As warm weather returns, we begin to open our windows, dust off the patio furniture, and move our activities outdoors. How many of us realize that these simple, instinctive actions are the basis of ecological healing?
For starters, being outdoors can boost our vitality. The air outside is usually cleaner and fresher than indoors. The gentle breeze that cools us in hot weather carries the fragrance of earth and plants. Sunshine warms us, synchronizes our biological rhythms, and stimulates essential bodily functions. Birdsong, moving water, and rustling leaves delight our ears.
Whether we are dining on a patio, having tea in a solarium, rocking on the front porch, or meditating in a gazebo, our senses are revived by the complex outdoor world.
Even urban apartment dwellers can create enlivening outdoor spaces. A balcony, patio, or a small patch of dirt—or a community garden on a nearby empty lot—can be your starting point. A friend of mine put a couch on her apartment balcony, created a living privacy screen with plants, installed a small recirculating fountain to mask city noise, and spent many happy hours there.
How does the planet benefit from all this bliss? A well-conceived outdoor living space is warmed by the sun and cooled by shade, breeze, and moisture; thus it lessens our consumption of fossil fuels. Attached outdoor living rooms can improve the energy efficiency of a home: A porch can shade a south wall in summer, or a sunspace can collect solar heat in winter. But perhaps most important is the experience itself. From inside a sealed, climate-controlled building, it’s easy to believe that we are separate from—and can dominate—the rest of life. Moving our activities outward reunites us with the community of living things and reminds us to care for the biosphere that sustains us.
I’m not advocating that we get rid of buildings, nor do I think that indoor/outdoor spaces are appropriate for all locations, seasons, and times of day. But in most climates, there are times when the weather is good enough that we can create satisfying outdoor places by gently modifying environmental conditions. Spaces that are neither totally enclosed nor completely vulnerable to the weather allow us to enter into a nourishing dance between human needs and the elements.
Indigenous cultures can teach us a lot about the art of indoor/outdoor living. On this continent, the Pueblo people worked on their rooftops on sunny winter days; the adjacent adobe walls absorbed and then released solar heat and made the half-enclosed space more comfortable than the dark interior. In Central America, the semitropical climate gave rise to the palapa—a palm-frond roof supported by palm trunks, which acts as both umbrella and parasol while allowing free airflow. The traditional Thai house has a similar open pavilion made of teak known as a sala; characterized by a steeply pitched, curving roof, it has bamboo blinds that are lowered during the monsoon season.
In Renaissance Italy, walled gardens were sunk into the earth. Protected from winter winds, the walls stored and reradiated solar heat to the garden’s occupants. In Persia, garden pavilions modified seasonal extremes: A large, roofed porch was oriented to provide shade in summer and catch the southern breeze; fountains upwind cooled the air even more. In winter, the low sun warmed the porch while a solid wall blocked the cold north winds. In this country, the front porch was the focus of warm-weather living before automobiles, television, and air-conditioning came along. Southern porches grew into two-story colonnades that shaded the south face of a grand house, caught breezes, allowed the windows to be left open in the rain, and aided interior ventilation. In poorer areas, the “dog-trot” house—in which two portions of a house were separated by a roofed passageway open on both ends—provided shade and breeze that brought summer living outdoors. In many parts of the pre-industrial United States, summer kitchens kept the heat of cooking out of living areas. And in the early 1900s, sleeping porches were popular, largely because of a belief that foul indoor air contributed to disease.
Feathering your nest
Planning an indoor/outdoor space can be enlivening in itself. This is an opportunity to relearn skills that were instinctive to our ancestors: watching the path of the sun, noticing the direction and force of the wind, observing seasonal precipitation, and taking note of landmarks, topography, flora, fauna, and water flow.
Look around your home for indoor/outdoor living opportunities. If you have enough space, you may choose more than one spot and develop each for different uses or climate conditions. You may want a solarium on the southeast side for winter breakfasts, a screened porch on the west side for sleeping and for shading the house in summer, and a vine-covered trellis on the north side, with a lazily dribbling fountain, for enjoying cool drinks on a hot summer day.
An outdoor living area need not be expensive or elaborate. A bench, some potted plants, a bird feeder, and a small fountain can transform a space. At any budget, it’s a good idea to start with a few simple changes, spend some time in the space, and make other modifications as the need or inspiration arises.
The key is to notice what the elements give you—sun, wind, humidity, precipitation, vista—then marry that microclimate to your needs by choosing among some simple climate modifiers: plants (for shade and beauty, to attract wildlife); water (a fountain or birdbath); fabric (an awning or umbrella); screens (to keep out bugs or calm the wind); structure (a solid roof or wall, trellises, arbors); glazing (glass, plastic); and thermal mass (stone, concrete, or earth that absorbs heat and reradiates it when air temperatures drop).
You can use movable climate modifiers to extend the range of your indoor/outdoor room: Retractable blinds or deciduous vines can shade a sunspace in hot weather; operable or removable windows make a screened porch more comfortable in cool weather; an umbrella or awning can bring temporary shade to an open patio.
Every stage of creating your indoor/outdoor place can bring you to life. Getting to know your site attunes you to the elements and cycles of nature. Designing your outdoor room deepens your awareness of your needs and of how little climate modification is required for your comfort. And inhabiting the place gives you the ongoing experience of not just longing for the natural world, but being part of it.
Carol Venolia is an architect, author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being, and former publisher of Building with Nature. She invites you to share your outdoor living experiences with her at email@example.com. Carol will present a Natural Home workshop at SolFest in Hopland, California, August 24 to August 25, 2002.