Create an Outdoor Room: Your At-Home Sanctuary

by Karen Ho Fatt

Outdoor Room with Fireplace. iStock Photo by Larry Merz

Outdoor Room with Fireplace. iStock Photo by Larry Merz

Several years ago, my husband and I explored the coast of Oregon. We stayed for a few days at a charming little bed and breakfast. What I remember most vividly about this little inn is the outdoor room in the backyard. The owner had fashioned a structure from old tree trunks with textured bark and gnarled branches. The roof was constructed of branches woven loosely together. Candles hung from the branches, while muslin billowed down the sides.

Tucked into every corner were whimsical details – a small handmade fountain, a bird’s nest, old gardening books, and an abundance of plants. We ate breakfast, lunch and dinner at an old wooden kitchen table and lounged in comfortable upholstered chairs. The effect was enchanting-- like something out of a British novel-- and I hated to leave.

The experience reminded me of a quote by John Muir, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

When we returned home, I resolved to build my own little backyard haven. I fashioned mine from recycled trees and branches, as well, and filled it with interesting natural materials. A jar of sea shells, a piece of drift wood, a bird’s nest and a vase of dried hydrangeas gave my outdoor room a fairy tale feel. I filled an old horse trough with flowers and purchased three bird houses from a tag sale.

Since then, I’ve become a bit obsessed with outdoor rooms. I’ve helped several friends and clients develop their own dream rooms and I’ve learned a few tips, which are:

1. Consider your goals when selecting the site for your outdoor room. If you plan to use the room for entertaining, it’s best to keep it in close proximity to the house. If you’re dreaming of a quiet sanctuary, though, tuck it into a private corner.

2. Choose a site on level ground that has some protection from the elements. You don’t want the first fierce wind to blow your outdoor room away. Select a site that has a few trees or shrubs to protect it.

3. Outdoor rooms run the gamut, from pre-fab vinyl or steel models, to whimsical homemade versions made from recycled materials, to high-end custom constructions. Hire a designer or use a 3d visualization design tool, such as Google’s Sketchup to make an outdoor plan. Design an outdoor room that matches the feel and style of your home. My rustic wooden structure looks charming with my country home, but it might look a bit silly on a contemporary suburban lot.
4. If you decide to opt for a custom design, choose your contractor carefully. Check references and look at a portfolio of previous work. Get all the necessary permits and home owner association permissions prior to construction.

5. Install either electrified chandeliers or candles to provide lighting. Candles are romantic and charming, but they require extra care.

6. Anchor your outdoor room with focal points. Install a cozy outdoor fireplace or fire pit table with comfortable low maintenance chairs and a few accessories such as throw cushions to add character and warmth to your outdoor room.

7. Outdoor heaters are very practical and also add additional warmth. They can be used to define the perimeter of a room as well, are inexpensive, and will allow you to use the space year-round.

8. Use recycled materials if you’re on a budget. Haunt demolition sites for old bricks, lumber, doors or hardware. Check yard sales, auctions and tag sales for great buys on interesting furniture, pots, bird houses, or other accessories.

9.Include both evergreens and deciduous plants in your outdoor room decorating scheme. For example, a small, potted juniper provides warmth and interest year-round. In the summer, fill pots to the brim with colorful flowers for a lush look.

About the Author: Karen Ho Fatt is an interior designer and writer with more than 20 years experience. She has a passion for natural spaces and enjoys helping clients develop outdoor rooms. Her website offers tips and advice on creating comfortable, attractive garden spaces with fire furnishings such as the popular Blue Rhino lp gas outdoor fire bowl or Strathwood St Thomas patio furniture with fire pit table

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