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.