How to Plan Your Outdoor Living Space: The Ultimate Guide

We talk a lot about pergolas and retractable canopies and the benefits they offer the outdoor living enthusiast. However, the process that brings one to the point of actually planning a pergola with a retractable canopy has usually started long before, when the word pergola was an unfamiliar one, and the grim reality of sitting uncomfortably on a deck or patio, putting the antiperspirant to the ultimate test, pushes the point to a decision: It’s time to do something with the backyard!

From that moment on, the process of researching starts with going online, looking at backyard outdoor living images, perhaps visiting local landscape designer websites, thinking about how much the images you see will cost. To get more hands-on info you make a few visits to home shows, flower and garden shows, and you purchase some glossy magazines to fill your mind’s eye with the ideas that will gel into a plan over time.

For those of you in the process of planning an outdoor living space, with enough research behind you to have an inkling of what you want, make sure you cover the big picture design points before delving down to the decisions about what type of barbeque you want or the type of furniture you want to make the ultimate outdoor living style expression.

The Big Picture

Let’s start with the big picture which is, what will you use your outdoor living space for? The intended use will give you the direction you need to get on track to the ultimate outdoor living plan. Will you be using the space to entertain, or for solitude and privacy. Kids don’t like outdoor living unless it includes a pool. Is that part of what’s needed to make the Staycation popular?

Size Matters…

With these things in mind, how large an area is there to work with? If you have a large backyard, you may want to lay out the space you would improve with some markers and walk among them to make sure the openness and spaciousness you expect will result. Keep some rules of thumb in mind for the budget. Get costs per square foot from local contractors for decking, concrete and stone patio surfaces and even pools. They may resist saying ‘it depends’ but press for a number that is representative of the range you are in. Tell them you are either budget conscious, looking for best value, or ready to indulge and get that budgetary per square foot figure to work around. Being the resident pergola canopy expert, here is what you can figure for the price of comfort and style provided by a retractable pergola canopy system:

Pergola (Cedar or Vinyl):  $30 – $40/sq ft.  Plan for $35.

Pergola Canopy:  $19 – $25/sq ft.  Plan for $21.

In both cases, the larger you go, the better the price per square foot. We all know our high school math, but regardless, it’s easy to think a 12X12 is 20% more expensive than a 10X10 when it’s really 44% bigger.  I know this because I’ve seen enough expressions of surprise when a 10X10 project takes the path of ‘What the heck… let’s go 12X12’.

Integrating the Outdoor Living Space

This isn’t electronics 101 (integrated circuits for the techies out there). It’s practicality 201!  When you know what you are going to use your outdoor living space for, and you’ve defined the area that the project will occupy, the integration of that space is the next step. Here are the points to consider:

Where is the traffic coming from and going to?  The sliding patio door is one obvious one. How about the side gate for pool party guests? My friend’s back yard has a door from the side of his garage that gets used more than the patio doors (what with all the bicycles, dirt bikes and workshop in there…) So plan for where people will come and go from. Those of you backing on to a ravine or greenbelt may have a rear gate.

Outdoor Power Supply

Where will the power need to be?  Outdoor lighting, motorized retractable canopies (couldn’t resist the plug), retractable awnings, and outdoor kitchens all require power. Make sure the electrician is involved early in the process so your last minute detail doesn’t involve trenching for power out to the pergola. You may also need a service upgrade beyond the usual 200 amps.

Water Supply

The same goes for water features and outdoor kitchens when it comes to water supply. The spigot off the house is one thing, but you’ll be trenching to get the same thing at the bar-b if it is away from the house. Make sure it’s an early consideration.

Oh Yeah… The Neighbors!

Make sure your plans don’t interfere with the rights of neighbors. It’s important to know your property rights and lot line setbacks (and maximum allowable fence heights, etc) even before you call in the designers. That way when you sit down with your designer, your outdoor living plans are already taking bylaw limitations into account. Whether or not you advise neighbors of your plans in advance is entirely up to you and dependent on that maximum fence height.

Plan for Privacy

Fences are one privacy option, but a more pleasant and aesthetically stylish way to say ‘privacy please’ is a pergola. The canopy overhead protects from sun and rain, but if you’re in an urban environment, it can also block the view of those looking down from their 10th floor balcony. For those of you dealing with prying eyes on the ground, pergola curtains are a stylish and sophisticated way to say MYOB. Pergola curtains add an extra measure of style to go along with the practicality of privacy.

The Fun Part of Planning Your Outdoor Living Space

You’ve covered all the bases, dotted all the I’s, crossed all the T’s, checked off all the boxes, and with that determined your budget. Now it’s time to spend it! And now it’s time to invest in your needs before your wants. Sorry to be the party pooper.It would be great to take the budget and go to the outdoor living one-stop-shop and buy all the cool furniture, lighting, barbeques with a kitchen sink, and potted plants and plantings. But all those things can be purchased any time, upgraded any time, and are subject to the whims of style all the time. Let’s look at the budget items that will be enjoyed and lived with for 15 to 20 years first. Those items are in the hardscape, comprised of the patio, deck, pergola, fireplace, kitchen, pool and whatever else needs a trade with tools to do.

Among those items are a few that are 100% no holds barred required for outdoor living. They are the patio/deck, and the retractable awning or pergola with retractable shade canopy. Clearly, the surface on which you will enjoy the outdoors is necessary. The choices are many and this is an investment that should not be compromised. After five years will the decking be flat and free of mold and mildew? Will the interlocking be flat and free of low spots collecting water? Will the concrete be free of cracks and draining properly? Make these elements of your warranty from your contractor!

The next point is environmental control, AKA sun and rain protection. Where will you be spending your time? How about the guests for events? You don’t want to be dependent on perfect weather for your enjoyment, and a sunny day isn’t really perfect weather for outdoor living unless you have shade. Make sure you can control the sun with a retractable canopy or awning. This is too critical to express in words so here are a few reminders:

Last summer (2012) was the hottest ever recorded and UV is now known to be a real danger to health. Make your outdoor living space one that can be enjoyed to the fullest with sun protection. That means a shade pergola or an awning.

If a pool is on the list, these items will be settings around the pool and no less important to the long term use of the outdoor living space.

So you’ve got the surface selected, you’ve budgeted for all or part of it to be protected from the sun (and rain if you get a fixed roof or a pergola with canopy) and what’s left over is yours to enjoy any way you like. Outdoor furniture, fireplaces, water features, lighting and yes barbeques are on the fun to spend list. Enjoy!