The 3 Basic Design Elements to Build Your Backyard
Updated: Jan 4
Designing for outdoors has many correlations with designing for open concept interior areas. While a vast open area can be intimidating, you can use different architectural elements to help define smaller spaces making it feel more like home and giving it more character and depth. When pulling together a design in a large open area with a variety of elements, it is important to think of how the elements will relate to each other and how the user will move through these elements. Sometimes, I image designing like choreographing a dance. There are aspects of movement, of a procession as we move from one space to the next. Much like a dance, there is a theme or concept that ties it all together. There are different styles, that can overlap or shine independently. And there is also variation, and contrast that add depth and interest and make it more than one note. For me, there is a delicate balance of creating enough interest but not to overwhelm the whole and not too much sameness as to become bland.
The elemental dance steps of architectural design are wall, roof, and floor. And these basic elements can also be applied to designing outdoor spaces. In this blog, we’ll look at how these basic elements of wall, roof, and floor can be translated and used to create spaces outside.
Wall (aka Vertical Divide):
While the seemingly obvious choice, walls are a great way to define space outdoors as well as indoors. These walls can vary in height; a 3-4’ divide can be used to differentiate one space from another while keeping them visually connected. While a 6' foot high wall adds visual privacy as well as some sound absorption. And an 8' foot plus high wall is used for a more complete division. Often people think of walls in terms of solid opaque objects, so I find it more useful to think of them as vertical divides as their construction and porosity can be varied to create a multitude of interesting spaces.
The materiality of your vertical divides highly contribute to the overall feel or experience you want to create. Whether it be stone, brick, wood or vegetation, most materials can be presented in any architectural style from English Cottage to more Modern. Given this, I often start rather with the characteristics of the materials instead of stylistic associations. Stone and brick are very heavy, monolithic, more permanent feeling materials. While wood and metal can be lighter and more delicate. Vegetation, whether it is hedges, green walls or trees, are quite rooted in their landscape and often the seasons, changing in experience as the season change. Another factor of materiality, especially in vertical divides, is context. Is a wood fence or brick wall more appropriate in your neighbourhood? At 8 feet high, the context of the material plays a huge role. Though the old adage “good fences make good neighbours” can apply, a stern an 8’ high concrete wall is not a good way to make friends with your neighbours. A material might be chosen due to its context but there is always room to play with its height, thickness and porosity.
Porosity is another major factor in the character of vertical divides. Installed as a thick opaque wall, brick is more heavy and imposing. But installed with voids left between bricks, the vertical divide becomes much lighter and more playful. Another great tool is lattices and/or wood screens which can be a great way to differentiate space while also providing some visual privacy. The bonus for lattices is that they can provide a great framework for climbing plants adding more greenery and another dimension to your space. Vertical divides that have vegetative components like living walls and trellises, result in porosity that can vary with the season. This creates an ever changing environment and connects us to the passage of seasons while providing more privacy in the warm months, when we would spend more time outdoors.
There are other practical uses for porosity besides privacy; screened in areas are a great way to make the transition from interior to exterior and can be a must in insect-prone environments. New products that have removable or reducible window panes that become screens are a great way to create a three season room that transitions to more outdoor space in the summer months, thus connecting the interior and exterior.
Roof (aka Ceiling):
Roofs or ceilings are sometimes the hardest and maybe the most overlooked element. But within them is a lot room for creativity and expression. Materiality can be anything from tree canopies to a wood structure to lights. In my backyard, we are using my husband's old sailboarding sail as a sunshade. Tensile structures like the sunshades below are a super interesting and playful overhead element.
Besides space creation, ceilings have a very functional use outdoors in keeping out sun or rain or both. Deciding on much sun you want and whether you want to keep out the rain as well, will help you determine what materials and configurations make the most sense. Also, take into account whether you want to remove your covering or have it change with the day/seasons.
A change in ground material is a great way to break up and add variation to your outdoor space. It is one of the easiest ways to delineate space, think driveway or path. And there are so many choices for outdoor ground materials. Various woods or composites or even aluminum for raised decks. Various stones, concrete, brick, gravel, wood chips, synthetic materials etc. for ground applications. I enjoy the merging of materials, like concrete tiles set in river rock. Also think about the transition materials like stone or brick edging between your surfaces. And be consistent, too many materials can be messy and overwhelm our senses.
Within your floor, a change in elevation can also break up your space. For a deck, something as subtle as a step down or up, can add that little bit of space definition. The same technique can be used in the landscape creating small raised or lowered platforms that could define your new fire pit or dining area. More extensive changes in landscape elevation leads into terracing, providing opportunities to shape the landscape and play with ‘wall’ materials again.
Another interesting aspect of floor, or ground materials, is that it is the one plane that we consistently physically interact with as we walk and sometimes even sit on it. There is a practicality in that, such as having a soft material in a kids play area or not having dark deck boards that will heat up, but there is also a very experiential component that can be played with. While I am not a fan of mowing grass, the soft but prickly feel of it under my feet is a grounding and enjoyable experience that I personally find a must for my backyard. Whether it is adding a stone path because you like the crunching noises of walking on crushed stone, customize the experience of your backyard.
While wall, roof, and floor are the physical building blocks to shape and create your backyard oasis, make sure you have an overall concept in place to tie it all together. This includes designing a space that not only aesthetically reflects you and your family but also functionally encourages you to have the experiences you enjoy the most. Check out our previous blog exploring the different types of outdoor spaces to create from a more functional/programming stance. And if you need further design advice, we offer online consults. Happy Designing!