Canadian Woodworking

Create your own great outdoors

Author: Allan Britnell
Photos: Dreamstime
Illustration: Len Churchill
Published: April May 2018
great outdoors
great outdoors

Expand your useable living space into the backyard with these six approaches.


With housing prices at record levels across the country, and many would-be cottage buyers priced out of the market, homeowners are trying to maximize the space they have, and add more where they can. Options range from digging down and renovating an unfinished basement, to adding an extra storey or extending the footprint with an addition.

But all of those expansions are pricey. A more budget-friendly option is to create an outdoor living space in the backyard. Typically, that takes the form of a fairly standard deck or patio seating area. If your budget falls somewhere between the two extremes, there are a variety of options for creating your ideal outdoor oasis.

A Common Option
 A deck is a great way to allow you and your family to spend more time outdoors during the warmer months. Curves add a lot to the aesthetic appeal of a patio, though they also add difficulty. With a bit of research, a deck is fairly easy for most DIYers to build.

Outdoor Cooking
 By adding some basic appliances to your BBQ setup, a lot of cooking can take place outside. This keeps the mess inside to a minimum and allows everyone to be outside where the action is.

Fire Pit
 A wood or gas fire pit can be added as a focal point of your backyard. The wood option is quite easy, while the gas version is a bit more involved. Either way, creating a cozy atmosphere can be accomplished with dedicated seating and some patio stones or rock slabs.

Keep the Bugs Out
 A screened-in area will provide much needed protection in areas where bugs are common. If you live in an urban area where bugs are less common, you might opt for an overhang of some sort, to protect you from unexpected rain showers.

Pump up the Volume
 Speakers can help create the mood you want, and they don’t have to break the budget. Lots of options, from in-ground to wall-mounted, are available these days.

Shine a Light
Well-thought-out lighting not only looks great, but it helps define pathways and entranceways for visitors who aren’t familiar with your yard.

Planning and design of your outdoor living space

The first step in any renovation project is to create a list of wants and must-haves based on what kinds of activities you and your family enjoy. Do you like to host large gatherings? If so, seating areas for socializing will be a priority.
Are you an athletic family of game players? Then you’ll want to think about open spaces where you can string up a badminton net or lay out a horseshoe pit.

A water-loving family may want to build their yard around a swimming pool. No room for a pool? A hot tub can be a space-saving and relatively affordable alternative.
Perhaps you are a couple of empty nesters simply looking for a tranquil place to read or relax, such as a shaded gazebo or maybe a hammock. With your wish list nailed down, you can start shopping around for quotes and material costs so you can build a budget and pare back as needed.

All decked out

For most of us, a deck is the focal point and social hub of the yard. But don’t limit yourself to a simple square or rectangular design – multi-tiered or curved designs add some flare to stand out from the crowd.

A carefully designed deck and patio combination can incorporate the deck stairs as add-on stadium-style seating for guests. Building benches into the perimeter of the deck is another great way to add lots of seating, but remember that the building code requires railings along any side that’s more than two feet above grade. In Ontario, a building inspector will measure from the top of the seat to the top of the railing to make sure it’s at least 3′ high. (Or 42″ high if the deck is 6′ or more above grade.)

Material choice also makes a big impact. Pressure-treated wood is a cheap and durable option, but if you have a little extra in the budget, cedar or composite materials will last at least as long, without the greenish hue. And instead of the standard wooden pickets for a railing, consider a glass railing so you have an unobstructed view of the yard from the deck.

Get cooking

My day job is editing Renovation Contractor, a trade magazine for contractors and custom homebuilders. Every year we have a “Great Outdoors” issue, and in that we’ve featured some very high-end outdoor spaces. Some of the most decadent include fully functioning outdoor kitchens, complete with barbecues built into stone countertops, fridges, and even running water.

Of course, you’ll want to bring in licensed professionals to run any wiring, plumbing, and/or gas lines, and keep in mind that if you do splurge on an outdoor sink, you’ll have to remember to drain and blow the waterlines clear in the fall to prevent the pipes from freezing and bursting.

Friendly fires

Obviously, with our climate, an open-air outdoor living space can’t be used year round, but there are ways to extend its usefulness well into the shoulder seasons.

The simplest is to install a fire pit. Most of us would agree that there’s something primal about sitting around a fire, chatting and sharing stories with family and friends. There are countless design options for making your own from brick or natural stone (start by Googling “DIY fire pit”), or you can buy a metal fire ring or bowl to rest on a non-combustible surface.

Check with your local building department before you install a wood-burning fire pit though, as many municipalities ban their use in residential areas. If they are legal to use where you live, you’ll want to make sure you use a screen so an errant ember doesn’t start a secondary fire pit in your siding or shrubs.

If a wood-burning fire pit is not an option, gas fire pits are a viable alternative starting in the $1,000 range. These are typically fueled via the same refillable propane tanks you use in your barbeque, so you will want to have a spare tank on hand. If you have a natural gas supply at your home, there are also models that can be plumbed directly to an outdoor gas connection.

To enjoy the outdoor living space from early spring into late fall, consider investing in some patio heaters. There are a wide variety of designs of wall-mounted infrared units that can belt out enough heat to warm an entire patio.

Freestanding heaters – similar to what many bars and restaurants use on their patios – start at about $150 and can kick out about 50,000 BTUs of heat, enough to warm a 20′-diameter area. Again, there are models that run on refillable propane tanks, or off of dedicated gas supply lines.

If money is no object, there are also indoor-outdoor fireplaces that you can build right into the exterior wall, and enjoy the view through windows on either side.

Give me shelter

Depending on the orientation of your yard, you may need a patio umbrella or canopy to shade your guests from the midday sun. In some higher-end designs, architects will actually extend a roof overhang over the main seating area. Note that this type of design would be considered a structural alteration to your home, so you’ll need to apply for a building permit. A permit-free option is a wall-mounted awning that can be manually or mechanically opened and closed as needed.

Nothing will bug your enjoyment of your space more than swarms of biting insects joining the party. If you do have a roof overhanging your seating area you can install a floor-to-ceiling screened enclosure around the space. The downside is that it’s a permanent obstruction. There are also powered screens that retract up into a housing that’s mounted on the soffit. The higher-end alternative is articulating patio doors that you can fold out of the way when the weather’s nice and bugs aren’t out.

Sound check

Having a family guitar singalong around your new fire pit sounds bucolic, but it probably won’t be an everyday activity. For that, you’ll want to look into speakers that connect to your home sound system. Options range from hardwired, wall-mounted speakers to rechargeable exterior-grade units. For a more discreet experience, there are a variety of speakers on the market that are designed to look like rocks.

Shed some light

Finally, don’t forget the lighting. You do not want spotlights embedded in the ground shining in everyone’s eyes. Instead, incorporate the same mix of ambient and task lighting you’d use on the inside. For added charm, enhance the lighting with candlelight (or citronella candles) when you have guests over.

Lining a walkway through the yard with electric or solar lights improves safety for guests unfamiliar with the path, while adding nighttime aesthetic appeal.

With a little thought and planning you can create the outdoor oasis of your dreams, with no cottage country commuting required.


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