Inspiring Outdoor Living Spaces: Design Ideas to Turn Your Backyard into an Oasis

Elissa Morgante, AIA

Elissa Morgante, AIA
Founding Partner at Award Winning Chicago Architects, Morgante Wilson

Jun 5, 2014 - 5 min read

Inspiring Outdoor Living Spaces:  Design Ideas to Turn Your Backyard into an Oasis

Whether your summer plans include graduation parties, neighborhood barbecues, a backyard wedding, or even just dinner on the deck, the season for outdoor entertaining is finally – after one of the longest, coldest winters on record - upon us. And with it comes a desire to spend as much time outside as we possibly can.

Here on Chicago’s North Shore, our summer season is fairly short – just one of the reasons residential architecture clients of Morgante Wilson Architects typically ask us to help them make the most of their home’s outdoor space. For some, that means a large deck. For others, it translates to a backyard that’s as much a part of the house as, say, their family room.

Regardless of its size, there are a number of ways to coax a
comfortable, inviting living area from your backyard. Here are a few of
our favorites:

Define your outdoor living space

Because backyards are essentially horizontal planes that lack cover overhead, they rarely feel intimate. Intimacy, of course, is a key ingredient to making any room – indoors or out – feel welcoming and inviting. So defining space to create the idea of a room is a critical component of transforming your backyard into a place people will want to spend time.

There are a number of ways to do this. The first is to build garden walls of brick, stone, or wood, and literally enclose a portion of your home’s yard. These may be tall and vine-covered, low and capped with stone to provide plenty of impromptu seating, or left open at the top to function as planters. Garden walls may also be formed by foliage – think boxwood hedges, for instance.

A second way to define space is by incorporating a trellis, sail shade, or even an oversize umbrella into your backyard – all of which define space by shading and covering it. The benefits of these options are many, including respite from the sun’s glare and warmer temperatures, as well as protection for outdoor furniture from a sprinkling of rain.

Trellises can be integrated into the architecture of your house from the planning stage, or they can be incorporated later. Today’s umbrellas are fantastic, not only in terms of the colors and patterns savvy manufacturers are offering, but also in terms of their size, which ranges up to sixteen feet in diameter. Still, while they’re nearly always weighted for stability, umbrellas need to be retracted during especially windy weather to avoid being damaged – a bit of an inconvenience you may prefer to avoid.

Add comfortable furniture

Think about it: if the cushions on your outdoor furniture have to be carried inside every time inclement weather threatens, you’re not too likely to want to use that furniture. That’s why we like to steer clients toward comfortable, all-wood furniture that doesn’t require cushions.

All-mesh pieces that allow water to flow through, and dry fairly quickly with a rub of a towel, are another choice. Upholstered furniture produced by Lane Venture is yet another option, as its high-tech construction results in cushions that do not retain water, and dry within an hour after it rains.

Light up the night – Outdoor ambient lighting

Just as the soft glow of warm light cozies the inside of your house, it also creates an inviting ambience outside. Fred has spoken about the importance of lighting in past Show & Live Well blog posts, and he’s absolutely right – nothing beckons quite the way proper lighting does. Just make sure it’s soft, not bright – and hide the source inside your landscaping so it’s impossible to tell exactly where the light is coming from.

Incorporate a fan

Fans grace any room, indoors or out, with relaxed charm. You can almost envision yourself outside, under the gentle breeze of a fan, sipping a cool glass of lemonade on a hot summer day, can’t you? (I sure can!) Best of all, fans do an excellent job keeping bugs away, which will increase enjoyment of your outdoor space tremendously.

Defining space and adding comfortable furniture, soft lighting, and a fan are the key ingredients to a welcoming backyard oasis. Whether cottage-like or contemporary, there are a myriad of style factors that will help integrate your outdoor space into your home itself. If you’ve seen our residential architecture work, you know we place tremendous value on blurring the lines between indoors and out. Give us a call and we’ll show you how we do it!

Elissa Morgante, AIA

Elissa Morgante, AIA

Founding Partner at Award Winning Chicago Architects, Morgante Wilson