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Outdoor Living: Expert Design Advice & 6 Popular Features

By James King

August 8, 2022

If you’ve been spending a lot of time on home improvement projects… It won’t be long until you turn your attention to the outdoors.

With the shift of everyone spending more time at home the past few years… Homeowners like you are looking for ways to optimize their backyards.

And what better way to do so than to create a dedicated outdoor living space?

Not only are you able to extend your current living area… You can relax without being cooped up indoors.

linear outdoor kitchen under a covered patio

Although, the benefits go far beyond relaxing!

In order to expand on this… You have to understand the definition of outdoor living.

Quick Links:

What is Outdoor Living?

mike pyle in front of his modern outdoor kitchen with pizza oven

To help us formulate the definition of “outdoor living”… We enlisted the help of two professionals in the field.

Mike Pyle, co-host of HGTV’s “Inside Out”, is a landscape designer with over 15 years of experience. He currently offers design services through his company, Mike Pyle Design. With deep knowledge of both hardscape and landscape design… Pyle takes a comprehensive approach to outdoor living spaces.

yardzen logo

You’ll also hear from Kevin Lenhart, the Design Director and Landscape Architect at Yardzen. For those unfamiliar with the company… Yardzen is an online landscape design service that’s received glowing reviews from the New York Times, Better Homes & Gardens, the Wall Street Journal, and more.

Point is, these guys know their stuff!

So let’s see what outdoor living means in the eye of these designers.

“Outdoor living is essentially creating an extension of your home that complements your lifestyle. It needs to be compatible with your day to day uses. The goal is to expand and add square footage to your house to create that outdoor living element”, Pyle says.

Lenhart’s definition is similar.

“In a general sense, outdoor living refers to carrying out the business of your life in your outdoor spaces. What is special about that is people are taking traditionally indoor activities and bringing them outdoors. There’s dining and cooking, of course, but also going to work, school, and exercising”.

With the dizzying amount of ways you can optimize your backyard area… It’s difficult to know where to begin.

Let’s start with the fundamentals.

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Outdoor Living Design Principles

No matter what constraints you have in your backyard… There are general design principles that everyone should keep in mind.

First and foremost?

It’s functionality.

Functionality

drone shot of patio with multiple surfaces and u shaped rta outdoor kitchen

Put simply… There’s no point in having an outdoor living space if it’s not functional.

“You’ve got to create a functional space”, Pyle advises.

So, what does a functional space look like?

Ultimately, it depends on your needs.

There’s no point to installing a pool if you won’t use one.

Consider how you intend to use your outdoor space… And plan your desired elements from there.

Adaptability

l shaped outdoor kitchen on patio with ample outdoor seating and a fire pit

Another principle of outdoor living designs is adaptability.

“No matter what, designing for adaptability is advantageous. We do lots of different things over the course of a week or month. When you have adaptable spaces, they can accommodate both that daily activity and that once in a while activity”, Lenhart shares.

How does this translate to your space?

To maximize your time outside… You want variety. And that variety comes from adaptability.

An outdoor grill station or outdoor fire pit can be great for everyday personal use… But it can also be the perfect backdrop to host a large gathering.

If you design your area to perform well no matter what your plans are… You can’t go wrong!

Implying Spaces

outdoor kitchen island on patio with built in grill and drop in cooler

Currently, you may think of your backyard as a single, cohesive space.

But with outdoor living… What you’re doing is much more akin to creating “outdoor rooms”.

So just like you have an indoor kitchen and indoor living room… You want to replicate that outdoors with a summer kitchen or seating area.

At the same time, you don’t want huge dividers in your backyard!

That’s where implying spaces comes in.

“I’m a big advocate for implying spaces rather than relying on vertical boundaries. Rather than a wall, just change the paving material. You can use plants to imply where the edges of a space may be”, Lenhart shares.

Another benefit of creating these soft boundaries is a more open space.

“It also gives you spaces that feel larger, more open, and more interconnected with the surrounding yard”, he continues.

Now that you’ve seen the primary design principles… What are the “dos” and “don’ts” for your outdoor space?

Outdoor Living Design "Do's"

We’ll start with the green flags.

If you plan ahead with these tips in mind… Success is in store for you!

Considerations for Small Spaces

small outdoor kitchen setup on patio with built in grill and sink

While it’s ideal to have a vast expanse of yard to work with… Most of us have tighter constraints.

So it’s important to be smart when your backyard is limited.

On the topic, Pyle says, “In small spaces, I’m always a big fan of fixed pieces rather than movable furniture. You could have a built-in bench to save room. You’re not going to have to move that chair in and out. Essentially, you can tuck a dining area or fire pit into this smaller area.”

Outstanding idea!

Features like a built-in bench allow you to have seating outdoors… While leaving room for a small outdoor kitchen or other features.

This is an excellent tactic to address small spaces!

Work with the Site, Not Against It

a man checking the pitch of a patio surface before installing an rta outdoor kitchen

Speaking of working with what you have…

Work with your property, not against it!

As Lenhart puts it, “Landscape design 101 is to look for your opportunities and constraints. What’s going to be good, and what’s going to be tough to deal with? Constraints help you narrow down what you’re able to do.”

Understanding the advantages (and avoiding the challenges) of your space will save you a ton of time, money, and headache!

“Say for example, you have a steep slope. If you want an outdoor patio, that’s not going to be the best place. You’ll end up spending a ton of cash to flatten it out”, Lenhart explains.

When you think about it… It just makes sense!

But you’d be surprised how many homeowners are tempted to work against their space.

For the sake of your wallet (and sanity), stick with the path of least resistance!

corper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

Keep Contrast in Mind

l shaped outdoor kitchen with storage drawers and two kamado cookers

Even for those with a cursory understanding of design… You’ll know that contrast is king!

It’s what truly makes your backyard “pop”.

“I’m a huge fan of contrast. Using wood against different stone, contrasts within colors and textures is something I like to do. I don’t like to get too busy, so I’ll choose 3-4 elements to maintain repetition throughout”, Pyle shares.

This is a key point!

Many homeowners think that using bright colors is the only way to create contrast

However, it’s far more than that.

As Mike Pyle points out… You can utilize different textures and mediums to generate contrast.

Just don’t go too crazy! Keeping your contrast to 3-4 elements is sage advice.

More is not always better… But enough? It’s just right.

Reference Your Regional Wildlands

Your outdoor living space isn’t complete without a wide array of plants!

Therefore… It’s wise to take care in the plants you choose.

Selecting plants that thrive in your environment is a great sign!

As Lenhart says, “It’s nice to reference your regional wildlands. You don’t need to make a design that looks like ‘nature’, but you should pick plants that are going to be happy in your environment.”

What’s the benefit?

For one… You’ll enhance your local ecosystem by using native plants.

But you’ll also be rewarded with time-savings.

Local flora will require far less maintenance than an introduced variety. That means less watering, less weeding, and less fuss in general.

“If there are native plants that give you the look and feel you want, use them over an introduced species. It’s going to have more habitat value and will require the fewest inputs to thrive”, Lenhart continues.

It’s a win-win all around!

Plant for the Future

small outdoor kitchen setup on patio with built in grill and sink

Mike Pyle also has recommendations for outdoor plants… Although, you’ll have to think ahead for this one!

“Always plant for the future. Position plants for future growth, not just for that immediate look”, Pyle explains.

It’s an oft-overlooked, yet important point.

Many homeowners are tempted to overcrowd their planting area. They want it to look full and voluminous right away.

But when those plants start reaching maturity… You’ll end up with an overcrowded mess!

So resist the urge. Your patience will be rewarded!

Pay Attention to Sight Lines

mike pyles u shaped outdoor kitchen with pizza oven refrigerator and two grills

Another pro-tip is to consider your sight lines.

“Pay attention to sight lines and focal points. When you can see across the entire yard, it tends to feel bigger. If you’re in a yard that’s constrained on space, you want a longer sight line”, Lenhart shares.

How does this translate to your design?

It’s best to avoid large and tall elements in the middle of your space. This will interrupt the sight line and make the area appear smaller.

It goes back to the concept earlier about implying spaces. Just as vertical boundaries aren’t the best way to imply a space… They also close off the area.

By keeping your sight lines uninterrupted… Your outdoor space will feel far more expansive and in style. (Your outdoor kitchen cabinets will look great, too!)

Pretty great pro-tips, right?

Now it’s time to see the design “don’ts”.

Common Outdoor Living Design "Don'ts"

Just as there are many things you should incorporate into your design… There are many things you should avoid!

Let’s see what red flags are in store.

Not Planning Enough Space

Really cramped outdoor kitchen on patio

At first, you may be confused by this point.

If you’re turning your entire backyard into an outdoor living area… How could you not have enough space?

It’s actually more about not providing enough space between elements.

“That’s something I see people missing the mark on”, Pyle says.

If your dining area, custom outdoor kitchen, and fire pit are all crunched together… You’re not going to have enough space to fully enjoy them.

In fact, it will be more of an annoyance! You need to have breathing room between different areas.

Allowing ample space is a sign you’re on the right track!

Cut Back on Lawn

large lawn in backyard

Yes, it’s true. You don’t want too much lawn in your backyard!

Why?

We’ll allow Lenhart to explain.

“Lawn is the highest maintenance thing you can put into a landscape. It’s taking up space that could be used more productively for the ecosystem. Lawn care specifically is actively harmful to the ecosystem.”

Put simply… It’s the opposite of the effect of native plants in your backyard.

Between the fuel and water requirements for maintenance… Large lawns are generally a net negative.

Same goes for maintenance, period!

Lawns require a lot more of your time and effort. While some might find mowing their lawn relaxing… It’s considered a chore more often than not.

Address this by extending your patio or adding more native plants instead.

Simply by cutting back on lawn… You’ll be enjoying your backyard a lot more often!

Trying to Go DIY

man laying pavers for a patio

When it comes to home improvement projects… We’re often tempted to do the job ourselves.

Design seems simple enough, right?

Well… Not exactly.

Not hiring a professional designer is one of the biggest mistakes Mike Pyle sees.

“If you don’t do that, you don’t have a path to get from point A to point B and you’ll end up wasting money doing things twice. So hiring a professional landscape designer is always up there. It creates a budget, it creates a concept. It just sets you up for success”, Pyle cautions.

Revamping your backyard is a large investment. Make sure it’s done correctly the first time!

On the topic of cost… Pyle shares, “My minimum is 10k for a design package. That can be a big number for people, but you can waste that money in the snap of a finger if you’re not prepared appropriately.”

While we don’t doubt your DIY potential… If it’s not something you have experience with, it’s a job best left to the experts. (Same goes for a DIY outdoor kitchen!)

Hiring an Inexperienced or Unreliable Contractor

Similar to the previous point, you don’t want to hire an inexperienced contractor!

When you’re hiring a contractor to handle the construction… You need to be able to trust the task will be done correctly.

“I would be cautious in choosing contractors these days. Do your research, contact a referral. Interview them and really be careful in choosing a contractor. There’s a lot of horror stories going around right now”, Pyle warns.

You will be rewarded by being cautious in your search!

You won’t spend too much… And you’ll end up with the outdoor living space you truly desire.

Control Your Palette

outdoor kitchen with blue tile material finish

Getting back to the design itself… Avoid the temptation to paint the backyard red! (And yellow, and orange, and purple…)

Point is, it’s best to restrain your color palette.

“Don’t be all over the place. Most design styles benefit from zeroing in on a smaller range of colors. Have your certain colors you’re highlighting, emphasize textures, and have a couple bold accent pops of color. This tends to result in spaces that are more cohesive across the property”, Lenhart shares.

Choosing simple styles is a great rule of thumb. (It’s also far more manageable!)

Buying Poor Quality Features

worn patio furniture on a deck

As mentioned earlier, outdoor living is a huge investment!

So naturally, many homeowners look for ways to spend less.

Most often… This expresses as purchasing poor quality outdoor living room furniture and features.

Mike Pyle recommends against this strategy.

“It’s all about longevity in whatever you’re choosing. Shop for products that will provide a longer life. For example, use composite or a nice hardwood for decking”, he says.

While you may save money at first… The repair and replacement cost in the future ends up costing you more!

“Invest a little bit more and buy a higher end product and you’ll be setting yourself up for success”, Pyle continues.

We can’t argue with that! It’s a common outdoor kitchen buying mistake, as well.

Since we’re on the topic of high quality outdoor living furniture… What are some of the most popular outdoor living elements?

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Most Popular Outdoor Living Space Ideas

There’s an endless list of features you could shop for.

A pergola, gazebo, hanging chairs, outdoor living wall…

Let’s visit some of our designers’ favorite outdoor living ideas.

Fire Pits

l shape outdoor kitchen idea with fire pit

Both Mike Pyle and Kevin Lenhart cited their favor for fire pits.

As Pyle puts it, “A fire pit is such a great thing to gather around and have conversation. It’s a great form of bringing people together.”

You can have the experience of relaxing by the campfire… Right in the comfort of your own backyard!

Not to mention, a fire is mesmerizing to watch.

“Firepits and lighting are great. Both of them, maybe counterintuitively, are strategies to beating the summer heat. They give you a reason to be outside at night when the weather is cooler”, Lenhart shares.

Speaking of lighting…

Outdoor Lighting

reclaimed brick outdoor kitchen on patio with built in pellet grill and outdoor lighting

As you just read, Lenhart is also a big fan of outdoor lighting!

It’s easy to see why. (Pardon the pun.)

Like a fire pit, outdoor lighting provides visibility at nighttime.

So rather than heading inside as the sun sets… Lighting will enable you to enjoy the outdoors all night long!

And the more you’re using your backyard… The more you’re getting your money’s worth!

Covered Outdoor Living Spaces

Another way to get more out of your backyard is installing a covered patio.

“Covered patios are great. You can house outdoor furniture, an outdoor kitchen, and even a fire pit as well”, Pyle says.

Not only does it have a high aesthetic value… Covered patios are practical.

Rain or shine, you can enjoy your outdoor living space. They can also provide a bit of shielding on windy days.

“You’re just trying to get outside and have an outdoor space that people can be comfortable in”, Pyle continues.

l shaped outdoor kitchen with refrigerator and side burner under wooden gazebo for coverage by a pool

Plunge Pools

yardzen ocean side plunge pool

Plunge pools are new to the scene… So you may not have heard of them!

Essentially, plunge pools are a smaller alternative to a full sized outdoor pool.

They’ve become increasingly popular due to their smaller footprint. You can still take a dip to cool off from the summer heat… Without monopolizing your backyard.

“Lately, we are seeing a lot of interest in plunge pools. Some people like to make pools out of old stock tanks and galvanized steel tubs. Relative to the cost of an inground built-in pool, it’s significantly cheaper”, Lenhart says.

It’s a fun outdoor living feature you won’t soon tire of.

Social Front Yards

Patio with grill and furniture in the front of the house

Thus far, this entire article has focused on outdoor living from the backyard.

However… Boosting the functionality of your front yard has been on the rise too!

“People are rethinking their attitude to front yards. You can create a social space with a table and chairs, or even just chairs”, Lenhart shares.

This doesn’t just create a social setting for family and friends. By being in the front yard, you’re open to your local community as well!

“In addition to family and friends, you may even interact with your neighbors. Having a dedicated space out front to let happenstance unfold and running into someone is a really nice thing”, Lenhart continues.

If this sounds appealing to you… Creating a social front yard may be a worthy project!

Outdoor Kitchens

group of friends gathered around modern outdoor kitchen

Last, but certainly not least… We have outdoor kitchens, a topic we’re particularly partial to.

As a feature in your outdoor living space, “Obviously an outdoor kitchen is going to be at the top of the list”, Pyle says.

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves, Mike!

The functionality and aesthetic value an outdoor kitchen provides is unmatched.

At its core, you’re bringing your indoor kitchen to the backyard. This means cooking al fresco without heating up your house… And entertaining guests at the same time.

As far as aesthetic value goes… The look of a modern grill island completes your backyard space. It’s a fixture that will become the focal point of your backyard.

So, ready to make your own personal oasis?

Upgrade Your Outdoor Space

tamara days outdoor kitchen idea brought to life

As you’ve seen… Creating an outdoor living area is an involved project!

Naturally, you want to make sure it’s done properly.

That’s why we’ve partnered with Yardzen to make the process easy.

They offer a variety of design packages to ensure the finished product is just right.

Yardzen will provide a custom design, work within your budget, and link you up with a contractor to complete the job.

Pretty painless, right?

Best of all… RTA Outdoor Living products are offered as a part of this seamless experience.

(Our great friend Mike Pyle also offers RTA outdoor kitchens with his design services!)

Either way, the process is much the same.

Whether through Yardzen or Mike Pyle…

You’ll work with a designer or use our free online design tool to create your custom layout.

From there… The only thing you’ll have to do is assemble!

And if you have a contractor through Yardzen or Mike Pyle… You won’t even have to lift a finger.

They’ll have the entire island assembled in a couple hours.

Yes, you will be ready to host the same day!

So if you’re ready to take your backyard to the next level… We’re happy to help!

Need Help With Your Plans?

Talk to one of our expert designers and they will guide you from planning to installation. Schedule a call today.

FAQ

Outdoor living means to bring an extension of your indoor living space to the outdoors. It creates a functional living space in your backyard.

Other names for an outdoor living space include indoor outdoor living, outdoor living rooms, and outdoor living areas.

You can extend your outdoor living room with efficient use of space. Consider features like built-in benches to leave room for a fire pit our outdoor kitchen.

Demand for outdoor living continues to increase every year. A 2021 survey shows that 78% of Americans are upgrading their outdoor living areas.

Focus on elements that create intimacy. Fire pits, soft outdoor lighting, an outdoor sofa, an outdoor kitchen, etc… All contribute to a more cozy aesthetic.

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