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Outdoor Living Spaces

Creating Great Outdoor Living Spaces

Careful planning, inspired design and thoughtful attention to detail each contribute to the beauty and livability of great outdoor living spaces. Kimley-Horn landscape architect Jonathan Haigh offers insight into the processes involved with developing great outdoor living spaces in South Florida. Haigh's extensive portfolio of public parks, civic spaces, and large-scale retail and residential designs has contributed to the creation of countless outdoor living spaces that South Florida residents and visitors interact with daily.

Haigh says to develop a plan that considers the function, structure and environmental elements of the space:

Activity Zones | Determine the functions of the space and the relation of those functions to each other. Professional designers often create bubble diagrams that delineate the general size of the space required for each function to carefully locate those functions on a property.

Circulation | Consider how you will get to each space by designating pathways and gathering spaces. A mix of widths and pathway surfacing materials—hard and soft—can create a hierarchy that will help direct visitors through your space.

Focal Points | A fire pit, water feature, piece of art, a feature specimen plant, or even a specific view from the property can help define an outdoor living space. Think of focal points as topics of conversation to which the rest of the space will respond.

Elements of Surprise and Whimsy | Focal points may take the form of a well-placed sculpture, water feature, fire pit or a surprise element in the design only discovered by turning a corner or following a path. Whimsy and humor can also be expressed to make your space fun and enjoyable.

Shade Structures | Many South Florida outdoor spaces can only be tolerable if they are shaded from the intense heat of the sun. Roofed structures, shade sails, overhead arbors and trellises, as well as shade trees and palm clusters can all contribute to shading your outdoor space.

Architecture | An adjoining building may offer an opportunity for a planted green wall, wall sculpture, a water wall or climbing vines on a trellis. Incorporate these walls into your design to help blur the divide between interior and exterior spaces.

Drainage | Rainwater runoff can be difficult to manage in an outdoor living space. Plan for roof runoff and slope your outdoor living space away from indoor spaces. South Florida soils are generally sandy and percolate well; a French drain system may be a good solution to manage gutter drains by directing the water into the ground. A popular trend today is to utilize beautiful rain gardens and bio-retention features that manage rainwater by providing a planted depressed zone. This zone can help provide water to plantings, or to a pond or water feature.

Utilities and Undesirable Views | Use a dense cluster plant material, a well-placed wall or a fence to block views to pool pumps, air conditioners and neighbors, and to bring the visual focus to your space. As the spatial layout takes shape, consider the selection of materials and products that will help express the character and mood of the outdoor living space.

Colors and Textures | For plant material, select species with different textures. Use a large leaf to contrast with a small leaf and complementing colors for visual appeal. Bright colors and contrasting shapes can draw the eye to a particular view or focal point. Use bursts of color sparingly for the best use of this effect.

Walking and Gathering Surfaces | Select ground materials based on their function. Authentic and durable materials such as concrete, stone, wood and turf grasses are the most successful in defining dominant pathways and gathering spaces. Softer materials, such as gravel and turf, can define lawns and informal paths.

Plant Materials | Florida native species, and Florida-friendly plants that are non-invasive adapted species, are becoming the norm. With proper placement, these plants will help minimize the need for excessive water, fertilizers and maintenance. Edible gardens and pollinator attractors are other functional plants that can be featured in an outdoor space.

Seating and Furnishings | A variety of seating options should be made available within outdoor living spaces, whether this is informal seating on a stone or a wall, or more defined seating on a chair or bench. Always choose furnishings constructed with durable materials and fabrics that are designed to withstand outdoor conditions.

Lighting | Accentuate landscaping, art and the architecture of the space with a variety of lighting types—flood lights and spot lights—to provide nighttime visual interest. Plan to light the walking surfaces and gathering spaces for evening use. Low energy lighting options are available and can be specified in the form of color-changing LEDs.

Lastly, Haigh encourages people to plan for how the outdoor living space will be maintained and what equipment will be needed to access each part of the space to perform that maintenance.

Jonathan Haigh, PLA, ASLA is president of the Florida Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects and the landscape architect practice leader for Kimley-Horn's West Palm Beach office. He and his team collaborate in the design of numerous public and private sector projects throughout South Florida. Kimley-Horn is a multi-disciplinary firm with its Florida regional headquarters located in West Palm Beach.