For the most part, our Australian climate is well suited to outdoor living. Much of the design work involved in renovating and extending homes includes a focus on the relationship between indoor and out, how people get from the inside to the backyard. Architects call this ‘transition space’
All too often, building work to interior spaces exhausts the budget before the backyard has even been taken into account. The result is that many homeowners are left to do their own backyard makeover. A good design service will at least make some attempt to include the ‘transition space’ (decks/steps or in between areas) and allocation of general planting areas.
Following is a general guide to improving outdoor spaces, with some basic principles for designing your backyard makeover.
* Familiarise yourself with the climatic conditions of your backyard throughout the seasons. Make a mud map of where the sunny spots are and where the wind comes from. This will not be difficult to do if you read the weekend papers in the backyard — just take note of where you are shifting to catch the sun. Also consider where you need to screen the neighbours’ view to prevent them looking into your yard.
* Consider the best location for functional items such as the barbecue and outdoor setting; usually this is close to and on the same level as the house for easy access to existing indoor amenities such as the kitchen and bathroom. Ideally, the outdoor entertainment area will be a flat surface; if the house is on the ground this area can be paved, or if the floor level is above ground a timber deck leading from the house may be more suitable.
* In-built sinks, barbecues and fridges are now popular with people who do a lot of outdoor entertaining. A shelter over the entertainment area will also make it more flexible, providing protection from the sun, wind and rain.
1. Leave what works
Once you have your mud map, think about what you enjoy most about your backyard and what needs to be improved. Then decide what to keep and what needs to go.
This inner-city terrace had existing concrete pavers, exposed brick and concrete walls, and very damp bush rock stepping-stones. The brick walls were left. The concrete walls were partially obscured with the new timber seating area and pergola structure. The bush rock areas were removed and new deck/platform spaces were inserted. The new blackbutt timber seating, decking and pergola now act as a unifying element for the whole backyard while existing elements that looked a little tired now appear to be rejuvenated (the old pavers and brick walls were cleaned with a high-pressure hose). The result is an insertion of new elements with the structural bones of the original garden left underneath. This works well, contrasting the old with the new.
2. Recycle & reuse on-site features
Some things that have been retained can be re-used or recycled in different forms. The seat from our inner-city terrace example re-uses the timber lintel from above the doorway that was left over from the renovation of the house. The lintel has been housed in new timber supports to create the seat. Many of the pots are gathered from garage sales or council rubbish collections and given a cleanup to reuse in a new setting.
Re-use recycled items to feature in your backyard design. Other ideas include housing large cheap plastic pots in a timber frame then cladding in timber or other sheeting material such as fibre cement or galvanised steel sheeting; old pavers can be cleaned up and re-laid as feature seating ledges. If you have built a deck, left-over timber offcuts may be used to make small individual box seats.
3. Maximise opportunities for flexibility
Ensure you maximise the opportunities for design elements to be flexible and have multiple uses. Timber platforms can double as seats, sun-lounges, storage areas, and plant or pond retainers. A timber pergola can act as plant trellis, lighting frame, shade structure, clothesline (with more plant covering or grass matting inserted).
Screens can be very useful as dividers between neighbours to enhance visual and acoustic privacy in the backyard. Other than having a utilitarian use, they can be quite beautiful as growing walls. Plants can be trained to follow stainless-steel cables or structures, creating interest as the wall changes with the seasons or as the plant grows. Screens can also be made into features by choosing a good combination of materials and/or colour.
4. Include a feature or focus
A ‘feature’ does not have to be an extroverted ‘statement’ — sometimes subtle features work better. A feature can be as simple as choosing a pot plant that is in season and placing it on the centre of the table.
Water features are great solutions because the sound of running water is very relaxing and can often drown out background white noise, such as traffic. Ponds can be housed under timber decking by cutting an opening in the decking with supporting structure underneath.
5. Organising structure & infill
A good backyard design is a single thing, as well as a collection of many, and to make the design work requires a conceptual leap form the individual components to the vision as a whole. Your design ‘choices’ will represent ways of assembling the parts. Good design usually has an overlaid organising structure with other elements acting as infill elements within the broader structure.
Plants can be both focus and filler elements. In-built garden beds can be filled with plants of varying sizes, shapes, colours and textures. When matching plants, think about the colour of the foliage, where the leaves are going to hang and the eventual size of the plant.
Pot plants can be clustered in various forms to either provide relief as an infill element or to act as a feature. Pot plants can also be moved around to mix and match different foliages and be moved into the sunlight and act as features at different times when their foliage looks its best.
Lighting, like planting, can be a focus or a feature. Soft light and strong lighting should be matched to the task — a combination of strong and softer lighting usually works well. Consider the use of fairylights perhaps to emphasise a structural element in your backyard, or other soft lighting such as candles or garden lights.
Remember, when any design decisions arise, always ask yourself what is the purpose of your backyard design, where are people going to sit and how are they going to use the space. Think of your garden design in its purest form. Design is first and foremost a functional art.
“Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.” – Charles Eames.
Most of the images used in this article are the result of a collaborative project by Steven Hammond, Clinton Cole, Mel Zugai and Lisa Strudwick.
Photographs by Red Dog Design & Pardalote
For more information:
Zugai Strudwick Architects Pty Ltd
Phone: (02) 6684 8017