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2018-19 Eat Smart. Play Hard Magazine

2018-19 Magazine

2018-19 Eat Smart. Play Hard. Magazine

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Designing Outdoor Gathering Spaces

Designing a beautiful and functional outdoor gathering space for your family can make the outdoors even more enjoyable.

The winter months can be bitterly cold in the Midwest, and we look forward to spending more time outdoors during the summer months. Designing a beautiful and functional outdoor gathering space for your family can make the outdoors even more enjoyable.

Outdoor gathering spaces include porches, decks, patios, gazebos, outdoor fireplaces surrounded by seating, or a beautiful, quiet area in your garden. Outdoor rooms are exterior areas that are open but more protected from the harsh elements of the outdoors.

A common outdoor room is a porch. A porch often has one solid wall it shares with the attached home, a roof and railings or half walls with openings (or screened openings) to the outdoors. The primary intent behind an outdoor room is to bring the indoors out.

Outdoor rooms provide a wonderful transition between the outdoors and indoors. Large, retractable glass doors protect your home from the weather while providing extensive views of the exterior. French doors and retractable doors provide users with the ability to open an entire wall to the outdoors, making both spaces feel larger.

Outdoor gathering spaces of any type can be enhanced by incorporating comfortable and durable furniture and finishes, and carefully selected plants and flowers, and introducing lighting and focal points. Laying out the furniture to encourage conversation and provide ample space for movement is key to any well-designed gathering space.

Measure Your Space

Begin by measuring the space carefully prior to purchasing any furniture, flower pots or other decorative items. This will help you purchase furniture that is appropriately sized for the space.

When measuring your space for furniture, remember to plan for circulation space between pieces of furniture: for example, to provide at least 18 inches between a seating piece and a coffee table. If you are including swings or rockers of any type, you will need to consider the size of the item and the amount of clearance needed around the furniture piece.

Accommodating the movement of furniture can be tricky, but often manufacturers provide recommendations for placement to avoid interference with other furniture pieces or walls.

Selecting Furniture

Providing a variety of furniture creates an inclusive space capable of accommodating a variety of users. Include seating that is sturdy, has a seat height of 17 to 20 inches, and has a full back and arms to assist individuals who may have difficulty rising from a seated position.

Flexible seating can be helpful when the number or size of people using the space  varies. Providing benches with one continuous cushion allows for people to sit anywhere on the bench without the discomfort often associated with sitting where two cushions meet.

Lounge furniture can take up a large amount of space, but it provides the most comfortable reclining positions and often is equipped with cushions. The depth of a seat can affect comfort. If a chair is too deep, properly sized back pillows with firmer filler can improve comfort.

How protected your space is from the weather will determine what types of furniture, materials, and fabrics are best to use. Consider water/hail resistance when selecting furniture. Metal furniture is durable and less likely to be damaged, tip over or blow away during a strong storm.

Carefully consider the color of the paint used on the metal because this often can impact how warm the material will get on a hot, sunny day. Lighter colors reflect more of the light from the sun, which helps keep the metal cooler to the touch.

Because wood is a natural material, wood furniture blends seamlessly into the natural elements of an outdoor environment. Some wood furniture may need to be stained and sealed properly to protect the wood and reduce fading or discoloration from exposure to the sun and weather.

A variety of plastics, including recycled plastic furniture, is available. One of the biggest challenges with plastic outdoor furniture is connected to weight. A piece of furniture that is too light has the potential to tip over or blow away during a storm. Plastic furniture reinforced with a metal frame can be a great choice for safe, durable and affordable outdoor furniture.

Finishing Touches

Colorful outdoor rugs and fabric can bring texture and comfort to the space. Textile products with bright or rich colors have the potential to fade when exposed to the sun and will show wear when exposed to the elements. Fabrics and rugs designed for exterior use will repel, rather than absorb, dirt and water, and will resist fading if exposed to the sun for longer periods of time. Patterns also help hide dirt and stains while creating layers of textures.

Carefully placed citronella candles can provide ambient lighting and repel insects. Light fixtures can be used to draw attention to focal points and improve safety by lighting paths, stairs and walkways. Any light fixtures used outdoors must be UL listed and appropriate for the type of exterior space where it will be installed.

Focal points such as outdoor fireplaces provide beauty and warmth, while water features create tranquil sounds and provide movement. An assortment of materials can be used to create fire and water features in your outdoor gathering space. Personalize the space and make it your own. If you enjoy flea markets, outdoor gathering spaces are the perfect place to showcase your treasures.

Plants and flowers in decorative pots and planters bring color and nature into the space. Many plants naturally repel insects, which can be beneficial when designing an outdoor space for relaxing. Basil repels house flies and mosquitos. Lavender repels flies, fleas, moths and mosquitos. Lemongrass, lemon thyme, rosemary and mint will repel mosquitos. Plant an herb garden and enjoy eating the fresh herbs in your insect-free outdoor space.

Outdoor gathering spaces bring together the best of interior and exterior spaces. Smart selections and clever uses of materials can create a lasting and unique space for your family to come together and enjoy the outdoors.


Ann Marie Ragan, M.S., ASID, IDEC, NCIDQ Cert. No. 023436
Senior Lecturer, Department of Apparel, Design and Hospitality Management, NDSU

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