One golf fanatic I know has a regulation sand trap just off his patio, and I once visited a railroad buff whose back yard was overwhelmed by an operating signal tower.
But most outdoor spaces are intended for much the same kinds of activities as indoor ones-- relaxation, eating, entertaining, games-- and it is helpful to think of them in those terms. Such an outdoor living space is like an indoor “family room,” one of those flexible and durable places designed to accommodate everything from family meals and informal dinner parties to messy projects and impromptu games.
An outdoor family room can perform many of the same functions, as well as some strictly outdoor ones, if it is designed as a similarly flexible, all-purpose kind of space, adaptable to changing needs, easy to maintain, and, where necessary, sheltered from sun, wind and the neighbors’ eyes.
To function this way, an outdoor room must have the same basic elements that its indoor counterpart has: floor, ceiling and walls. They will not be as all-enclosing as the floor, ceiling and walls of an indoor room, but they will perform very much the same tasks.
And because they form the basic structure of the outdoor room, those parts of the elements that already exist must be taken into account during the planning stage. The house itself, for example, provides some of the walls for the outdoor living room, and generally little can be done about changing them.
Existing trees must usually be counted on for part of the ceiling; which ones-- if any-- ought to be cut down will have major influence in determining layout. But other elements need not be considered until later.
The furnishings of the outdoor space-- the purely decorative plants, flowers, pools, lighting, statuary or whatever, as well as the actual outdoor furniture-- are, like the furnishings of a house, concerns to be taken up after the basic plan of the room has been worked out to the satisfaction of the prospective users.
The Outdoor Room
A well-designed outdoor room can be a single area behind the house, but more likely it will be divided into two areas: one for intensive use-- generally a paved terrace near the house for sitting, dining and some children’s play-- and a larger adjoining area that gets lighter wear but can be used for almost anything-- an occasional game of catch or badminton with the kids, an overflow of guests from the terrace during a party, or just looking at to enjoy the feeling of spaciousness it gives.
The layout of these areas depends partly on the design of the house interior. The outdoor room must be easy to reach from indoors-- ideally, it will be a physical extension of indoor living spaces. If you have to go out a front or side door and then around the house to get to it, or if you have to go through several rooms or lead your guests through the kitchen to find it, the outdoor room probably will not be used very much, even if you spend a fortune on it.
So if your yard is not an easy step or two from the living room, dining room or back hall, it will almost certainly be worth the expense, generally a modest one, to convert a rear window into a door.
The location of the access to the back yard usually determines the location of the terrace section. If this space is kept close to the kitchen, meals and drinks can be served with a minimum of walking back and forth.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule requiring the terrace to be close to the refrigerator; if by walking to another part of your property you can gain a much better view, say of a lovely river valley, it would be silly to ignore that location and build the terrace next to the house simply to have it handy to the kitchen.
Or, if you happen to be blessed with a magnificent old shade tree that is not right near the house, a path to a terrace there might well be worth the extra steps.
It is easier to be explicit about the size and shape of a terrace. For convenient use by a few people-- say a party of six or eight-- it should be at least 12 feet on a side, preferably 15 feet, and more square or round than oblong to allow for natural furniture groupings and room to move around in.
A terrace that is 20 or even 30 feet across is still better; it will permit the entertaining of a large group on a summer evening, and it will also be roomy enough to do double duty as a children’s play area, one that is easily supervised from windows of the house.
For the larger open space beyond the terrace the main criteria are just that-- large if possible and in any case open. A yard dotted with trees and shrubs at random becomes an obstacle course that is difficult if not impossible to play touch football or croquet on and, if planted in grass, an eternal nuisance to mow.