Outdoor Rooms with Fire and Water

Learn how to reinvigorate your outdoor lifestyle and spaces with these two essential elements.
By: Douglas Brown


An arrangement of furniture under the sun and stars can't compete seriously with the indoors unless it offers something special. Indoor rooms tend to have a purpose — cooking, dining, bathing, sleeping — and they boast all the modern creature comforts. For an outdoor room to become a family favorite, it needs a spectacular focal point.

According to architects and designers, that focal point is often one of nature's two most powerful elements: fire and water. "The warmth of fire and the sound and shimmer of water are very important" for outdoor living spaces, says Michael Schneider, an award-winning landscape architect in Los Angeles. "It's very intriguing to have both fire and water — opposite elements — together."

Landscaping With Fire

The human attraction to fire is hard-wired. "Fire draws people like magnets," says John Harrington, a spokesperson for Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado and the owner of Alpine Gardens Inc., a design firm in the mountain resort of Silverthorne. When clients come to him looking for outdoor living areas, fire invariably figures into the plans, especially given Colorado's challenging winter environment. In the mountains, he says, fire isn't just about bringing people together — it's also about keeping warm.

John is partial to firepits and fireplaces that burn real wood, largely for aesthetic purposes. He's built plenty of grand, imposing fireplaces, but he also likes inexpensive Mexican-style chimineas, the clay wood-burning stoves found at most garden centers. "Chimineas radiate a tremendous amount of heat, and they're probably a little safer than fire pits," he says.

Fire has revolutionized the outdoor living market, says Leslie Wheeler, director of communications for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association in Arlington, Va. Chimineas launched the movement, and they remain popular, along with affordable and portable firepits. There are hundreds of different choice — iron chimineas, stone fire pits, polished fire bowls, tables with fire at their centers — that burn wood, natural gas or propane. "There are many options for any pocketbook," Leslie says.

Raw heat is less of an issue in the living areas award-winning Los Angeles landscape architect Michael Schneider designs for his Southern California clients. There, the fire element is purely social. "People gather around it just as they did in Neanderthal times," Michael says. "It becomes a focal point at night." Whereas large fireplaces built to generate heat tend to be massive and rugged, his landscapes hinge more on clean lines and simplicity. Michael likes decorative, low-to-the-ground firepits. "Fire is even more amplified in a space that is minimized," he says.

Designing With Water

Water in an outdoor landscape plays a different role from that of fire, says Michael. "You circulate around water, you encounter it, but you generally don't gather around it." Water softens the environment and gently reflects its surroundings, including the sky, which can give a small space a feeling of grandeur. Running water soothes the psyche and dampens unwanted noise such as auto traffic.

Ideas for adding water to your outdoor space run from enormous koi ponds carved with backhoes to simple birdbaths with running water. One of Colorado landscape designer John Harrington's more ambitious water projects involved the design of a miniature wildlife sanctuary, complete with a stream, waterfall and pond. The family, who lived in the mountains, already had a stream and a waterfall on their property, but they were too far from the house and nobody took advantage of them, so John built new ones.

"We tried to make the water elements as visible as possible from the most heavily used areas of the house," he says. "You could see the waterfall from the house, but you could also sit around the firepit or lie in a hammock in the yard and see it from an entirely different angle." The idea, he said, was to weave the water into the landscape, designing the elements in such a way that they complemented nature and adding arresting visuals and sounds to an already pleasant alpine terrain. He built four different stone formations where the family could cross the stream and used boulders to blend the surrounding paths into the natural environment.

His approach, he says, appears to have worked. "That tends to be where the family congregates now," he says. Birds, deer, and other wildlife regularly venture into the yard for viewing, drawn by the allure of fresh running water.

If you're choosing between water and fire for your own outdoor room, remember that water elements in a yard generally require more maintenance than firepits or fireplaces. The pumps in ponds and fountains need regular inspection; still water might need occasional skimming and cleaning. If you've got a fish pond, you should install a bubbler to oxygenate the water during cold winters.

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