Outdoor living: Bringing the inside out

This open patio has it all: natural and manmade shade, direct sun on demand, and a fabulous view. — File photo by Courtesy Sullivan O'Connor Architects

The trend towards creating more ecologically sound environments is partly a result of homes becoming smaller and more compact. However, there need not be a trade-off in decreased living space if you think outside of the box, or more accurately, outside the home. “People are literally moving their homes outside and the market place is accommodating that. All the creature comforts are moving outside,” says Mary Rentschler, an interior designer who lives in Vineyard Haven.

By extending your house to the great outdoors, you can maximize your living space without compromising energy efficiency. John Abrams, the president, CEO, and design supervisor of South Mountain Company, is an advocate for outdoor living spaces. “With the tendency to build smaller and higher performance, outdoor rooms make such a difference,” Mr. Abrams says. “In the summertime there tend to be more people around and you can take advantage of the increased living space. In the winter we tend to contract and a smaller space is fine.”

Outdoor spaces have become prime entertaining areas for a population that, in deference to the economy, is turning steadily more dependent on spending time at home. Patricia Giumarra, owner of Vineyard Hearth Patio and Spa, observes, “We see people going away less and investing more in home amenities. We call it stay-cations.” She finds that people tend to have more parties at home and are interested in outfitting their homes with features such as outdoor fireplaces, kitchens, and spas. She also notes that parents encourage family time by installing hot tubs and other home entertainment features.

A screened-in porch is a great solution for adding a three-season room to a house. “In-between space is very attractive to people,” Mr. Abrams says. “A screened porch and other transition spaces make a house feel whole. They make a house feel larger.” And they tend to attract people, as Mr. Abrams notes, “We have found that the closer the screen porch is to the kitchen, the more it gets used. If it opens up right into the kitchen, it ends up being the space that people use most of the time.” But he cautions, “It’s a delicate balance. You don’t want to make your house dark by having too much porch.” He has found that one practical solution is to add skylights to screened or open porches.

Chuck Sullivan of Sullivan O’Connor Architects points out the benefits of having completely independent outdoor spaces as well. “Ideally there will be at least two different types of outdoor spaces,” he says. “A covered porch and an open outdoor space, such as a patio where you have the option to sit in the sun. The porches are limiting in the sun, but where a fair amount of people are only here in the summer, the shade isn’t so bad. People who are here year-round want the light that a patio or deck offers.”

Karen Ward of Island Home Furnishings notes that umbrellas and awnings can turn a deck or patio into more of an outdoor room. “They create a unique canopy,” she says. “They create that finite space and define that area.” And she adds that unlike a screened porch, a deck allows for more fresh airflow.

“Always use naturally weather-resistant materials and try to stay away from painted outdoor spaces, which require a lot of maintenance in our weather,” says Jason Napior, owner of Radius Construction, Inc. Weather resistance is also a factor in selecting outdoor furniture. Julie Robinson of Julie Robinson Interiors, favors teak for outdoor furnishings. “You don’t have to take it in as much. You can get wood from special growth forests, so you’re not taking out old teak. It turns grey and looks great as it gets older.”

Ms. Ward agrees: “Teak is always popular. There’s no maintenance and it’s environmentally complementary. It fits in with a flagstone patio or porch. It’s very durable and can sustain the elements even in the winter.”

Natasha Shultz, design consultant for Vineyard Decorators, recommends a line that they carry that is particularly outdoor friendly. “It incorporates teak and mesh swings,” she says. “It’s very comfortable and you don’t have to deal with taking cushions in and out.”

Outdoor kitchens have become quite popular and the options are steadily growing for outfitting increasingly elaborate set-ups, and technology allows for cost-saving alternatives. “More and more companies are making custom cabinetry for outdoor kitchens available, making it much easier to set up an outdoor space — transforming the outdoors into a well-appointed kitchen that’s warm and inviting without the use of multiple contractors to bring it all together,” Ms. Giumarra says.

Outdoor fireplaces and firepits allow for three-season outdoor living. They create a cozy space for gathering in nature. Vineyard Alternative Heating (VAH) carries a large selection of units — many of which can be used for cooking, grilling, and smoking. There are even pizza ovens that can be used at lower heat for baking. VAH also offers other atmospheric elements such as solar fountains and lighting.

With summer approaching, Ms. Shultz notices a trend towards cozy outdoor seating. Vineyard Decorators offers a line of teak sectionals with cushions that have become popular.

Ms. Guimarra offers a first-hand testimonial to enjoying the outdoors life: “I had my first outdoor dinner party last night. The fire was going in the fireplace. We could hear the waves in the distance pounding at South Beach. The birds were still chirping as we cooked on the grill. After everyone left, I had a nice soak in the hot tub before bed as the coals burned down in the fireplace. A perfect, relaxing evening, and all outdoors.”

Gwyn McAllister is a frequent contributor to The Times.