Transform your balcony into an outdoor room with these clever space-maximising ideas
Do you live in an apartment and dream of having a lush garden to tend to and relax within? In the hustle and bustle of city life, a quarter-acre block is all but unheard of. Within these city hubs, high-density living is fast becoming a necessary and very popular lifestyle choice for those who work there, saving them precious commute time when travelling between the home and the office. What if it was possible to have a garden while living in an apartment? Wouldn’t it be great to have a haven among the hubbub that is daily life? You’ll be pleased to know that it is possible if you have a balcony garden.
No matter how small your balcony is, you can turn it into a great place to entertain friends and family, cook, eat or simply relax. If you have a large balcony, you just might be able to do all of this. The main ways to introduce a lifestyle element into your balcony are through furniture, design and plants. New apartment developments have also seen an improvement in the provision and orientation of balconies.
If you have decided that your balcony should be turned into an outdoor haven, there are a few things to consider before you venture to your local plant nursery, outdoor furniture shop or hardware store.
While you may already be forming an image in your mind of the perfect outdoor room for you, remember that there could be constraints due to the nature of your residence. Check with your body corporate or similar entity whether there are any restraints that you need to consider before you get your heart set on something you just can’t have. These could be concerns about permanent structural elements that aren’t consistent with the external look of the building such as light fittings, wall treatments or, in some instances, flooring.
Depending on what you want to use the space for, you may need to employ the services of an engineer to ensure the weight loading, waterproofing and drainage won’t cause issues for yourself or your neighbours now or in the future.
Once you have found out what your limitations are, think about what you would like to use the space for. Will you be using the area to entertain friends and family with a meal and, if so, how many people do you need to accommodate? Will you be eating outside? Will you be cooking there? Perhaps you want the space purely as a place to relax and unwind after a long day on the job.
If your space is small or you want the area to be multifunctional, it’s a good idea to incorporate furniture that serves dual functions. Some good examples include storage that doubles as seating or building furnishings into the balcony to maximise space. Matthew Cantwell, director of landscape design company Secret Gardens of Sydney, warns that built-in furniture can be difficult due to balustrading issues or, if installed near glass doors, it could hinder views from inside.
Your location and local environment will play a big role in the style and use of the balcony. Do you have water views or a leafy, green outlook? Be sure to position seating in the best way so as to take advantage of these. You can frame a beautiful view with greenery, such as potted plants, which will no doubt entice visitors and family members out to the balcony while giving you a lovely vista to enjoy when looking out from inside your apartment.
Once you have worked out what you are going to use the area for, you can start to plan some purchases. If you’ve decided that the balcony will be used for that quintessentially Australian way to catch up with friends and family — barbecuing — it’s time to consider your outdoor cooking options. Thankfully, modern barbecues come in all shapes and sizes, so you should be able to find something to fit in your space. Larger balconies will be able to fit a barbecue of similar size to those found in suburban backyards, while some small barbecues are petite enough to be stored out of sight when not in use, too.
When it comes to flooring, it’s best to stick with a similar look and feel to what has been used indoors to create a seamless indoor-outdoor vibe. For example, if you have floorboards inside the apartment, a timber deck is a great way for those areas to blend together. If you have tiles, choose a tile or paver in a similar colour for the balcony. The fact that the balcony is connected to the home makes this transition an easy one, too.
“Getting the floor surface right is important,” says Matthew. “And if it won’t cause any structural problems, try to set the tiles at an elevated level so it matches the indoors — this will help the flow from one area to another.”
Matthew says timber flooring is a popular trend for balconies. “It elevates easily, virtually keeps itself clean, looks great and keeps warm underfoot. It’s a good flooring material if you want to keep plants, too, as tiles can look dirty quickly in comparison.”
As mentioned earlier, changing the flooring on your balcony could be out of the question due to building restrictions, so check with your strata or other governing body before getting started. If you can’t have what you want due to these constraints, there are some alternative, non-permanent options including decking, pavers and pebble sheets. An outdoor rug could be another option if you have the space.
Some apartment blocks have balconies with shade provided by other structural elements of the building, such as a balcony for the apartment above. The direction that your balcony faces will establish what plants you can have and whether you need a barrier from the wind or shelter from the sun. Some apartment developers are introducing screening or flexible shading options, such as plantation shutters on tracks that can be moved to provide shelter and shade from the elements as well as privacy from the street and neighbours. If, however, your balcony doesn’t have a shade solution, it’s worth looking into these options to be as comfortable as possible.
“Blinds and awnings can have body corporate implications,” advises Matthew. “And control the sun at the balcony’s edge, rather than at the doors where you will hinder views from indoors.”
When it comes to decorating your new balcony, keep in mind that the main aim is to create an extension of the apartment’s interior, thus generating an outdoor room. To generate a good connection between the indoors and the outdoors, use similar materials, colours and design as those in your indoor living area. Some people, however, opt for a completely different look from their interiors, which can be a striking contrast that works well.
Take care not to choose furniture that crowds the space. People need to be able to comfortably move around the area and, of course, you need to be able to get it up to your balcony in the first place.
“Keep scale and proportion in mind,” recommends Matthew. “While a big setting may be functional, if it’s too big people won’t use it. Think outside the square: foldaway chairs can be stored on hooks and brought down when needed; ottomans can be used as storage, a coffee table and spare seating.”
Also, be sure to buy furniture that is stable enough not to be blown around by the weather and has the right weather-resistant qualities to ensure durability.
No outdoor area is complete without some greenery. Pots are the best way to keep them on your balcony — the modern design key of less is more applies to pots — and drought-tolerant species will ensure dirty water spillage is kept to a minimum. If you don’t have a lot of time to spend on maintenance, be sure to choose plants that don’t require a lot of effort.
“You don’t often find a tap on a balcony, and lugging a watering can through the house isn’t ideal, so choose something that is drought-tolerant,” says Matthew. “Wind tolerance is also important. Succulents are a great option as they fit the bill and can look lush.”
Think about your neighbours and steer clear of plants that are likely to make a mess. Matthew also suggests using oversized pots rather than built-in planters. “A common problem is buying a pot that’s too small to sustain the plant,” he adds.
As with the design of any landscape, lighting can be used to create a mood or highlight any special features such as a plant or piece of wall art and, of course, it’s necessary if you want to use the space at night. Implementing a lighting scheme can mean the balcony will be enjoyed even from within the apartment.
It stands to reason that a balcony is a great place to create an outdoor room. And as they’re usually positioned off the lounge room of the apartment, an outdoor room-style balcony is the perfect way to extend your high-set home’s living space. Whether you have a large or small space, carefully considering its use and style will mean an extra living area for your apartment.