When planning a custom home, don’t stop at the exterior walls; you have an entire outdoor space to design! Nowadays, more people are opting for something that makes a statement, with many going for a curved design and multiple levels. “A lot of people want a complete outdoor experience rather than just a deck or patio,” says Mike Beaudry of the North American Deck and Railing Association.
But while it’s tempting to start with a grandiose idea like a three-tier deck enclosed by sliding glass doors and windows, design pros suggest caution. Instead, think through how you will use the space and what your budget will support.
Function Follows Form
“If you just want to read or listen to music, then don’t get too elaborate,” Olympia, Washington deck builder and designer Kim Katwijk recommends. “But if you want to entertain a dozen people, you might want a cooking station as well as enough room for a dining table, chairs, a bar, and some milling around space.” Planning a play area for young children? Think about line-of-sight from the inside.
For a functional and beautiful outdoor space, you need to shape and style it with your particular needs in mind.
Consider the Elements
Nature should also figure prominently in your planning. “I tell people to think in terms of sun, shade, water, wind, and fire,” says Dave Lombardo, who owns American Deck and Patio in Baltimore, Maryland. “They’re all part of outdoor living and will all figure in the discussion.”
For instance, if you want to use the space for most of the year, the options for a three- or four-season outdoor room range from screens that can be swapped for storm windows to sliding glass doors. With an elevated deck, you can design the multi-season room to be down below. Keep it dry with watertight decking or an effective draining system for the deck above.
Deck and Rail
The materials you decide on are equally as important as how you design the space. Treated wood can bring a rustic or elegant aesthetic, but requires yearly re-staining. For a lower-maintenance alternative, look into composite decking, which doesn’t require sealing and is stain and mold resistant.
“I tell people that decks are like new cars,” Katwijk says. “The first year they’ll take their shoes off to protect the decking but by the third year they won’t care.” At the end of the day it’s a floor, and most people are happiest with a floor that can be quickly swept and washed.
On the other hand, feel free to splurge on railings. A great railing can transform even the simplest deck into a design statement, and while some contractors still build wood or composite railings on site, today’s prefabricated systems offer more choices than ever.
Preferences in railing vary regionally, and also depend on how much view or privacy you want. Lombardo says that in his area one of the most popular designs is white railings with black balusters. By contrast, Katwijk’s customers mostly want cable rail or “something minimalist that preserves the [waterfront] view.”
Even though outdoor kitchens have been a hot trend for several years now, don’t pick a predesigned one just because it’s easier. Like every other space in your home, it should serve your needs. Here are a few things we recommend considering to get you started:
- If you’re planning one kitchen that will be divided, half inside and half outside, link the two halves visually with complementary flooring or countertops for a seamless look.
- Select a durable countertop material, like granite or tile, and be sure it is installed and sealed properly. Counter height can also vary based on your cooking and serving needs.
- For entertaining, place seating and dining away from high traffic areas. Even bar stools need enough space for guests to navigate between and around them.
- Get the best quality grille your budget allows. “The grille will be outside for its entire life,” says John Odom, a kitchen designer and owner of Archadeck in Austin. “This is not the place to cut corners.” Don’t forget to add some shade and protection for it with a pergola or solid roof.
- A refrigerator might seem an obvious choice, but Odom recommends a stainless steel cooler instead. Electrical code requires outdoor receptacles be protected with a ground-fault circuit interrupter, or GCFI, and these can easily be tripped by a refrigerator’s compressor, resulting in spoiled food.
Regardless of your needs, don’t rush past the design phase or leave everything up to a builder when it comes to the exterior. The choices in products and designs for decks and patios are limitless, and thinking through your needs will not only make your time with the architect or builder more productive, but also ensure your outdoor space will be loved for years to come.
Charlie Wardell is a licensed builder and a writer and editor with more than 20 years of experience covering home building and construction.
A Massachusetts resident, his work has appeared in some of the nation’s leading media brands in print and online.
In addition to his exclusive articles for NewHomeSource, Charlie has written or edited for publications that include Architectural Record, Custom Builder, Fine Homebuilding, Green Builder, Harvard Management Update, Popular Science and This Old House.