The ‘Outdoor Room’ Concept for Apartment Living

By Lawrence W. Speck, FAIA, PageSoutherlandPage

One aspect of living a sustainable lifestyle involves becoming more connected to the natural environment than has frequently been the case over the last decades. As we have come to depend on conditioned air more and more, we have become separated from the outdoors with its natural sounds, smells, light shifts, breezes and other sensory stimuli. Is it possible to re-inject those phenomenological experiences in our everyday lives by a simple integration of outdoor spaces into the design of our living places so that we naturally and easily regain an appreciation for the pleasures of nature as well as the need to respect both its strength and vulnerability?

Outdoor rooms offer the opportunity to merge indoors and outdoors and to bridge the well-planned activities of a home’s interior with the generally looser functional performance of exterior spaces. They may be covered or open or somewhere in-between. They might have a wide variety of edge conditions from solid walls to glass walls to insect screen to partial walls to rails to complete openness. They might be called terraces, patios, porches, decks or balconies, but to really fulfill their most complete role, they need to be fully useful and habitable. They cannot just be a symbolic feature or a narrow perch to step out on momentarily.

Outdoor rooms have long played a special role in making powerful architecture, especially in regions with salubrious climates. The deep column-lined porches of the ante-bellum south with their porch swings, ceiling fans and mint juleps nurtured a memorable life and created an architectural expression of great potency and durability. The broad patios of California’s ranch style houses with redwood furniture, shade arbors and brick pavers provoked a similarly strong ethos and formal clarity. Iconic architects like Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and Charles and Henry Greene all made outdoor rooms an integral part of their conception of what a home should be.

Is it possible that outdoor rooms could be just as seminal in creating architectural character in higher density multi-family housing? Can they become an integral functional and character-generating element in the way that the terraces are at Wright’s “Fallingwater” or the sleeping porches are at Greene and Greene’s Gamble House? Can higher density homes really be centered around the ability to enjoy nature, feel connected to it and live in close concert with it? We have attempted in a number of our recent multi-family projects to do just that.

In our Waterstone project in Central Texas we were fortunate to have a long, thin site with spectacular south-facing views across a lake to hills beyond. Prevailing southeast breezes and a few modest shade trees convinced us from our first visit that we did not want to just to look at that beautiful natural setting. We want to fully occupy it. The south face of the project became a continuous series of terraces, decks and porches that create outdoor rooms for dining, reading, relaxing, playing games, watching television or just having a conversion. They were conceived, not just as extensions of the conditioned space, but as fully integrated elements of the floor plans.

Many of the rooms have storage associated with them just as is normally provided for indoor rooms. Some are for parties and large social gatherings and have space for generous furniture groupings. Others are more private and are planned for smaller furniture ensembles. Some have solid roofs that keep the rain off while others have trellises that provide sunshade. All are carefully planned for optimal views and privacy from neighbors just like any other room might be.

It is possible to live at Waterstone with much more connection to the outdoors and nature than most of its residents would have experienced in the single-family homes with large yards. Providing this kind of option in multifamily housing can help people transition from leafy, low-density suburbs into more compact and sustainable urban fabric with an increase rather than a diminution of their experience of nature. We have found similar options useful and very marketable even in high-rise situations.

Lawrence W. Speck, FAIA is a professor and former dean at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture, and he has designed a wide array of influential projects with the firm of PageSoutherlandPage where he is a Principal.