Outdoor Rooms For Personal And Planetary Health

By Carol Venolia

Do you love being out in nature—the fresh air, sunshine, birdcalls, scents of plants, and inspiring vistas? Then, when you come back home, does that magic start to fade?Well, the gap between the sensory wonders of nature and your day-to-day life doesn’t have to be so big. You can create a nature paradise right in your own backyard—a place where you can relax, socialize, dine, cook, work, or sleep, surrounded by sunshine, fresh air, greenery, birds, and butterflies.

Decks and patios have been a standard form of outdoor living in recent decades. While they provide a flat surface for yard furniture, they usually leave you at the mercy of whatever the weather may be. The greater potential of outdoor rooms comes forth when you design them to take advantage of natural elements (the sun for warmth, cooling from shade and breezes), and surround them with backyard wildlife habitat features that further enrich your sensory environment while reweaving the tattered web of life.

Outdoor Rooms For Personal And Planetary HealthBefore the advent of central heating and air conditioning, people spent more time outdoors. In hot climates, they shaded themselves and their homes with roofed wraparound porches where they could sit and rock while enjoying a passing breeze. If there were flying insects, they screened the porch. They moved the heat of cooking out of the house and into outdoor kitchens. They created sleeping porches for a rejuvenating escape from polluted indoor air. On cold, sunny days, attached sunrooms provided natural warmth.

Not only is backyard living an affordable way to extend your living space, but it’s also really good for you. Exposure to sunshine can improve your heart health, immune system, and blood pressure, while improving your mood, sleep, and performance at school or work. Seeing greenery can lower your blood pressure, make you more attentive, and promote healing. Keeping company with birds, butterflies, and other critters can bring relaxation and delight. The rich tapestries of scents, sounds, temperature changes, and sights revive you from your indoor sensory deprivation.

In this era, when we’re burning too much fossil fuel and starving our senses indoors, it’s time to reclaim our ancestral wisdom about how to create outdoor rooms. This requires that we relearn how to sense the living world around us. Here’s a simple design process for creating outdoor rooms as comfortable microclimates:

Notice what the site gives you:

  • Sun
  • Wind
  • Views
  • Flora and fauna
  • Anything else you observe

Think about how you’d like to use this space and whether those uses introduce any design criteria. (Example: if you want to do paperwork in an outdoor office, you will want a good windbreak.)

Determine what you want more of and what you want less of, including seasonal changes in assets, liabilities, and preferences. (Example: maybe you like the view and the sunshine in spring and fall, but there’s too much sun in summer and a nasty breeze in spring.)

  • Choose among some simple climate modifiers to tweak the microclimate in your outdoor room:
  • plants (for shade and beauty, to attract wildlife)
  • water (fountain, birdbath, pond)
  • fabric (awning, umbrella)
  • screens (too keep out bugs or calm the wind)
  • structure (a solid roof or wall, trellises, arbors)
  • glazing (glass, plastic)
  • thermal mass (stone, concrete, or earth that absorbs heat and reradiates it when air temperatures drop)

Outdoor Rooms For Personal And Planetary HealthConsider using changeable climate modifiers to extend the range of your outdoor room:

  • retractable blinds or deciduous vines can shade a sunspace in hot weather
  • operable or removable windows can make a screened porch more comfortable in cool weather
  • an umbrella or awning can temporarily shade an open patio

As a bonus, you can use outdoor rooms to improve your home’s energy efficiency: a sunroom to provide solar heat or a roofed porch to shade the house in summer, for example.

Once you’ve explored the basic parameters for your outdoor living spaces, you can look at ways to add backyard wildlife habitat by introducing water features and native plants that provide food and shelter. You’ll quickly find that creating life-centered outdoor rooms is a great way to make both you and the planet healthier and happier.

Carol Venolia, M.Arch., has been an eco-friendly architect for decades. In addition to designing nature-responsive homes throughout the western states, she is the author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being, co-author of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House, “Design for Life” columnist for Natural Home magazine, and founder of Come Home to Nature (comehometonature.com).

If you’d like to explore outdoor room design more deeply, contact Carol for a design consultation (cvenolia@sonic.net) or attend her class, “Creating Outdoor Rooms,” offered at SRJC Community Education in June, 2013.

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