The perfect patio is a destination -- the designated spot for relaxing and entertaining, and a perfect place from which to enjoy the garden. One size definitely does not fit all, but if you plan carefully, you're set up for success.
Patios introduce subtle architecture into the natural environment. They invite you out among the trees and flowers, but a sure footing of stone, brick or gravel assures you that you're not really stepping into the wild. Patios are built for comfort -- they're an extension of your home, an outdoor room where the sky is the limit.
"When I'm designing the perfect patio for a client, the house and the client's wishes give me the answers," says Sally Wittkofski, a landscape architect and owner of SWW Landscape Design in Richmond, Virginia. "Once you find out how they want to use the space, it's easy," she says. "Then you start to work on size, materials and location."
Before you settle on any of those aspects, consider all the ways you might wish to use the patio, Wittkofski suggests. Will it be a cozy spot for dinners for two, a place where you'll entertain a lot, or perhaps some of each? A large patio can serve more than one purpose. Do you need both dining and lounging space? You might also want to allow room for large flowerpots, or you may need to design the space around the trunk of a beautiful tree. A patio can also be the perfect place for a fountain or fire pit.
Patios shouldn't be imposed on a garden, Wittkofski says: They should fit gracefully into it. She has both a front-yard and a backyard patio at her own home. The front-yard patio, made with handsome rough-cut stones set into a 4-inch layer of granite dust, is her favorite. It's a circle 16 feet in diameter nestled under tall trees, just big enough for a table and four chairs. "It's simple, but it works perfectly," she says. Groundcover plants under the trees soften the edges of the space and make it a cool retreat from the hot summer sun, a green refuge. The patios she makes for clients average about 25 by 25 feet.
Deena Bell Llewellyn, a landscape architect and the owner of Bell Landscape Architecture in Miami, works closely with clients to come up with "a wish list and a dream list" for patios she designs. Around older homes, the lists often involve getting rid of existing hardscaping and starting afresh -- her clients are often also installing swimming pools, she says. They want pool patios and patios with outdoor kitchens, fire pits and even yoga platforms. Her measure of success is unequivocal: "We want to make sure these spaces are used all day and all night" -- and practically year-round in south Florida's subtropical climate.
Most clients prefer patios just outside the kitchen or family room -- easily accessible through the home's private back doors, Bell Llewellyn says. To make the transition from inside to outdoors seamless, "we build up, almost level with the interior floor of the home," she says, avoiding a flight of steps, which can be tricky to negotiate if you're carrying a tray of drinks and snacks. "We also study the architecture and make sure we understand its materials and scale -- we want it all to flow as if it were one project."
Around a pool, sunny patios are the rule, Bell Llewellyn says, but a pergola might be added to provide some shade. Elegant roofs protect some of her clients' patios, for rainstorms are frequent in the Miami area. Outdoor lighting with LED fixtures is practically standard, Bell Llewellyn says, with colored filters to heighten the drama of spectacular tropical plants in the evening. When steps are incorporated into a design, she recommends linear rope lighting under the treads for safety, which "also makes the steps seem to float," she says.
If you're shopping for patio ideas, flip through magazines and books for inspiration, but don't commit yourself too quickly to a specific size or shape, Bell Llewellyn and Wittkofski both say. The gently curving lines of a patio designed for a traditional home probably will not translate gracefully to the garden around a modern home of strongly angular architecture. Stone or brick that looks great at one site may not be the right color, texture or pattern at another. "Think of designing a patio as a collaboration between you, the designer and the contractor," Wittkofski says. All three should listen to ideas from the other sides of the table. "If one person says, 'Maybe we should shift this a bit,' they may have a good idea."
Classic mistakes to avoid are: placing a patio in the wrong spot, making it too small, and using the wrong paving materials -- or simply too much of them. Too much paving "feels cold and harsh," Bell Llewellyn says, and it usually causes glare. "You shouldn't feel like you need sunglasses," she says. A good way to find the right spot for a patio in your own backyard might be to walk outside, mark off an area with spray paint and set up a card table and some chairs. Take a cool beverage out there with you, have a seat and look around. You'll know you've found the right spot if you find yourself slipping off your shoes and forgetting, just for a few minutes, the demands of the busy world.
Tips from the pros
-- Sally Wittkofski, a landscape architect in Richmond, Virginia, likes to suggest low, flat-topped walls around a patio, for seating. The ideal height is 18 to 24 inches, she says.
-- She discourages clients from adding built-in grills. She finds they limit the flexibility of a patio.
-- Deena Bell Llewellyn, a landscape architect in Miami, on the other hand, says her clients like built-in kitchens, with all the appliances and conveniences they have indoors. A mild climate makes a big difference: in south Florida, people are practically living outdoors.
-- Where should you splurge? Wittkofski and Bell Llewellyn both recommend patios made with natural materials -- brick, stone or gravel. Custom paving patterns and designs allow you to express your style. Wittkofski likes herringbone patterns in brick patios, with basket-weave a close second. The running bond pattern, which has bricks laid end-to-end, looks like a runway, she says.
-- Measure your rooms indoors, and make a patio of comparable size: You don't want one to reflect poorly on the other.
-- Make room in the budget for landscape lighting around the patio.
-- Landscape with plants in large pots. They're more versatile than built-in planters, Wittkofski says.
-- Don't plant a perennial border right next to a patio. "They should be viewed at a distance, so if they're not perfect, you will not notice," Wittkofski says.
-- Choose comfortable, functional furniture appropriate to the style of the rest of your home. "Keep it simple," Wittkofski says. She prefers solid-colored umbrellas to busy stripes.
-- If your budget doesn't allow for generous furniture right away, "that's OK," Wittkofski says. "Splurge on the design and materials, then save for the good furniture. You don't have to do everything at once."
-- Sally Wittkofski, SWW Landscape Design, 804-357-5119; swwlandscapedesign.com.
-- Deena Bell Llewellyn, Bell Landscape Architecture, 3360 Coral Way, Suite 5, Miami, FL 33145; 305-774-9662; bell-la.com.