Make the right choices when designing your outdoor room and be kind to the environment.
Our individual choices can affect both our local and wider environments, so it’s good we now question old assumptions about the right ways to do things, whether that’s choosing a car, building a home or creating an outdoor room.
Where you once might have made decisions based on how something looks, availability or price, environmental sustainability must now go much higher up the list. If you use “green” principles in the design, materials selection and construction techniques of your outdoor room, you can settle back feeling confident that your choices are helping and not harming our environment.
Outdoor rooms don’t need to be big; they need to be sized right for you and your family and they should fit the proportions of your house. Every extra bit of paving or decking you lay that you don’t really need is wasteful and unnecessary and will require more excavation or levelling and more materials. It also reduces rainwater infiltration, increases scouring runoff and potentially adds to urban heat load.
Outdoor dining for eight people needs about 14m², and an area of about 40m² will easily fit dining, an outdoor lounge, planting and cooking. If you have particular needs that you think require more space, first look at whether something can do double duty, as large areas might look grand but intimate spaces are usually more appealing to be in. By concentrating your effort and money on quality rather than quantity, you’ll also have an outdoor room that feels much more luxurious, as it is the attention to all those little details that really makes the difference.
Choose a design, materials and plants that work with your climate, so you can enjoy your outdoor room for as much of the year as possible, as well minimise any contribution to urban heat load or wasteful water use. In colder climates, materials that absorb and retain heat, such as dark-coloured masonry paving and walls, work well as they create a warm microclimate around your home and reduce your inside heating needs. In warmer zones, that same paving would add uncomfortably to household heat, as well as the heat-island effect if you’re in a large town and city. Instead, you could choose light-coloured paving that reflects heat, or decking because it doesn’t absorb or hold it to the same extent.
Shade hard surface areas throughout the hotter months with a tree, awning, pergola or shade sail. You can also cool down a west-facing wall with a planted green wall or install sliding shutters or roll-down blinds to help block out the hot afternoon sun.
All materials have embodied energy and life-cycle environmental costs. There is often a trade-off in those choices, as long-lasting materials such as metals can use finite resources and much higher energy in their manufacture, but also be more recyclable. Look at each material to understand its true environmental cost, including the source of raw materials (renewable or finite, sustainable or environmentally damaging), manufacturing energy, use of harmful chemicals, transportation, longevity, maintenance and end-of-life disposal or recycling possibilities.
Many landscaping materials now have more environmentally sustainable alternatives. Poured concrete can be replaced with pervious concrete, which has tiny internal voids that allow water to penetrate and the reinforcing mesh can be Enviromesh rather than steel.New paving systems, such as Boral’s Hydrapave, help control and channel stormwater run-off. Interstone aggregate pavement is completely permeable for groundwater replenishment. Look for timber carrying a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. Talk to potential contractors about you green principles so they know your requirements and preferences.
Reused and recycled materials can bring an instant aged patina or eclectic appeal to an outdoor room and prevent new materials being mined and manufactured, as well as keeping waste out of landfill sites. Demolished stone foundations or broken up concrete slab can be stacked into low retaining walls. Old, pre-loved pavers can form contrasting banding or edging when mixed with new materials. Reclaimed timber or steel beams from demolition and industrial sites used for pergola posts and joists look wonderful and tell a fascinating story when still carrying marks of their original use and fastenings.
Scavenge some rustic timber or metal doors, rework metal objects as sculpture, repaint some old pots or use quirky discarded containers for plants and restore and recover classic vintage cast-iron, aluminium or wicker furniture for a highly individual look. Rescue some old timber furniture and dress it up with a French blue or vanilla-cream wash.
Be wary of including unnecessary fixtures in your outdoor room. Although some outdoor gas cooking is always worthwhile, building in a second set of household appliances like a full outdoor kitchen is not environmentally friendly, regardless of the materials from which it’s made. More eco-chic inclusions for your outdoor room are green walls, edible gardens and ways to get the kids enjoying themselves outside, such as table tennis, a sandpit and a frog pond. Other environmentally sustainable decorating ideas are fires that burn renewable ethanol, long-lasting LED lights that use negligible power, plantation-grown bamboo products for shade and screening and recycled polypropylene rugs.
Plants are a key part of an eco-friendly outdoor room, as they help create the best microclimate, providing shade and shelter, reducing dust and noise and providing habitat for beneficial animals, birds and insects. From a design point of view, they are also what differentiates outside from in, and you can use them as canopies and screens to separate different spaces, as focal points, as run-off soaks or to clothe an ugly wall.
Unless you have drainage problems, planting into improved site soil is always better than importing manufactured soil into raised beds. Select plants that are water-wise in your climate zone that are known for their resistance to pests and diseases, although you should also avoid planting monocultures as lots of the same plant always makes them more vulnerable to attack.
If you want your outdoor room to stay environmentally sustainable, you’ll also need to design and decorate for eco-friendly maintenance. Outdoor rooms that need to be kept neat with power-driven hedge or edge trimming and noisy blowers, cooled by fans or heated with gas burners will give you a very big ecological footprint. Grow plants as informal screens rather than tightly clipped hedges, use hand tool alternatives, incorporate passive solar techniques for warming and cooling, and become accepting of less than perfect. Tuck a water tank under a bench, in a narrow side passage or use a Landscape Tank retaining wall, so you’ll have rainwater to feed a drip irrigation system when necessary.