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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Mission-style woodwork accents this arbor and barbecue with a cast glass concrete countertop. Designer: Scott Cohen, The Green Scene/


New Mexico's unique architectural tradition continues today with the use of centuries old design themes, materials and craftsmanship. Hewn posts, massive wooden beams, traditional corbels and timeless flagstone were used to create this inviting outdoor environment. Spaced planks overhead allow filtered sunlight to brighten the entire area, while protecting the house from the harsh western sun. Designer: Steve Appolloni, Appolloni Designs


Contemporary Design
Designer: Scott Cohen, The Green Scene/


Southwestern Design
Designer: Scott Cohen, The Green Scene/


This outdoor kitchen/family room features a built-in barbecue cook center with granite counters and potted herbs for easy access. The furniture is set up for conversation and cozying up to the fireplace. The "formal" dining room is beyond.
Designer: Shirley Bovshow, Landscape Designer, Shirley Bovshow Garden Design and Decor


This custom barbecue seats at least ten people around the perimeter. The countertop features a dazzling display of fiber optic lighting.
Designer: Scott Cohen, The Green Scene/


A split-level custom cast glass counter with a blue-tiled backsplash allows homeowners to entertain guests at the barbecue area. A separate living area beyond is equipped with a fireplace.
Designer: Scott Cohen, The Green Scene/

Photo By: ImageBrowser


This home features an outdoor kitchen, complete with convection grill, outdoor refrigerator, screened porch and scored and stained patio. The stacked stone bar features a custom-built cedar pergola and is topped with African range granite. Photo by Woodliff Photography.


This outdoor U-shaped bar houses all Viking appliances, including a massive gas grill. Slate tiles cover all areas of the bar, and the painted trellis above will eventually be covered with greenery for shade. Herringbone patterned deck pallets allow water to drain off the flat roof and are removable if needed for repairs.
Designer: Katie Leavy, Interior Designer, Capital Design LLC


This outdoor living room features a large rustic overhead structure that provides cooling shade on especially hot days.
Designer: Bruce Meeks, Landscape Architect, Meeks & Associates Landscape Architecture


Nestled into a wooded lot, the house has expanded terraces that graciously step down the hill creating a series of outdoor rooms.
Designer: Robert Hursthouse

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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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