Mother Nature’s Living Room

Outdoor rooms, porches, and pavilions let you come home again to the natural world. Let nature’s elements be your palette and sensory delight your touchstone.

| July/August 2004

  • As Michael Fitts and Jill Fredricksen of Denver know, an outdoor room can be a mini retreat— a personal space to cool off, relax, and rejuvenate right in your own back yard.
    Photo By Povy Kendal Atchison
  • A grape arbor-patio can provide a sheltering space in nature to enjoy a leisurely breakfast, a romantic dinner, or coffee with a friend.
    Photo By Povy Kendal Atchison
  • River rock and wood-plank flooring create a rustic feel in this unscreened sleeping porch in Tucson, Arizona. Located off the home’s master bedroom and bath, it’s used for sleeping about six months out of the year.
    Photo By Terrence Moore
  • Architect Ken Ronchetti designed an ultra-modern outdoor living room for this southern California home. A transparent fabric wall can be drawn across the opening of the space to protect it from flying insects.
    Photos By Terrence Moore
  • Brick walls and a periwinkle-blue faux picture window enclose an outdoor living space in the garden of this Tucson home.
    Photo By Terrence Moore
  • Southwestern Native Americans build what the Spaniards called ramadas to extend their living spaces outside. The simple, elegant, open-air structures are constructed with native wood and use cut vines for privacy and wind protection. This ramada, in Tucson, provides shade and privacy for outdoor dining.
    Photos By Terrence Moore
  • The first step in creating your outdoor room is to map out the gifts and challenges of your spot. Diagram the sun’s path, the wind directions (prevailing and storm), the best views, and any other features that you want to include or exclude. Then site and design your outdoor room to take advantage of nature’s bounty. This is an example of a site plan that showcases an ideal outdoor room.
    Illustration by Gayle Ford
  • Imagine sleeping outdoors in a nurturing nest like this bale (pronounced BAH-lay) and waking up to the whirring of hummingbird wings. In Point Reyes Station, California, James Stark and Penny Livingston-Stark don’t just dream about it—they do it.
    Photo By Penny Livingston

Imagine waking up on a summer morning to a gentle breeze on your face, the chattering of birds, and the scent of flowers opening their petals to the dawn. You lie there, warm under your wool comforter, recalling the bliss of falling asleep with frogs croaking in the nearby pond as you gazed at the stars before closing your eyes. All this, yet indoor plumbing is only a few yards away. This is the joy of outdoor living spaces.

Outdoor rooms, porches, and pavilions are back in style. Tired of being cooped up, people are moving their dining, socializing, sleeping, and sometimes even work spaces outdoors. The success of these spaces depends a lot on understanding some basics about climate and design. If you want your investment in outdoor living to pay off, you’ll want a place that’s comfortable in a range of weather conditions.

Our ancestors, who lived without central heating and cooling, knew a lot about building sleeping porches, gazebos, and summer kitchens. These structures allowed them to escape their hot, stuffy houses in summer. After decades of burning fossil fuels with wild abandon to keep us warm in winter and cool in summer, we’re beginning to realize that these people were on to something. Well-designed outdoor rooms are the epitome of ecological design; they get their heat and light from the sun and their cooling from shade and breezes.

In fact, creating an outdoor space for your home is a great way to increase your grasp of climate-responsive design. It’s an exercise in paying attention to the ecosystems you participate in. By noticing where the prevailing winds come from, and by being aware of the sun’s path across the sky, you can create a garden room that keeps you dry in the rain, unruffled by the wind, cool in summer, and warm in all but the worst of winter without burning a drop of fuel.

Outdoor structures can also expand your home’s living space for much less expense than adding a normal room. And an attached outdoor room can increase your home’s energy efficiency by protecting it from heat, cold, and wind, or even—in the case of a sunspace—by collecting solar heat to be used indoors.

But that’s only the beginning. Outdoor living is also good for your health and well-being. Sunlight, fresh air, and greenery nourish body and soul. The sounds of birds by day and crickets by night, the scent of flowers, the feeling of warm sun and cool breezes on our skin, and the sight of birds, butterflies, and bees nourish our senses and restore our participation in the web of life.

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