Fresh Air Invitiation
Dinner party guests at Tom and Diane Marxer's St. Louis home have come to expect two things: mingling in the Italian-style courtyard, and a menu including bruschetta or pizza cooked in the courtyard's wood-fired brick oven.
"Additions" such as the Marxers' courtyard kitchen and dining area can bring surprising comforts to the outdoors.
Two of the couple's passions--Italy and entertaining--inspired this often-used outdoor room, with its wrought iron gates, European lanterns, custom brickwork and Italian-style landscaping. French doors in the dining room open to the courtyard, allowing traffic to easily flow.
A 10x10-foot open gazebo, which they dubbed "the Forum," has a finished floor, halogen spotlighting and canvas panels. The Forum has hosted poker games, cocktail hours--even a jazz trio.
Nearby, a pergola doubles as a third room, and entrance to the detached studio. It connects the studio to the courtyard, creating ease of movement between indoor spaces and the Marxers' inviting outdoor rooms.
Alfresco cooking The Marxers built a brick pizza oven. Outdoor kitchens, whether built-in or movable units, frequently offer amenities such as multiple burners, serving areas, refrigeration and sinks.
Personal touches A love of Italy is evident from the wrought-iron gates, to "Villa Firenze" (House of Florence) carved into a pillar. Don't be afraid to display your personality or interests--just as you would indoors.
Cool solutions A ceiling fan spins in the peak of the gazebo, and the canvas panels can screen the sun. Create cool comfort with a shading trellis or umbrella or by planting vines and trees. Other options: a standing fan or an inexpensive misting system.
Sensory delights Lanterns and other casual, but effective, lighting make the Marxers' space great after hours. You can pump up comfort with piped-in music, candles, side tables, smooth and easy-to-navigate paths and floors, and quality, comfortable outdoor furniture.
Lush, landscaped borders curve around intimate niches in this Indiana backyard. Though not a large space, it features a fire pit, tranquil pond, swimming pool and patio. Broad paths or multilevel decks connect each nook. Yet, the low "walls" of greenery provide privacy and definition to this rambling paradise, with something unexpected around every corner.
A waterfall trickles into a pond, with lily pads and koi fish. Planting beds overflow with carefully chosen flowers and contain details such as a sundial. The concrete fire pit includes an intimate seating area. The pool, tucked into a corner of the yard, offers sunbathing and lounging space. Each room serves as a complete destination, much like rooms inside a house. The decks and walkways connect these smaller outdoor rooms to create a large outdoor living space.
Water effect A pump recirculates water from this pond to create a waterfall. For your own water garden use anything watertight, perhaps a plastic-lined half barrel. Experiment with different kinds of plants or fish. (You can buy pond kits at nurseries and home centers.)
Smooth transitions An octagonal patio serves as a gateway to different areas of the yard. Frame views with an open-sided gazebo or pergola. Let vines such as clematis or trumpetvine climb the uprights.
Warm spaces This homeowner built benches around the fire pit. Make your own cozy outdoor area more appealing on cool evenings with one of the many warming options now available, from portable to permanent. Some varied choices: a propane-fueled patio heater, a wood-burning Mexican chiminea, or a brick fire pit that uses natural gas.
Extending the home
Impressive architecture plus functional living space equal an area that's useful and beautiful. The versatile "rooms" in this Illinois backyard balance formal with casual, and respond well to large parties or solitary afternoons.
Everything radiates from the central sunroom. Its continuous windows and glass ceiling make it the next best thing to being outside. The circular shape extends to the surrounding deck and shows up elsewhere such as in the walkways and rounded pergola over the formal garden patio.
This secluded patio, along with the deck's many levels and built-in benches and planters, furnishes private spaces. Well-placed design elements offset intimacy with openness. A trellis rather than a closed ceiling over the deck allows full backyard views from the home's upper floor. Stone walkways lead from deck to patio to hot tub to pool. Guests easily mingle, yet still find comfortable places for private conversation.
Big style A round sunroom and conservatory set the tone for the entire outdoor area. Focus on a showpiece: a majestic fountain, an intricate gazebo or a brightly painted garden shed. Replicate or suggest its best qualities throughout your space.
Lots of levels Varying the levels of decks or patios breaks larger spaces into more intimate areas. Build a second deck a few steps lower or higher than the one you have. Lay a brick patio at the foot of your deck stairs. Add a pergola for a "ceiling."
Uncovered beauty This homeowner combated exposed basement brick with backlit glass block. Identify your backyard trouble spots--those areas that nag at you. House your garbage cans in an attractive structure, or fill empty space in your yard with a sculpture or shrubbery. Get creative!
Wildflowers fill the backyard, and there are plenty of places to relax and appreciate them. Once offering a fairly basic scene, with a one-dimensional facade and a flat lawn, the outdoor rooms of this Michigan ranch now fluidly link home and blooming garden.
The transition begins with the physical house, where a bay window, a series of gables and a fieldstone fireplace add depth. This layered exterior creates a "wall" for the grade-level deck.
Wide stairs lead to the patio. The pergola defines this outdoor dining room, taking the color of the home toward the garden. The 12-foot height of the pergola puts it at a comfortable eye level when viewed from the home.
The footprint of the pergola is a trapezoid, with the two columns on the garden end set closer together than the two nearest the home. The design makes all four columns visible from the deck. This larger-than-life frame allows for a relaxing vantage point from which to view the beautifully landscaped garden.
Gorgeous greenery A trapezoid-shaped pergola adds dimension and works as an outdoor eating area, as well as a viewpoint for spectacular flower beds. Another idea: Train vines around a pergola, an arbor or trellis, all of which can act as "walls" for an outdoor room.
Low levels Consider height before building a deck or platform or adding on to an existing structure. A low deck, few steps and the absence of hand- or guardrails (required on taller structures) create a subtle transition from home to yard.
Defining furniture A neat metal patio set identifies the dining area, and cushions galore make the living area cozy. Don't forget to use appropriate furniture to earmark different areas. A daybed or chaise lounge full of pillows, coupled with a side table, provides a cozy spot for curling up with a good book. Just be sure to cover the piece with washable or water-resistant fabric.