Vicki O’Neal, owner of Form & Function in Richmond, provides residential and commercial landscape and interior design. She is a VA Certified Landscape Designer and Horticulturist, Master Gardener, professional member of ASID, and a VA Certified Interior Designer (CID). (804) 677-8269

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A Room With a View
by Vicki O'Neal       #Decorating   #Design   #Landscaping


An existing deck is transformed into an outdoor room with the addition of a new arbor and gracious set of stairs to the backyard.


“Outdoor room” has become quite a buzz phrase. But what does it really mean? You won’t find it in the dictionary, because there is no true definition. An internet search, however, will bring you all sorts of interesting results. An outdoor room is really any exterior space that is furnished or outfitted around a specific function. It’s a room with a purpose and a view!

Did you know that statistically, the average person spends in excess of 90 percent of their time indoors? For that reason I like to approach the design of outdoor spaces and rooms from the inside out, so to speak. Designs that integrate while capitalizing on views, circulation paths and functional relationships create a sense of cohesiveness and flow from the interior to the exterior, inviting us outdoors.

Planning and Design
Some outdoor rooms are truly rooms, with walls and ceilings that enclose them. These might be a breezy sunroom with lots of high windows and skylights, a conservatory, screened porch or veranda. Other designs might include decks or patios with columns, planters, benches, retaining walls or other architectural and landscape elements. Open and freeform layouts can create an implied sense of enclosure with the use of a more limited palette of design features. A change of material underfoot, for instance, along with nice furnishings and container plantings can define an area. For transitioning a steep slope, the use of multi-level terracing inherently solves challenging site conditions while creating found spaces for outdoor rooms. In any case, a well-designed outdoor room brings the best of both worlds together – our indoor comforts blended with a wonderful connection to nature.

Overhead structures give a strong sense of enclosure, whether they are solid construction or an alternative design. Imagine an arbor with the romance of a flowering vine wrapping through it, an architecturally built roof with columns, the flexibility of a retractable awning or of course, the open sky. Choosing a particular style or motif for architectural features and accents can set a strong design theme or lend a sense of exotic, faraway places. As always, the styles you choose will greatly impact the character of the completed design.

Lighting for outdoor rooms can have a conventional approach or may be avant-garde with fixtures hung from tree limbs, mounted to columns, posts, walls or in unexpected places. Light fixtures may be integrated into stairways or retaining walls for safety and interest. Lighting plays an important role in establishing a mood and creating visual movement. Accenting blooms and foliage of perennials, annuals and vines are just a few of the possible horticultural effects. Various design elements, although very nice during the day, take on a bit of magic when illuminated in the night. Your eye is always drawn to the light, and in turn to the specific features chosen for accentuation.

The arbor provides a structure for vines to climb, supplies shade and creates a lovely setting for colorful containers and hanging plants.

Outfitting Your Outdoor Room
Furniture options for outdoor rooms are continually being updated and expanded. One of my favorites is the double chaise lounge that has separate backs for flexibility so that one person can be sitting while the other is lying down. Sophisticated choices in outdoor furnishings and accessories have transformed the design of exterior spaces to a level that rivals the refinement of a well-appointed interior. The limitations of outdoor furnishings of the past have given way to stylish offerings in synthetic wicker, wrought and cast aluminum, teak and other sustainably harvested woods. Twig furniture lends a country and rustic feeling to a scene.

Furniture and fabrics have been re-engineered for durability and colorfastness. Exterior rugs now visually mimic their interior counterparts and offer new options in design. The use of color and pattern for visual pop, the addition of statuary or sculpture, perhaps the drama of billowing draperies – all of these elements add to the excitement and endless possibilities for creating an outdoor room. Let your imagination roam!

Many outdoor rooms incorporate the convenience of an al fresco kitchen. These kitchens can be outfitted with components that raise the bar for cooking and entertaining. Infrared grilling systems, power burners, built-in refrigerators, sinks and storage units offer flexibility in configuration and functionality. Often these units are integrated into low  masonry walls faced with natural stone, faux stone or brick. Stainless steel and decay-resistant wood cabinetry are options for freestanding units. If budget permits, combining the kitchen with a fireplace, overhead canopy or bar seating creates a high-styled solution with substance. Countertops may be of natural stone, solid surface materials, granite or concrete. The materials and finishes should be chosen for durability and to coordinate and complement other outdoor features and style.


The newly created setting provides a beautiful and functional outdoor room while transforming the aesthetics of the entire backyard.


A favorite annual flowering vine is Ipomoea alba, or moonflower. The immense pure white flowers and lush deep green, large foliage complement the white arbor and railings. Moonflower is the nocturnal cousin of the common morning glory. Flowers open at dusk and are quite fragrant.


A water lily sits peacefully in this container that has been made into a small fountain. On the right is Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’).

The Featured Project
The starting point for the creation of this entertaining, dining and relaxation space was a large existing deck which had serious limitations for enjoyment. The original deck almost spanned the width of the home, but the only outside access was from the driveway on the far end of the deck. Equally problematic, from the back door of the house the rear yard could only be accessed by walking across the deck to the driveway and around. The flow was cumbersome and awkward. Even the family dog could not gain easy entry to the rear yard.

The first design priority was to modify the circulation by installing a new set of stairs from the deck into the backyard.  The stairs were positioned directly across from the center of the home and the exterior door. This area was also identified as the natural placement for the dining table due to its appropriate size, convenience and great visibility from the yard and interior of the home. A new arbor creates three-dimensional definition and complements the architecture of the home. The arbor supplies shade and a lovely habitat for colorful containers, hanging plants and a structure for vines to climb. The newly created setting provides a beautiful and functional outdoor room while transforming the aesthetics of the entire backyard.

One of the final touches included installing a cleverly positioned plant shelf around the outside perimeter of the deck for display of an impressive collection of bonsai and other plants. The shelf elevated the plants out of harm’s way and simplified access for maintenance.

Our outdoor spaces and rooms come alive when we join the scene. These spaces are created and intended, after all, to allow us to gain full enjoyment of all our surroundings, and to support and enhance our lifestyles. They are a backdrop for our lives. These spaces draw us to the fresh air, become the setting for celebrations and provide us with peaceful havens for retreat.


Nighttime brings its special magic for outdoor dining.


A version of this article appeared in Virginia Gardener Volume 8 Number 9.
Photography courtesy of Vicki O’Neal.



Posted: 11/17/16   RSS | Print


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