“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.” – John Muir
A backyard is a wonderful space when it’s well-designed but will not get used if it fails to accommodate family and guests. A backyard should accommodate a number of activities: outdoor living and entertaining, recreation as well as gardening and storage. To support these activities, backyards normally contain elements such as lawn furniture, barbecue grills, children’s play equipment, swim sets, swimming pools, storage sheds and so on. Typically, back yards are difficult to organize and design because there are so many elements to consider. Here are some typical conditions a good back yard design needs to address:
- Lack of Separation—in newer neighbourhoods backyards may be ill-defined and open—one blending into the next to form a giant green space that gives anyone access. This can interfere with privacy and discourages people to use their back yards. Over time, fences and plant materials create screening and separation, but they need to be chosen with these goals in mind.
- Walled/Fenced Backyards—in mature city neighbourhoods backyards tend to be isolated from one another with few or new views to the landscape beyond. This presents a challenge for creating a sense of visual dimension and adequate green space. In this situation designs should consider vertical as well as horizontal growing opportunities to enhance and beautify.
- Undersized Outdoor Living Areas—the outdoor living and entertaining space, if it exists at all, if often established by a terrace—in concrete, brick, stone or wood. One problem is that they are usually too small to accommodate a dining table with chairs as well as lounge chairs and a barbecue grill. Keep in mind that you’ll need a minimum area of 150-225 square feet for a table and chairs to fit 8 people.
- Lack of Privacy—terraces are usually intended for relaxation and entertainment. However, they are often uncomfortable to use because they commonly lack any sense of enclosure for privacy. More often than not, they are open to the view of the surrounding neighbours so when sitting on the terrace, people may feel that they are on public display.
- Harsh Microclimates—another reason for the discomfort of many exterior living and entertaining spaces is that they are located or designed without climate in mind. When located on the north side of the house, outdoor terraces are apt to be cool and damp much of the time as well as being exposed to cold winter wind. When located on the west side of a house, they are likely to be hot during summer afternoons, particularly when not adequately shaded.
- Lack of Appealing Character—like front entry walks, many exterior terraces are devoid of personality or character. They are cold, impersonal spaces that are uninviting to use for any length of time. Most people find it a drab experience to sit on a concrete slab or wooden deck with nothing to look at except an open expanse of lawn or the backs of neighbour’s houses.
- Weak Relation to House Interior—another common problem I see with some exterior terraces and landscapes is that they have a weak relationship to the interior of the house. This may be due to elevation changes and distance between the indoor and outdoor elements. Some back doors exit onto a concrete stoop that is smaller scale than the front door stoop. Great outdoor spaces continue the house’s general interior design theme and architecture.
- Unsightly Storage Sheds—storage for maintenance and recreational equipment is usually a must; such as lawn furniture, barbecue grills, lawn mowers, garden tools, children’s toys, etc. A typical 2-car garage has little extra space to store such things. Consequently, home owners erect metal or wood storage sheds in their backyards to take care of extra belongings. These sheds are usually a different style and character from the house and consequently can be eyesores.
- Poorly Placed Vegetable Gardens—a vegetable garden is often stuck in one of the back corners of the yard, some distance from the nearest water source, yet still close enough to the house to be seen as a brown patch of bare earth in the non-growing season. There is an opportunity to plant vegetables among other shrubs and flowers rather than in isolation.
- Swing Sets and Play Sets—outdoor gyms and play sets are popular backyard elements when children are young. The problem is that they often define the visual character of many backyards when little thought is given to placement. Decisions about placement of play sets are usually determined on the basis of one’s ability to oversee children playing from an interior window. As a result, the backyard space becomes unusable for other forms of use.
The real challenge for most back yards is to combine the numerous functional requirements with aesthetic considerations. Therefore, it’s important to be clear on what you want your back yard design to accommodate and fulfill these needs while being an attractive environment to experience.
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