Living in the “In-between”

 In Design

Some porches or patios remain empty through the best weather, while others are occupied at the first glimmer of a sunny day. Certain shopping areas are a “no man’s land” around and between buildings; you want out as soon as possible. Next to many homes you’ll find long, narrow side yards which are nearly unusable, except as passageways from front to back, or to accumulate endless piles of junk.

These are examples of “residual space.” The buildings may have been thoughtfully designed, but the adjacent outdoor space was not. The result is “in-between” spaces which lack charm or interest, and which may find their highest purpose in harboring the family trash can.

However, the space between buildings can enjoy the same attention to design as any interior space. Making good use of exterior space by designing “outdoor rooms” especially makes sense in Boulder, where land costs are high, yet we can enjoy the outdoors for a good part of the year.

Rooms of refuge
Exterior rooms may be enclosed patios, courtyards, kivas, covered porches, gardens, play areas, piazzas, and more. Private outdoor rooms draw family members together, providing a comfortable place to pause for restoration. On the public side of the home, outdoor rooms offer a pleasant context for neighborly chats.

Exterior rooms may also help us enjoy the outdoors throughout the year. For example, a  shady oasis on the north side of a home can create a summer refuge. To the South, a winter patio is a pocket of warmth in mid-February, sheltered from the wind and radiating stored solar heat from its stone walls.

Designing an outdoor room

If outdoor rooms were neglected in your home’s design, it’s not too late to improve the situation. Many options are available, including consulting an architect or landscape specialist. You might begin with these questions.

Which areas of your yard receive little or no use? Which activities draw you outdoors? Do you use your yard in the heat of summer? Do you have an outdoor place which feels comfortable on a sunny winter day? Does your yard give you enough privacy? Do you feel isolated from your neighbors, or connected? Where does your junk tend to accumulate? What are the best views from your yard? Which elements in your yard could be used to define an outdoor room? Include promising walls or corners of the house, any sheds or garages, and even elements such as favorite trees or shrubs.

As you look at your use of outdoor space and what you want to improve, you’ll begin to form a “program” of the outdoor rooms you would most enjoy.

Finding the right “scale” is critical. The size (width and length) of your outdoor room are less important than the height and distance of the adjacent walls or elements which define it. Unlike most interior spaces, in outdoor rooms these elements do not have to be solid. A patio may be defined by a low wall, a picket fence, a vine on a lattice, or a tree. The “ceiling” of an exterior room may range from a canvas awning, to a large shade umbrella, to the open sky.

Don’t let your setbacks set you back
Setbacks typically call for a buffer of 5 to 10 ft. between buildings and property line. However, many elements which can help define an outdoor room are allowed within setbacks. These include fences, slabs, patios, benches, sheds, roof overhangs, and even porches. When designing your outdoor room, design all the way to your property line, but check for  setback rules which may apply. If there is no fence on the property line, your design may be influenced by your neighbor’s house, or by some other element on their property.

The invisible property line
If you’re on good terms with your next-door neighbors, you may have an advantage in battling the “wasted side-yard syndrome.” The key is to agree with your neighbor on uses of your property which may not match the property line definitions.

For example, if your house and your neighbor’s are 15 ft. apart, a fence down the property line will give each of you a long, narrow, mostly useless space. However, if you both have young children who enjoy playing together, why not put a fence perpendicular to the property line instead, to create a play area for the children to share? Neighbors who enjoy sharing a drink after work in a neutral space may want to create an informal front yard patio garden which crosses the property line. Such spaces can be rearranged if someone moves and sharing no longer seems appropriate.

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  • Josiah

    sunny, to a place where tropical rains and tohyopns are unheard of. Or maybe I should just go to Colorado. I don’t know, there’s just something about the state that makes me think of bright

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