Mother Earth Living

Creating Outdoor Rooms with Jamie Durie

Extend your life to the outdoors by transforming your backyard into a place for your family to thrive in nature.
By Jamie Durie
July/August 2013
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Designer Jamie Durie created this built-in seating booth using rammed earth (essentially packed soil).
Photo By Tonya McCahon
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When it comes to living the good life, spending time in nature is a priority for many of us. If we can design gorgeous, outdoor living spaces, we’ve not only improved the value of our homes—we’ve improved our daily enjoyment living there, as well as our well-being. On the following pages, outdoor design expert Jamie Durie shares his best advice for creating livable, lovable outdoor spaces. These principles come alive in the gardens he creates, but this handy overview provides entry points for you to conceptualize your own outdoor room.

Jamie Durie's Design Principles

Jamie Durie explains the six principles that provide a framework for understanding and applying his approach to design.

1. How do you want to live? I’m passionate about creating outdoor spaces designed with people in mind. Your space should accommodate your life, not the other way around. Outdoor rooms are about living as comfortably outdoors as we do indoors, and the trick is to determine how best to  achieve this in your unique space. We are intrinsically connected to gardens—the human spirit lights up in the presence of natural beauty. Creating a garden that is lived in, not simply looked at, allows us to reconnect with nature in a whole new way.

Think about how and where you want to live, play and work in the space. If you like entertaining indoors, for example, roll the bar and grill outside. If you like napping on weekend afternoons or doing yoga every morning at sunrise, move the meditation space outside. Plants and flowers aren’t the only things that grow in a garden. The human spirit is nurtured, too.

2. Get started. The next step is to construct your outdoor room’s parameters with hard construction, living plants or a mixture of both. First, though, take a moment to consider how spaces are arranged inside your house. Consider the sizes of the rooms and how the light hits at different times of day. Perhaps changes in level create sunken rooms, or risen areas allow strong vantage points with exciting views. Use these ideas as a starting point to conceptualize your garden. You may include low interior walls that act as dividers or simply direct traffic. You may elevate an area or add a bench to make the most of sweeping views, or you may create walls to hide less-than-stellar sights. Never give away all of the garden. Instead, pull people into the outdoors with intrigue; let them discover hidden areas as they walk through room after room.

Choose construction and planting options best suited for your environment and your lifestyle. The materials you select, and where you place them, will not only add to the overall aesthetics of your outdoor room but will also play a huge role in directing traffic and establishing social areas.

3. Develop a garden lighting plan. Most of us work five days a week—these days, even six or seven—and our outdoor spaces are quite often in the dark when we get home from a long day. You’ve paid good money for your land, so get some bang for your buck. To get the most out of your space, it’s important to create a simple lighting plan. Light for two reasons: for task and for mood. Start by lighting the boundaries of your space—all access areas, changes of level, steps and entranceways. Once you’ve taken care of this bit of housework, you can “paint” with light. Illuminate all the structures in the garden—trees, architecture, walls, shrubs, hedges, ornamental grasses. You’ll be amazed at how the textures and the organic frames come to life once illuminated. The right lighting scheme will enable you to cook, play, read, meditate, pray, socialize and relax. With a well-considered lighting plan, you not only double the value of your landscape, but you also open up new potential for your family and friends to come together in your private sanctuary once the daily grind is finished. Welcome to your new 24-hour garden.

4. Decorate with outdoor products. Extend a sense of luxury and decorating sensibility to the outdoors. Thousands of products are available that can help make your garden feel more comfortable. Beyond being conversation pieces, decorative elements and products seduce people into the garden. Consider outdoor fabrics for cushions and curtains, outdoor wallpaper, sophisticated ornamental lighting, beautiful tile, colored glass and garden windows, paints that rust and oxidize with nature, outdoor fireplaces and heaters, gourmet kitchens with the capacity both to cook and cool, and an incredible array of outdoor furniture to suit every style. To put it simply: These days there is nothing that can’t be achieved outside. The sky is the limit. Let your imagination run wild.

5. Choose plants by shape and function. My concept is to demystify the art of garden creation. It’s simple—once you understand a plant’s habit and shape, you can put its architecture to use rather than try to control it. By doing this, you reduce maintenance by designing with nature and not against it. There is a plant out there to fit into every desired shape. Floors become groundcovers or sod. Walls become lush hedges. Ceilings become elegant canopy trees...you get the idea.Then it’s just a matter of visiting your local nursery to find the best species to fit the shapes that you need and that work best for your environment. The goal here is to immerse yourself and your family and friends into a living, breathing environment that is now living architecture. Sounds dreamy, doesn’t it?

6. Have patience. Patience is a virtue when it comes to the outdoor room. Gardens take time to grow, and landscapes improve with maturity. They are meant to last a lifetime. I urge you to look at your outdoor room project as an investment in the future—one that will evolve, improve, change and, of course, grow with time.

Q & A with Jamie Durie

How can people decide what to include in their outdoor rooms?

An outdoor room is an extension of whatever you love to do inside the house. So it is about studying your lifestyle patterns and conveying your outdoor space into your typical lifestyle pattern. Or whatever may happen inside the house, you simply transfer it outside. The most-used rooms are the ones you love.

What tips can you offer to anyone who wants to create an outdoor space of their own? 

The lounge and the dining areas are two of the most-used rooms in the house, so I would definitely start there. If you can, organize an outdoor kitchen or barbecue area, because those really get used.

What are the unexpected effects of having an outdoor room?

Your backyard stops getting forgotten. It stops being that place where you hang the laundry and becomes a place where you entertain. It’s where you and the family connect with nature in the privacy of your own home. It’s about sanctuary.

Outdoor rooms can be great entertaining spaces, great spaces for the kids, great spaces where the family comes together in fresh air and sunshine. It’s really just about looking at your backyard in a completely different way, and making it private, making it meaningful.

What’s the biggest benefit of overhauling your backyard?

One of the most important things these days is creating a productive garden—a space that doesn’t just look great, but grows food for the family table. It’s about creating food that goes into our children’s mouths. About creating spaces that are fun, that create dimension and are inspiring to be in.


Jamie Durie is a horticulturalist, award-winning landscape designer and the author of nine books including Jamie Durie’s The Outdoor Room (Harper Design, 2011), from which this article is excerpted with permission of the publisher. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jamiedurietweet.


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