Outdoor Rooms: Save the World With a Smile on Your Face

posted in: Articles, Land Use, Publications | 13

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

Given a choice, most of us would rather be outside. I mean, most people imagine vacations on the beach or walking through the woods, not sitting in a room with a TV on, an air conditioner humming, and the shades drawn. That’s not surprising because if you get down to basics, our home is the earth. Sure, you live in a house, but everything inside originated outside. Air, water, food, fuel, fabrics, even all of that plastic crap and junk mail. Origin: outside.

In fact, the whole concept of a place called “inside” is really an abstraction. We are a part of the outdoors, of the self-sustaining ecosystem of the earth, and as such we need a constant and intimate connection to the outside in order to survive and flourish. The only question is how we go about making that connection. The trend over the last 50 years or so has been to focus on creating indoor environments that can dial in specific variables (air temperature, water temperature, light intensities, etc.) with fine levels of control. A building with a mechanical heating and cooling system and electric lights, for example, can theoretically create a consistent indoor environment regardless of what is going on outside. That can be a good thing. However, if applied mindlessly, this paradigm leads to exorbitant energy consumption with its consequent pollution and pillaging of finite natural resources. (Since about 40% of the energy we use as a country is consumed by our buildings, that’s quite a bit of pillaging.) This approach also sets the stage for the cubicle, bad air fresheners masking poor indoor air quality, the video-game/TV-addict-couch-potato-geek and a variety of other side effects of extreme separation from the outdoors.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting a return to the cave. Campfires are an extremely inefficient and polluting technology. A couple billion of them would be an environmental nightmare. All I’m proffering is that we expand the concept of where it is that we live. For example, we need to stop thinking of our houses as ending at the front door. For me, a house has three basic parts: indoor rooms, outdoor rooms, and the transitions between them. Outdoor rooms can be designed to be just as functional as indoor rooms. In fact, generally they mirror the uses of indoor rooms, allowing us to choose the best locale for a particular activity based on the weather. This layout can take a load off interior space while adding inexpensive outdoor space.

For example, a home office that combines an interior room with a private covered patio can allow the indoor portion to be much smaller. The same is true of kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms, even bathrooms in the right situation. The end result can be a smaller house with lower upfront cost, lower utility bills, and happier inhabitants who are spending more time outdoors while still going about their busy modern lives. Smaller buildings using less electricity and fuels also mean less pollution, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and less dependence on foreign oil. As for existing buildings, adding outdoor rooms won’t make them smaller, but they’ll still benefit from considerably lower utility bills…you don’t need to heat or cool a building or run lighting when you’re outside.

Some of the hardships you might have to endure to reach these frugal and lofty goals are (1) sleeping outside under a ceiling fan on a screened porch off your bedroom; (2) cooking outdoors (five feet from your herb and greens garden) whenever you feel like it rather than waiting for that elusive “cookout”; (3) taking a private solar shower outdoors under an open sky (note to reader: don’t die without experiencing this!); and (4) typing those emails with the smell of flowers as a backdrop… It’s a hard job, but I say someone has to do it and it might as well be you.

Though many of us have experienced outdoor spaces that have elements of what I’m describing, most don’t. The reason usually is that they are being short-changed. Successful indoor rooms share basic components. They all have a floor, walls, and a roof, for example. They also all have a clear intended use that has been served through thoughtful design and careful follow-through in construction. Outdoor rooms are no different. The floor could be stones, the walls may include a bush, and the roof may prominently feature the sky, but the idea is the same: a collection of elements brought together to create a mood and support an activity. Outdoor rooms can be private, grandiose, playful, or solemn. They can be designed to maximize work productivity, encourage social interaction, or be a room of one’s own. In short, they can do anything an indoor room can do…just not in a blizzard.

Okay, so here’s my radical suggestion. Let’s enjoy ourselves immensely by spending more time outside; slash construction, maintenance and energy bills while doing it; AND cut pollution, carbon emissions, and consequently “save the world” in the bargain. All that’s standing in our way is the powerful aerosol air freshener lobby and some crazed X-Box geeks. Fight the power!

Next month: floors for outdoor rooms.

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