can do the trick. You may find it’s helpful to divide a large outdoor space into several zones or rooms with distinct purposes. Or you may find unexpected opportunities when you take the inside-out perspective—a nice view of a narrow side yard, for example, which can be transformed into a secluded haven.

Plants and Hardscaping

Flooring and walls anchor a space, so hardscaping is a must. Decking, stone and concrete are good options, and if budget is a factor, concrete can be stamped or stained to affordably mimic flagstone or brick. Trees, shrubs and flowers soften these hard elements with a sense of life, warmth and seasonal interest. Plants can also establish or underscore a chosen mood. Ferns, moss and hostas, for example, fit perfectly in a shaded, quiet, meditative space. Again, this should be a sanctuary, so choose plantings that soothe you and materials that inspire you.

Fireplaces and Outdoor Kitchens

Fireplaces, fire pits and chimineas have become staples, as a heat source can prolong the usable season of an outdoor room by several months. Options run the gamut, from portable fire rings to two-sided, custom-built fireplaces. Outdoor kitchens are similarly popular and can be extensive (and expensive) projects to undertake, though if a built-in gas grill with all the accoutrements isn't in the cards right now, a charcoal grill will cook your meals up just fine.

Water Features

Water can be a compelling element in an outdoor room. The sound of a gurgling fountain is calming, even if you're creating a room primarily for hosting and dining rather than relaxation. And you certainly don't have to spring for a professionally installed pond or waterfall. Here again, there are options to suit your situation and setting—from a bubbling stream at the patio's edge to a tabletop fountain or a container water garden.


Whether you're hosting a few or a crew, there are a variety of outdoor tables and chairs to suit your needs. Try incorporating pieces made with different grains and colors of wood. Outdoor rugs are also available, made from weather-resistant fabric that's durable and mildew-resistant. When selecting furniture, aim for comfort and consider durability. Select quality items that can withstand the elements.

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