You've read it in all the magazines: the outdoors has become the new indoors, the new target for our ongoing decorating zeal. Experts say we're now lavishing the same attention on our lawns and gardens as we've previously spent on kitchens and bathrooms.
"The theme is heightening one's lifestyle," says author and HGTV decorating expert Joan Kohn. "People want luxury on the inside of their homes and the outside: luxury and personal expression."
You can create your own luxe outdoor living space by focusing on five components that are key to setting an ambience of comfort and relaxation.
1. Let Your Light Shine
Lighting provides a range of benefits, according to Tom Dahlmeir, landscape designer with Minneapolis-based Southview Design Landscape Contractors. In addition to adding usability and drama, lighting also can help boost feelings of security. Some new systems can be activated by sensors in the driveway to turn on as you pull up to the house, he says. Additionally, outdoor illumination also helps you enjoy your yard even while you're sitting inside.
New lighting systems are becoming less intrusive and offer wider options for placement, other experts say.
"The biggest thing is the new, hidden lighting," says Bruce Holiday, director of the Pike Design Group, a division of Atlanta-based Pike Family Nurseries. "It's mounted inside the post of an arbor to create a moon glow. You don't see the wiring and you really don't see the fixture."
Candles can provide a budget-conscious option to more extensive wiring projects, Dahlmeier says. He notes that candlelight can create an especially warm ambience within pergolas and under arbors.
2. Gimme Shelter
"There's been a return to the screen porch," Holiday says. And, he says, the space under raised decks has become a newly popular location for creating these rediscovered outdoor rooms. New building systems allow the use of this reclaimed space by creating channeled "ceilings" under the decks to direct rain and debris out to the yard, instead of onto your guests' heads.
Arbors and pergolas are another outdoor shelter option, adding the extra benefit of architectural interest to your landscape's overall design. Dahlmeir suggests you think first about sun orientation when planning these open structures, to maximize their shading potential.
Kohn suggests that fabric can provide both added protection and visual impact to a sheltering pergola. You can weave the fabric through the open trusses for a summer-long covering.
3. Let Us Entertain You
The marketplace for outdoor-entertainment products has exploded in recent years, with professional sound systems and big-screen televisions replacing the old singalongs around the campfire.
"We've done some projects where customers put flat screen TVs inside plexiglass cases," says Dahlmeir.
And food preparation has gone similarly upscale, according to Kohn.
"Now that the interior kitchen has become the most important room in the house, the next project has become the outdoor kitchen," she says. Homeowners are adding commercial ranges and even dishwashers to make entertaining easier in their new outdoor rooms.
The key ingredient in all these ideas is bringing some of the comfort and convenience of indoor living to the outside, a goal you can achieve even if you don't have the budget for an extensive outdoor kitchen. For example, an inexpensive - and easily moved - mini-refrigerator in a sheltered area on your deck provides safe storage for yet-to-be-barbecued burgers and brats..
4. Take a Stylish Seat
Bringing the inside out is also the theme of today's outdoor chairs and tables. Holiday says traditional wrought iron designs are still popular, but are often showing up in lighter aluminum versions. Wood offerings, especially teak, are replacing previously common high-end plastic furniture in his customers' yards because, he says, "it's going to last a little longer and it has a bit more character to it."
Holiday adds that new outdoor-furniture fabric is rivaling the performance of indoor offerings.
"It has gotten to be much more durable," Holiday says. "And now there's definitely more of a comfort level and the fabrics hold color much longer."
Kohn suggests homeowners take the same care in arranging chairs and tables outside as they would in a living room.
"You want people to stay: it's not just a place to walk through," she says. She recommends including a comfortable conversation circle, as well as quiet places for one or two to read or chat.
5. Bring On the Water
Fountains, waterfalls and other water features have become common, even in modest backyards. With a water pump from a home-supply store and a little creativity, homeowners now can create their own unique designs.
"I think you could fit a water feature in just about any yard," Dahlmeier says. "It makes it seem like you're in an oasis."
Both Dahlmeir and Holiday see pond-less waterfalls as increasingly popular options for homeowners who want the drama of a waterfall without the maintenance and safety concerns. The water drops into a grated and gravel- or rock-filled basin where it is re-circulated back to the top of the structure.
"What you see on the surface is sort of a beach look," Holiday says. "But you never see any standing water."