Outdoor Spaces – What to Know Before You Create Them!

Summer is on its way (YEAH!) and many of us will be spending much more time outside enjoying the backyard greenery and the sun’s light and warmth. The lockdowns and “stay home” rules of the pandemic have created a new appreciation for the beauty and peace of mother nature’s “house” in nurturing and supporting our well-being.

With the increased interest in living outside of our homes, outdoor rooms or spaces have become one of the hottest trends for residential buildings and renovation. There are hundreds of websites, blogs, and product promotions that feature tips on what to include in an outdoor space – like current trends, before and after designs, budget-friendly ideas, furnishings, and the list goes on.

However, what many people may fail to find in their information searches is “where or how do I begin creating an outdoor space”!

Well, here are a few suggested questions you can be asking yourself in planning to construct a new outdoor space for your home or remodeling a current one:


What are the functions or activities that will take place in this space?

Do you desire to just have a tranquil place for you and your family to relax outdoors, or, do you plan to entertain with a number of guests frequently, or, have the capability to do both? The size of an outdoor area will play a key role in supporting the main activities of the space. If you are looking to build an environment for various activities, such as a swimming pool, grill island, bar/beverage area, outside television, fireplace or fire pit, and conversational seating, you will want to break those activities into zones first and determine what items, materials, and structures are needed to support those designated activities in their respective zones.

Photo courtesy of Bull Outdoor Products, Inc.

Will the new outdoor space require additional storage facilities to house furnishings and equipment during seasons of less use?

Much of today’s outdoor furnishings, BBQ equipment, and decorative planters, are manufactured for durability in certain weather conditions but may have longer lifespans if kept out of temperature extremes. Upholstered outdoor cushions are one item that maintains their longevity and cleanliness if stored indoors during cold, snowy winters. Does your home offer the extra storage space that you might need for your outdoor items when not in use?

(Photo courtesy of Anacara Company)


What are the elements/areas of the existing space that are working, and which are not working for the desired activities, and why?

Many times the need to redo existing outdoor spaces is not just because they are outdated, but they are also not supporting our desired functions and activities. The question as to “why” is a good one to ask yourself in obtaining clarity on what elements may be missing, or, if there is another way to improve those that exist. An example of a missing item might be low or non-existing light resources for using the space at night comfortably. Thus, new electrical wiring and/or service may be a necessity to accommodate more lighting fixtures and receptacles. Or, there may be a need for more table room when dining. Instead of one large table, maybe there could be two or more smaller ones located within the space for flexibility. When identifying what works or doesn’t work in existing outdoor areas, the findings can lead to creative opportunities for improvement or enhancement.

Do we replace our current decaying wood deck with a paver brick patio or faux wood?

To help with this analysis you may want to determine if changing the deck to a paver patio would better support the activities of this space, like with increased capability to add more seating or dining furnishings. Does the location offer the necessary logistical access to the main residence if the change was made? Is there room to expand the deck to allow for more functions? Did the maintenance on the current wood take too much of your time every year? Reviewing these types of questions can assist you in deciding the direction to go with a replacement.


How do we determine if we need or can do an enclosed covered or enclosed space?

Again, starting the thought process at what the intended activities or functions are will assist you in determining what the structure and materials are necessary to support them. If your home’s locale experiences frequent rainfall or extreme sun glare sixty percent of the day, and your property has the expansion space, then a covered space such as a pavilion or gazebo might be suitable for outdoor eating, cooking, and entertaining. Are flying insects frequent guests at your outdoor dining table? Perhaps a screened enclosure could be the answer to pest-free food and drink. Imagine being able to read or play card games in an outdoor space that protects from these types of disturbances through the use of the proper framework and materials.

Checklists are a great tool to initially organize the planning information for creating or updating your outdoor space. Follow the steps listed below in using a checklist for each level of planning.
(Leave writing space between each activity/function):


List the activities/functions that will take place in the outdoor space; estimate the amount of square footage you may need for each

Step 2 – ELEMENTS Checklist:

List the items that are needed to support each activity or function

Step 3 – MATERIALS//STRUCTURE Checklist:

List the anticipated construction materials and structure needed to support the elements, activities, and functions


Activity/Function A Desired:
_____ Area for comfortable conversational seating and relaxing

______ Furnishings: Lounge chairs and chaises, cocktail table, side or drink tables
______ Lighting for nights
______ Storage: for furniture covers, outdoor tableware, and drinkware
______ Large umbrella for sun control
______ Decorative pots for colorful florals and plantings
______ Fire area for heat/atmosphere

______ Patio area approximately (12′ x 12′)
______ Pergola with landscaping to create space designation and connection to the house
______ Electrical access for lighting and receptacles
______ Fireplace or fire pit or heated lamp

______ Brick pavers with patterns/colors
______ Foliage for privacy
______ Vinyl pergola

Activity/Function B:
_____ Area for grilling and food preparation with a mini-fridge

_____ Built-in gas grill
_____ Storage for cooking tools and propane (if no gas line)
_____ Area for mini-fridge near the grill

_____ Patio area approximately (10′ x 6′) with access to house hose
_____ Island with a countertop approximately (4′ x 7′ x 3′)
_____ Gas line for grill, or use propane tanks
_____ Electrical receptacles for mini-fridge and food prep
_____ Winter storage of mini-fridge in garage

_____ Island – purchase ready-made unit
_____ Cabinet in an island with drawers or shelves
_____ Cut-out in island for outdoor mini-fridge placement

This brief checklist example demonstrates some initial steps in creating a list of what it will take to deliver the desired results for your outdoor space. You can continue to add to the checklist and build upon each step as your ideas expand with more details.

Drawing a simple bubble diagram can help you to visualize how the outdoor space could be laid out. This can assist any design professional you might bring on to your project to understand your thought process for your space.

Another tool that could also help you in planning your outdoor space project is our “How to Work Successfully with Your Spouse/Partner on a Building or Remodeling Project” guide.

It contains many more questions you can use in the initial planning and assimilation of information you’ll need to create that outdoor space of your dreams!

Karen Lee Johnson, interior designer in Milwaukee Wisconsin

Hi, I’m Karen!

I’m the Founder/Creative Director of Karen Lee Johnson Interiors, a residential design firm working with clients seeking a professional, innovative and collaborative approach to design. We partner with you to creatively and meticulously translate your dreams and visions into reality. Learn more about our services or book a call to tell us about your project!

How to Work Successfully with your Spouse/Partner on a Building or Remodeling Project Free Guide

Discover how to work successfully with your spouse/ partner on planning a building or remodeling project with our FREE guide!

Interested in talking to us about interior design for your residential project?