For at least the last 40 years there has been an increasing trend among a high percentage of builders toward stripping homes of character in favor of standardization. It’s unfortunate these builders also determine the majority of home designs. They build the same homes in Arizona, for example, that they build in Washington even though the environments are quite different.

Given that many builders are more business- than design-orientated, the common mind-set also has been “bigger is better.” However, I continually hear from my clients the trite plan of formal living and dining rooms accompanied by nooks and family rooms does not fit their lifestyles. They would prefer a larger great room connected to an outdoor living space with no formal areas. A master suite connection to the outdoors is also highly desirable. However, except for some windows, connections for people to their habitat barely exist. Most houses up to 3,500 square feet are built with a very blah backside. The front of a house does make the first impression, but an outdoor living space makes the lasting impression.

First Steps

When designing outdoor living spaces, I begin with existing conditions and then combine the owner’s lifestyle needs and integrate budget. Analyzing the existing conditions consists of restrictions, such as jurisdictional or homeowners’ association requirements, septic systems, setbacks, vents and windows. Then I consider elements, including materials, noise, slope, style, sun orientation, views and wind direction. Lastly, I consider the opportunities for the space.

Some of the things to think about and talk over with your clients include the following:

  • Do the clients have bug phobias or privacy issues?
  • What time of year would they most likely use the space?
  • What activities do they anticipate for the space? Do they plan to entertain, barbecue, sun or read?
  • Do they have a green thumb or would they like to be connected with a landscape designer or nursery? Discuss incorporating the planning of native plants. Planning often includes large pot locations, lattice and trellises for vines, or designated areas for trees.
  • If budget allows, you may want to bring the outdoor space style and materials to existing areas of the home, such as the porch or interior fireplace. This will add nicer materials to homes that may be lacking style.

Budgets are often tight, and clients appreciate choices within their means. I suggest bolt-on balconies, fire pits, garden art, lattice, painted surfaces, plants, portable barbecue locations, sand-set pavers, seating areas and trellis. For more generous budgets, I offer built-in heaters, barbecues or kitchenettes; exposed wood; fireplaces; glass enclosures; skylights; stone; water features; and wood ceilings.


Rewards and possibilities with outdoor living spaces are abundant. For example, the Bohannan residence in Washington (photos 1, 2 and 3) began with 3,300-plus square feet of interior space with a large private backyard but not much of an outdoor living space from which to enjoy it. Because of existing restrictions of upper-floor windows, we separated the new space into three midsize areas instead of one large area. The spaces specifically met the homeowners’ lifestyle needs of entertaining, barbecuing and sitting by the fire.

The outdoor space is covered and features a fireplace and heaters, so the family can enjoy the space most of the year. The home’s existing porch and interiors had arches, stained wood and warm colors, which I continued in the outdoor living space. An exterior counter below the kitchen window functions as a pass-through. Large skylights within the outdoor space’s roof keep the adjacent interior spaces from getting dark and connect the outdoor space to the sky.

The Neal residence, also in Washington (photos 4, 5 and 6), is another 3,300-plus-square-foot home that did not have any outdoor living space. The homeowners are avid gardeners and can now enjoy their garden and koi pond year-round. Window and vent locations, a tighter budget and the client’s need for activity flexibility led to the design of one large roof. Painting the ceiling white saved the clients some money in materials and reflects light into the house. A built-in barbecue blocks the wind and provides more enjoyable outdoor conditions. Heaters and a fireplace invite the owners outdoors year-round.

The Simonds residence, in Washington (photos 7 and 8), is a 3,400-plus-square-foot home that again had no outdoor space. The new outdoor living space provides a private, relaxing and entertaining area with a great view of Mount Rainier. The deck is composite wood with an inlay of structural slate. The vaulted ceiling is stained tongue-and-groove with a ceiling fan, heaters and skylights. One side has a fireplace and metal trellis to block the neighbor’s view, and the other side has a dropped deck for a discreetly placed hot tub.


Outdoor living spaces ideally should be a priority in the initial design of a home to be better integrated and more affordably built. Because this often is not the case, there is a huge market for outdoor living spaces. I encourage remodelers to seize this opportunity! You can improve a homeowner’s quality of life while increasing your workload.

Debbi Cleary is owner of Cleary Design Studio LLC, Snoqualmie, Wash.

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