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The Great Room

Create a spectacular outdoor room that suits your needs and defines your style.

By Patti Plummer

A few years ago, a quiet revolution started in the backyard. Homeowners discovered that they could transform their outdoor spaces into something more than an afterthought by simply bringing the same types of amenities they enjoyed inside the home to the outside. Soon the idea evolved into one of the most requested additions to the home, and today, the “outdoor great room” is quickly replacing interior rooms as the place family and friends prefer to gather for conversation and good times.

Outdoor rooms can be anything the homeowner imagines, from the easy-going—such as a cushioned chair in a secluded spot in the backyard—to a full-blown replica of an indoor room, complete with curtains, rugs, pillows, sofas, TVs, kitchens, and even paintings on the wall. Whether attached to the house or freestanding, sheltered or open to the elements, these rooms are extensions of a homeowner’s personality and style, and as such, must reflect the home’s interior and exterior design.

Any Space, Any Place

Building an outdoor room is a fun, creative process. But before the first nail can be tapped, you have to decide on what kind of room you want and why. Do you want to keep it simple and just rework your patio by adding new furniture and perhaps a grill, or are you planning on developing an all-inclusive outdoor room that will become your second home during the warmer months? Once you choose the type, you have to decide on the budget. Basic updates, such as a new sofa and table, can begin as low as $500 – $1,000 while more extensive options—such as a pergola, firepit, sofa, table, and chairs—can start around $15,000 – $17,500. Naturally, the more customized the room, the more you will spend. Just make sure you have a number in mind when you begin conversations with a landscape architect or builder.

There are plenty of economical ways to create your own backyard space. For instance, you don’t need four walls and a roof: An outdoor room can be completely open to the sky above. Find a corner of your garden or deck to call your own, add a pretty bench with soft pillows, and then surround it with a planter or two full of colorful blooms. Just like that, you have a cozy getaway that is ideal for one-on-one with a good book or a tête à tête with a favorite friend. 

Want more? You can fully or partially enclose your deck, or you can up the ante by including a pergola, stand-alone gazebo, or pool enclosure. Pleasing to the eye, these structures add a touch of elegance to your home and provide shelter, more legroom for family gatherings, and privacy from the rest of the space’s activities. 

If you imagine a more extensive setup, keep in mind that the bigger the project, the more you will need help from the experts. You should hire a professional architect and builder to handle what you envision because these firms are experienced in drawing plans and procuring the proper permits. Listening to their recommendations is the best advice a homeowner can follow.

If you want to build a luxurious outdoor room, you should also consider using the skills and talents of an interior decorator. You know what you like, but sometimes, translating that into reality can be difficult. Knowledgeable decorators will listen to your ideas, study how you furnished the inside of your home, and make their own suggestions; they will then develop a plan for a fantastic room that will provide years of enjoyment.

The Gathering Place

As outdoor rooms grow in popularity, the items that make up these rooms increase in number and variety. These durable products are made to survive all of nature’s elements—including heavy downpours and harsh sunlight—as well as splashes from the pool and hot tub. But that doesn’t mean they have to be utilitarian in design. Most outdoor furniture, cushions, lamps, and other outdoor products rival the attractiveness and luxuriousness of those found indoors.

Since the focal point of your outdoor room will be the furniture, you need to know what pieces to incorporate to create the space you want. They must be beautiful to look at, yet sturdy enough to handle frequent use. Plus, they should be comfortable and inviting—remember, the whole idea of setting up an outdoor retreat is to help your guests let go of the everyday. But whatever style you are planning, you will find that the right sofa, table, lamp, or chair will define your personal style while also crafting the friendly setting you desire. 

Every room needs pizzazz: those little touches that elevate a room from nice to memorable. Pillows, rugs, curtains, and cushions are perfect tools for completing the look and feel you are visualizing, and they provide much needed tones and texture. Today’s outdoor fabrics come in a variety of colors and designs—and because they are tough and ready for outside use, no need to cringe when a guest accidently drops a pillow in the hot tub!

All great rooms need a superior base, and when that room is outdoors, that goes double. There are a large number of flooring options, from concrete pads to decorative pavers made of concrete, natural stone, and brick. Keep in mind, however, that non-slip, unglazed surfaces are essential around a kitchen, pool, hot tub, or water feature. 

If you live in a zone that is short on warm days and nights, you should consider radiant heating in the floor. While a fireplace or firepit provides both visual and tactile coziness, there is something about bare feet on a warm floor that creates a sense of well-being.

Outdoor Kitchens

Nothing keeps guests more engaged than good food and lively conversation, which is why designers will recommend outdoor kitchens during the planning stage. Simple as a barbecue grill or as sophisticated as a professionally-equipped space, a great outdoor kitchen easily becomes the heart of the backyard. Imagine: your guests gather around the kitchen table, bathing suits still on, laughing and talking as you prepare a pizza or try a new recipe on the barbecue. As the sun sets, the ambiance notches up as soft lights pop on and you start a fire in the firepit. 

Many outdoor kitchens also include refrigerators and wine chillers, sinks, elegant wood cabinetry, and granite countertops; some even feature surround-sound and weatherproof TVs. State-of-the-art technology allows these entertainment systems to withstand harsh weather and extreme temperatures, and their screens are anti-glare, impact-resistant, and scratch-resistant. Of course, you don’t need a kitchen to include these items in your plans. What better place to watch the latest blockbuster while enjoying a bowl of popcorn than in your screened-in deck or on a lounge by the pool?

The bottom line is this: Don’t be afraid to blur the lines between your inside and outside worlds. By doing so, you will be able to create the perfect gathering place for your family and friends.

Photo courtesy of OW Lee Co.

Find Your Vibe

When designing your outdoor great room, think about the mood you want to create. This is where the fun begins! By including accent pieces you can transform your space into a casual entertainment center, a warm and cozy hideaway, a mysterious nighttime retreat—anything you want. No matter how you choose to decorate, remember to take your cue from your indoor rooms for inspiration.

Is there anything sweeter or more beautiful than colorful flowers in bloom? By incorporating natural features into your space, you create a vibrant visual that syncs your home with the neighboring beauty. A great look is placing pots and planters of varying sizes in an array of locations, such as by a chair, in a corner, hanging from a pergola, or by the border between the room and the garden. Of course, you should always try to include plants native to your area, but popular choices include geraniums, hibiscus, petunias, and portulacas. Not sure of what to use? Visit your local nursery for expert advice.

Statuary, vases, framed images—all features that give an indoor room its character. The same goes for outside settings. There are numerous online outlets and boutiques that offer unique pieces that define the space and your personality. 

Believe it or not, the type of dinnerware you use is another way to complement your setting’s style, be it a formal affair, a relaxing pitstop from the day’s activities, or a zany spot that the kids will flock to with delight. There are many options in various colors, styles, shapes, and sizes. And since most outdoor sets are made of melamine and are shatterproof, they’ll survive the rough and tumble of kids’ birthday parties and countless weekend barbecues. 

There is something alluring about the warm glow of candles or a firepit. These items add ambiance to a venue by softening angles and transforming how colors and textures are experienced. Guests will become so cozy they won’t want to leave! 

Photographed by Mary Vail, OSG, for Paragon Pools, Las Vegas, Nev.

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