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Design Basics: 5 Steps to Create an Outdoor Room on a Budget

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Design Basics: 5 Steps to Create an Outdoor Room on a Budget

January 10, 2018

Who couldn’t use more living space? Happily, anyone can create an outdoor room from scratch without breaking the budget. It doesn’t matter if your outdoor space is as narrow as an apartment balcony or as large as a sprawling backyard. All you need are a few basics:

Big or small, the most important design rule when you create an outdoor room is to pay attention to the scale of the available space. You may already have elements in place to play the role of “walls,” floor, and “ceiling.” If not, you can create a sense of enclosure with inexpensive materials (such as gravel or decomposed granite) or by using existing landscape features (such as a hedge, retaining walls,  or a balcony railing). As for furnishings? We’ve got a few suggestions for simple, versatile seating that won’t break the bank.

Here are five ideas to create an outdoor room on a budget:

Photography by Matthew Williams for Gardenista except where noted.

1. Start on Level Ground

A simple patio adjacent to a house on Shelter Island, New York creates living and dining space outdoors.
Above: A simple patio adjacent to a house on Shelter Island, New York creates living and dining space outdoors.

Site an outdoor living space on level ground. If you already have a balcony, deck, or patio to work with, you’re in luck. If not, find a spot that looks flat (if you’re unsure, check the elevation with a string level). In a small space, you can cover existing grass or weeds with a weed barrier fabric to create a base for a new outdoor living space.

 Above: A \150-foot roll of Commercial All Weather Landscaping Ground Cover is \$\109.8\1 from Home Depot.

Above: A 150-foot roll of Commercial All Weather Landscaping Ground Cover is $109.81 from Home Depot.

If you’re designing a larger outdoor space (as shown above), dig up grass or weeds, tamp down the earth with a roller, and check the elevation to make sure it’s level. Add a layer of landscape fabric (to prevent new weeds from sprouting).

2. Lay a Floor

A patio of concrete pavers set in decomposed granite creates a sense of enclosure for an outdoor room on Shelter Island, New York.
Above: A patio of concrete pavers set in decomposed granite creates a sense of enclosure for an outdoor room on Shelter Island, New York.

A floor is an essential feature of any room. It should feel solid, level, and secure underfoot.

For an outdoor room, natural materials—such as gravel or stone pavers—will blend easily with features in the surrounding landscape. Decomposed granite (as shown above) is a fine gravel composed of particles of natural granite. Because of the small diameter of the rock (under 3/8 inch), DG is more stable than gravel and can be used either in place of gravel or as a base layer in which to set concrete pavers.

The cost of DG is relatively low compared to other paving options: the raw material costs from $40 to $50 per cubic yard and is available from landscape suppliers. See more at Hardscaping 101: Decomposed Granite.

Another inexpensive flooring option is gravel: “A pea gravel walkway or patio costs about $5 per square foot, installed, including a layer of base rock,” writes Ellen. “If you’d like to install it yourself, it will cost half as much. Add in the cost of a header or Bender Board. A wood header is about $5 per linear foot; a metal header is $6 (black metal disappears well). You won’t need a header if you’re installing gravel against a house, fence, or raised bed.” See more in Hardscaping 101: Pea Gravel.

3. Add Walls

A small outdoor living room feels more expansive because a low wall focuses the eye upward and toward the garden beyond.
Above: A small outdoor living room feels more expansive because a low wall focuses the eye upward and toward the garden beyond.

Indoor rooms have walls and in an outdoor space, you can create a sense of similar sense of enclosure if you define the perimeter with vertical elements. Unlike an indoor room with solid walls from floor to ceiling, however, all you need outdoors is a suggestion of walls to create a boundaries. A balcony railing, an established hedge, or an existing wall are all good options.

A retaining wall of reddish brown Elk Mountain stone creates a perimeter for an outdoor room in Mill Valley, California. For more of this garden, see Garden Visit: A Modern CA Garden Inspired by the Classics.
Above: A retaining wall of reddish brown Elk Mountain stone creates a perimeter for an outdoor room in Mill Valley, California. For more of this garden, see Garden Visit: A Modern CA Garden Inspired by the Classics.

If you have no vertical elements to work with, lay out a garden bed at the edge of the outdoor room and plant perennials or shrubs to create the effect of a low wall.

4. Add a Ceiling

In London, editor Christine Hanway&#8\2\17;s outdoor room has a pergola on which a vine grows to create shade.
Above: In London, editor Christine Hanway’s outdoor room has a pergola on which a vine grows to create shade.

Ceilings protect us from the elements—sun, rain, or worse (bird droppings come to mind). In an outdoor space, a solid ceiling isn’t necessary or even preferred because you don’t want to block the expansive view of the sky. Instead, design your outdoor room to take advantage of a roof overhang. Or add a trellis or pergola to create a sense of shelter.

A wooden pergola constructed of pressure-treated lumber is weather resistant and creates a framework for a curtain of greenery.
Above: A wooden pergola constructed of pressure-treated lumber is weather resistant and creates a framework for a curtain of greenery.

5. Choose Furnishings

A low sofa sits beneath the height of the window panes on my Mill Valley, California house. From indoors, I have an unobstructed view of the back garden.
Above: A low sofa sits beneath the height of the window panes on my Mill Valley, California house. From indoors, I have an unobstructed view of the back garden.

Choose furnishings that fit the space to create a sense of flow and expansiveness. When you are choosing chairs or a sofa for an outdoor room, before you buy sit down and stretch out to make sure the seat feels comfortable. Remember that the purpose of outdoor lounge furniture is lounging.

Lightweight, portable, and folding furniture works especially well in climates where weather requires you to bring everything indoors for storage in winter months. (See our post later today on folding bamboo benches for some  inexpensive options that will complement a number of different styles of architecture.

Similar in style to my armchairs from Ikea, a stackable rattan Mastholmen armchair is \$\100.
Above: Similar in style to my armchairs from Ikea, a stackable rattan Mastholmen armchair is $100.

For outdoor spaces, I love woven furniture (as you can see above) because it’s light and airy and mixes well with other materials such as solid wood, concrete, and metal.

For more of this garden, see Architect Visit: A Kitchen Garden on Cape Cod.
Above: For more of this garden, see Architect Visit: A Kitchen Garden on Cape Cod.

Chairs on the deck of a Cape Cod house (shown above) illustrate the versatility of woven furniture. Woven chairs look just as happy against this white clapboard facade as on the patio of my own stucco Spanish-colonial bungalow.

What do you need in addition to comfortable chairs? Side tables or a coffee table table can come in handy, as a place to put a drinking glass or a book.

Above: At Remodelista editor in chief Julie Carlson’s Mill Valley, California home, a mix of wood and metal furnishings create a comfortable lounge space on a brick patio. Photograph by Michelle Slatalla.

6. Make a wish list for later.

patio pavers outdoor dining russian sage columbia county ny berman horn studio

Above: For more of this garden, see The “Anti-Trophy” Landscape: A Charming Country Garden in Columbia County, NY. Photograph by Rush Jagoe, courtesy of Berman Horn Studio.

With the basics in place, you can make a wish list for nice things to add later: lighting, a fire pit, a grill, and a dining table are elements that will make an outdoor room more versatile.

N.B.: Ready to take the next step? If you’re working on a garden rehab project or designing a new outdoor living space, start with our Garden Design 101 guides:

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