Outdoor Room Design
Outdoor rooms are silver bullets of sustainability for two big reasons: First, when you entice people outdoors and they get acclimated to the local environment, they may be able to open the windows and turn the equipment off on all but the most extreme days of the year… and no equipment is so efficient as that which is off. Also, well-designed outdoor rooms that are cooler in summer and warmer on cool evenings are bona fide living spaces for much of the year, and can reduce the need for indoor living space. And smaller indoor living space requires less conditioning, reinforcing this virtuous cycle.
Steve and Wanda Mouzon recently finished Outdoor Room Design. It should be published late this year. It is a recipe book of sorts, going step-by-step through the process of designing a building site as a series of outdoor rooms. That process produces rooms such as the ones below:
These outdoor rooms are illustrated in a neighborhood with cross-usage easements on the private side of houses. The house on the left is set 5’ from the property line, but allows their setback to be used by the house on the right. In exchange, they get to use the easement of the next house down the street.
Unlike most cross-usage easements which run the entire length of the lot, this one runs only from the front of the main body of the house to the front of the garage. This is smarter because it allows the fence between the neighboring frontage garden to be located on the property line, and it allows for a couple’s garden in the rear.
Here’s the bird’s-eye view from the front corner of the lot...
…and here’s the one from the rear corner.
This is the overhead view, showing why it’s important for the cross-usage easement to end at the front of the garage: without doing so, the house on the left would have very little room for a couple’s garden.
Gift to the Street
If every building on a street gave a gift to the street, that street would be a much more pleasant place to walk. A gift to the street might be something that shelters (like an awning or gallery), refreshes (like a street fountain or sidewalk cafe), delights (like a beautiful frontage garden), directs (like a goal in the middle distance), entertains (like a great storefront), informs (like a clock or sundial), reminds (like a memorial), or gives people a place to rest, like the bench and potted plants in this example.
Lovable Edible Frontage Gardens
This design has a second gift to the street: raised-bed edible gardens designed to be ornamental as well as edible. For far too long, vegetable gardens have been treated as mere utilities, with no need to be beautiful. We must re-learn how to design lovable edible gardens so good that they can pull right up to the sidewalk.
A side yard setback is often too narrow for most outdoor rooms, but it can still be used for dwarf fruit trees, and for a dog run. If used for either of these uses, it might be the only place on the site that is floored with grass.
Fences along sidewalks are usually restricted to the height of frontage fences, but a properly-designed garden wall compensates for its additional height by being more beautiful that a picket fence. It can therefore enclose private outdoor rooms like the couple’s realm.
Space should be reserved on the rear lane, probably near the garage, for utilities like electrical meters and trash cans so that the inhabited outdoor rooms are not burdened with these unsightly necessities.
In this design, the footprint of the outdoor rooms is outdoor rooms is over 1,400 square feet larger than the footprint of the house. Because the rooms are shaded with deciduous trees (not shown here so you can see the rooms) they are cooler in summer… maybe 15 degrees cooler or more because the trees not only provide shade, but they also transpire moisture into the atmosphere, acting like a natural misting device. And because the trees drop their leaves in winter and the rooms are floored and occasionally even walled with high-mass materials like pavers and brick, the rooms soak up warmth by day so that they are warmer long into the evening.
We have grown accustomed to thinking of an outdoor kitchen as a collection of stainless steel appliances off to the side of a back yard, but why not have a full-fledged kitchen with cabinets, countertops, and a work table? And the terra cotta pots can be seedbeds for your favorite herbs.
The dinner garden is an outdoor dining room, complete with a buffet table set against the berry hedge at the far end of the room. Also, notice how the floor materials change from one room to the next, and how the portal between rooms is marked. It is important to distinguish when you move from one room to the next.
The hearth garden is the outdoor living room. As with the other rooms, notice how large they are. Because a well-designed outdoor room is about 20% of the cost of an indoor room, it’s easy to make your largest living spaces outdoors. The cooling effect of the deciduous fruit trees was mentioned earlier; rooms like this hearth garden that have an outdoor fireplace are the ones you’ll inhabit latest into cool evenings in fall and early winter.
The coffee cove is a small outdoor room for one person or two, located not so many steps from the kitchen.
Together, the outdoor kitchen, dinner garden, hearth garden, and coffee cove make up the realm where you entertain visitors in this design. That realm might also include a breakfast terrace, a motor court/sport court, a children’s maze, and possibly even a secret garden.
The couple’s garden is accessible only from the couple’s bedroom or bath, and cannot be seen from anywhere else in the house. Because it is protected by a tall brick garden wall, it cannot be seen from anywhere else, either. Water is essential in a couple’s garden; in this case, it is a hot tub in the corner. Fire is excellent as well for cool evenings enjoyed in varying states of undress, hence the tiny fireplace on the tub deck. This room has single chairs for when you want to sit alone, reading or whatever, and a loveseat for sitting together.
The meditation garden should be located in the quietest part of the lot; it is a room for one person. Here, it is a part of the couple’s realm, but it could be located elsewhere as well, so long as it is in a quiet place.
Agricultural Outdoor Rooms
It is valuable to have agricultural outdoor rooms on the edge of a neighborhood that provide fruits and vegetables to neighborhood restaurants, but there is a hidden benefit that might be greater. Ask children “where does food come from,” and the overwhelming answer is “the grocery store.” Few children living in town know any farmers at all, and much of our food now comes from outside our nation’s borders. Bio-intensive agriculture is “good-neighbor” agriculture, requiring far less industrial equipment but more farmers. It is essential to Agrarian Urbanism, because industrial-scale farms can’t fit into a neighborhood and would annoy the neighbors with the sound of heavy equipment at daybreak, the smells of large-scale agriculture, and the spraying of a host of chemicals. This means we need to raise a generation of children who aspire to be “craft farmers,” and find their work to be really cool. This means they need to see them at work… regularly. What better place to see the work of the craft farmers than in agricultural outdoor rooms on the edge of their neighborhood to which they can walk or bike anytime they choose? Here’s another way to make craft farming cool to the young as well.
The outdoor rooms of all SmartDwellings should be landscaped primarily with edible things, but outdoor rooms in sub-urban parts of neighborhoods may actually be large enough to produce more food than the families occupying them can eat. This half-acre site hosts two SmartDwellings and income-producing garden rooms. Tending one acre of bio-intensive gardens is a full-time job for one person and feeds 20 people or more according to bio-intensive experts, so a couple living in one of the SmartDwellings could have one person with a regular job and the other who is a part-time farmer who feeds the couple plus about eight other people. Rent from the second cottage could help pay their mortgage.
This is the street view, with a SmartDwelling to either side and the largest garden room in between.
Here’s the bird’s-eye view from the front.
This is the view from directly overhead.
This is the front corner view; this is the first image showing the fruit trees, which were omitted from the images above for clarity.
Here’s the back corner bird’s-eye view.
Porch & Rain Barrel
Here’s the front porch of one of the SmartDwellings, with the rain barrel that captures the water from the front half of the house. Another rain barrel captures rain on the back half of the house.
Because this site is in a more rural area near the edge of a neighborhood, auto access is from the street, not a rear lane. But bio-intensive gardening wastes no harvestable soil, so the parking spaces beside the SmartDwelling double as a strawberry garden. What about oil dripping from a car engine? Any good farmer doesn’t want their crops spoiled, and will get the engine fixed (and replace the oily soil, of course). How about the car shading the strawberries? Shady days are normal in most parts of the country; just move the car (and its shade) to a different place every day.
Tilapia & Raised Beds
The raised beds in the front garden radiate out from the tilapia tank in the center. Tilapia are fish well-adapted to tight quarters; they thrive in bodies of water too small for other fish to survive, and are therefore perfect for gardens in town.
The trees lining the sidewalk are fruit-bearing, of course. They are planted in the only grass on the site. Grass is the highest-maintenance plant material in a neighborhood, and should be used only where it is needed. It is suitable under fruit trees because you can walk on it to tend the trees and harvest the fruit, unlike almost any fruit or vegetable plants.
Rain Channels & Cistern
Rainwater isn’t just harvested from the rooftops. There are also rain channels through the garden rooms that carry rainwater to the base of the cistern tower, into which it is then be pumped up and stored until needed.
The green fence surrounding the rear half of the site is harvestable. Fruit trees are espaliered to the fence, arching over the vining vegetables on the bottom half of the fence.
The arbors that run the width of the site are a perfect place for growing grapes, muscadines, or scuppernongs.
The dinner garden is the outdoor dining room, surrounded by a berry hedge.
Outdoor Living Room
This outdoor living room is huge. Good outdoor rooms can be built for about 20% of the cost of indoor living space, so if outdoor living space is designed well enough that it can stretch the seasons and reduce indoor space needs by 20%, then the outdoor living space is essentially free.
Chicken coops sit at one end of the arbor, near the green wall. Chickens benefit a garden in many ways, and are also an excellent source of protein. Roosters, however, should never be introduced to an urban garden because they crow. At daybreak.
Compost is essential to enriching the soil of a garden, but an imperfectly-tended compost heap can be a stinky nuisance in a neighborhood, but compost drums eliminate that problem.
The barn is tiny… only 16 feet deep and 24 feet wide. This one is designed to look like classic rural barns, but it could also be designed to blend in with the neighboring houses as well.
Every barn needs a barnyard where gardening work of many types can be done on a paved surface in full daylight. This one is paved in brick, but other paving material can be used as well.
Honey bees are in crisis around the world today for reasons that are not fully understood. Bee hives such as these at the other end of the arbor are therefore a good idea on two counts: to be sure the fruits and vegetables get pollinated, and as a very local source of honey.
Craft Agriculture as culinary Element
Farming has suffered terrible image problems for decades, beginning with the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression years, and then growing awareness of the plight of migrant farm workers beginning in the 1960s. A vanishingly small fraction of 1% of US children have aspirations of being farm workers when they grow up. But without more farm workers, the bio-intensive agriculture that is necessary for Agrarian Urbanism is unlikely to happen. For this to take place, agricultural work has to not only have an extreme image makeover so that it is considered a really cool thing to do, but it must also be made economically viable for US citizens.
The New Paradigm
Fortunately, there is a new economic model for agriculture that is viable. This is Goodfellow Farms on New Providence in the Bahamas. It is a 5-acre farm with 5 farm workers, and they sell an amazing amount of produce. Its founder, Ian Goodfellow, says there are three essentials: It must be bio-intensive, which is 20-50 times as acre-efficient as row-cropping. It must raise higher-value produce, such as organic fruits and vegetables. And it absolutely must sell to a local market, because getting sucked into the global industrial food chain means certain economic death at living wages or better because the industrial food chain must allow WalMart to sell at everyday low prices. Local markets also reduce the transport cost to a small fraction of today’s ingredients that usually need a passport to get to your plate. Local food that doesn’t need to spend three weeks in the back of a truck also doesn’t need to be genetically engineered for toughness and picked green. Instead, it can be heirloom local varieties that are far more delicious and nutritious.
Once the economic problem has been resolved, the next question is the “cool factor.” Anything that includes the words “farm worker” is a toxic term. The other end of the farm-to-table path, however, has a very good vibe today. Any term with the words “culinary” or “chef” has a chance of becoming the subject of a new reality show. Simply put, culinary is cool. Agriculture (in particular, bio-intensive agriculture) must be re-branded as part of the culinary process, not part of the desperately impoverished heritage of farm workers.
The Culinary Origin
This bio-intensive farm serves Chef Thomas Keller's world-famous French Laundry restaurant, which is just across the street. Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkley got local food right in 1971; Thomas Keller made it explicit at French Laudry with the garden in full view of those arriving at the restaurant. Farm-to-table obviously originates at the farm. And a nourishable place is one where you can look out onto the fields and the waters from which much of your food comes. Growing food is part of the culinary process and must be re-branded as such.
The term “craft” has great resonance today, from craft beers to craft foods of many tastes. “Craft agriculture” is certainly a candidate term for what to call food lovingly and locally prepared in small batches, such as they do at this craft farm in Normandy.
For those not living in farm villages, there should be shops in towns and cities selling regional delicacies. Actually, this already happens in many parts of the world, such as this shop in Honfleur, in France's Normandy region.
If you’re cooking, then craft farms and regional food shops are where you can shop. But if you want someone else to fix the meal, then look for farm-to-table restaurants that use ingredients from farms in the region. Once rare, they’re popping up all over now. Menus will change through the year according to what’s available, but that’s more interesting than dishes made from the same old genetically engineered stuff from thousands of miles away all through the year, isn’t it?