Garden rooms are a hot topic! Books, magazines, even television programs are full of ideas and suggestions for creating fabulous rooms for living outdoors. At our house, we usually gravitate to our garden to eat, read or just catch up at the end of the day. Garden rooms can be extremely elaborate (and expensive), or they can be as simple as a well-designed deck or patio open space where you can get away from it all. While successful outdoor rooms can involve beautiful plants and wonderful materials, the design of the most successful rooms begins with a consideration of space and place.

Hillside terrace

This brick terrace provides maximum flexibility for furniture arrangement and a spectacular view of the hillside gardens.

Photo Credit: Gayle M. Shelden

Compact outdoor spaces

Small urban lots can still allow for a variety of rooms and functions with the clever use of space, materials and screening.

Photo Credit: Gayle M. Shelden

Dining deck

The size and shape of wooden decks can be structured around individual functions like dining.

Photo Credit: Gayle M. Shelden

Green rooms

Great garden rooms don’t have to rely on expensive materials. Plants create the walls, ceilings and floors in this delightful garden with flea market furnishings refreshed with colorful paints and fabrics.

Photo Credit: Gayle M. Shelden

Whether you’re a do-it-yourselfer or one who prefers to work with a professional, the first step is a careful analysis of what you actually want to do outdoors. Consider the activities you and your family might enjoy in the open air, and what each specifically involves. You probably won’t require a separate room for every function – and of course, your available space and budget will impact the number and size of rooms you can build – but you should incorporate adequate space as you can to accommodate the things that matter most.

Consider which rooms inside your home work best for your family. Where do you typically gather and why? How many people are in your immediate and extended family? How many do you usually entertain, and what are their ages? This information will begin to suggest the types and sizes of outdoor rooms that will work best for you.

Next, you need to determine how much space you’ll actually need for each room. Designers – both amateur and professional – often make the mistake of creating rooms that are too small or too awkward for their intended function. A great approach to determining the basic footprint is what I call “form follows furniture.” Develop a loose idea of the furnishings that will best accommodate your outdoor lifestyle. Some examples are:

  • A comfortable grouping of sofas, chairs and flexible seating for 4-8 family members and friends
  • A table and chair set that will seat a family of 5 for dinner and expand to accommodate a dinner party for 8
  • Open floor space with room for a cocktail buffet for 30

You can use the same furniture templates created for interior design to help you determine the general size and spacing of your planned furnishings. Or you can measure furniture groupings at the store to get a general idea. Allow adequate room for circulation between the pieces, then calculate the approximate shape and square footage required for each room or function.

Also think about whether your rooms should be dedicated or flexible spaces. Certain types of rooms, like outdoor kitchens, may require permanent fixtures and utilities like plumbing and electricity. Other spaces can be more flexible, with furniture rearranged to accommodate different activities.

Now that you know the approximate space you’ll need, you can begin to determine the optimal place for each room. Give some thought to the most convenient relationships of your rooms, both indoors and out. A garden dining room should probably be accessible to your household kitchen. On the other hand, a utility section used for hanging laundry and bathing the dog should probably be separated from dining and living areas.

Before you begin drawing up plans, spend some time walking your property to consider its potential. Grab a folding chair and sit for a while in various locations around your yard. Are there places where you gravitate toward naturally? Are there areas you don’t typically go that are actually quite pleasant? Do you instinctively place your chair to enjoy the views in one direction and avoid the views in another? Analyze what you like or don’t like about each area during different times of the day. Some things to look (and listen) for are sun and shade patterns, cooling breezes (or freezing winds), sounds (whether noxious or pleasant) and views both inside your property boundaries and beyond.

With these ideas regarding outdoor living spaces and places, you can begin to develop a formal plan and select the materials and plants that will give form to your garden rooms. Whatever style you choose, careful planning will result in areas that are functional, as well as beautiful. In fact, you may never want to go back inside!