indoor-outdoor connections

As the spring and summer months roll around, our thoughts turn to spending time outside. The days get longer and more hours of sunlight allow us Coloradans to capitalize on outdoor settings for everything from BBQs and al fresco dining to relaxing poolside.

The role our environment plays in affecting our mental state is not lost on anyone, either.

Historically, a solid stint in the outdoors and some fresh air has been known to do anyone some good. Taking a walk, enjoying a sunset, listening to birds chirping — just taking a brief moment of pause to soak in scenic surroundings — can do wonders for relieving 21st-century plagues like stress and anxiety.

The way we value and curate these outdoor spaces is changing, however. An uncertain pandemic has left us stuck inside with an increasingly critical eye on our surroundings.

In a world where calls to stay inside are a cry of public safety and public parks are at the mercy of metered use, how do we rethink our living spaces? How do we curate a comfortable, livable place for us to get some fresh air? How do we incorporate outdoor space as an extension of our own home? We sought solutions to these questions — from a look at today’s trends to some expert advice from Landscape Architect Ransom Beegles.

evolution of outdoor living spaces

Taking advantage of outdoor living space is by no means a new concept, but design and curation methods are certainly evolving.

a return to home vegetable gardens

The self-reliant home garden has rarely gone out of style from WWII-era Victory Gardens to post-pandemic grocery stores with empty shelves.

“People want to have their own food source,” states Ransom Beegles.

Small planters and kitchen greenhouse windows can be an excellent option for those looking to practice their green thumb. Community gardens, greenhouses and even backyard chicken coops are increasingly desirable options as our agricultural supply chains are shrouded by uncertainty.

the motorized pergola

The backyard patio companion that once provided stratified shade now can do so much more. Today’s best pergolas come with a hefty price tag, but all of the bells and whistles. Take the automated pergola, with motorized louvres that adjust to angle for more shade or even close completely — protecting residents from rain. The best also have a return lip to control the flow of rainwater and direct debris away from the patio.

outdoor kitchens

Increasingly, homeowners want more than just a grill in the backyard. With aspirations to both cook and entertain, residents are turning to more creative and resourceful ways to create a true “kitchen” in their outdoor spaces. Possibilities are endless — from cooktops and smokers to wine coolers and outdoor bars.

“You can create a space that is just as refined as your interior on the outside, and that’s a big change,” states Beegles.

The flexibility in price point for outdoor kitchen amenities makes these backyard chefs’ dreams all the more attainable.

rooftop patios

For those spots lacking yard space, rooftop decks are a great way to incorporate outdoor space vertically. With the opportunity to capitalize on sweeping city and mountain views along the Front Range, Coloradans love their rooftops. Rooftop decks and patios can also be a great host for a rooftop garden, with plenty of sunlight and exposure.

pools … yes, pools

“You’d be surprised,” Beegles explains. “People realize that the climate in Colorado actually allows you to use a pool much longer than in other parts of the US.”

For those impossibly hot summer days across Colorado, pools are no longer just an apartment complex amenity. They are a coveted backyard addition.

expert tips

We tapped the mind of Ransom Beegles — Principal Landscape Architect for R Design Landscape Architecture in Denver — for some advice on achieving indoor-outdoor balance. Specializing in ecologically sensitive land planning and minimalist design, Beegles shared his insight on how to craft a livable outdoor space.

on his roots in the outdoors …

I grew up in Durango, Colorado — a real mountain town — and everything was about the outdoors. It was a huge part of how I was raised. My business partner grew up in Upstate New York on farmland that his family had farmed for seven generations. So, the value of being a part of the soil, getting your hands dirty, going outside and experiencing the change in temperature — those things were important to us.

on the importance of outdoor living …

Not to get too philosophical, but I think it’s partially a health thing — mental health and physical health. Having that connection to all of the elements around us, like sunlight, shade, wind, is good for daily life.

We apply that philosophy to anything. We build rooftop gardens in super urban places. Even if it’s just a tiny little space that you can capture outside, that does so much to enhance your experience both indoors and outdoors. It’s like bringing it back to your grassroots foundations, so to speak. You’re getting a connection with a bigger picture.

on sustainability …

We’re a little uncomfortable with the word sustainable because we think it’s a low bar to set. Meaning that you’re just saying, ‘We just want it to stay the same.’ We try to bring an approach of resourcefulness and adaptability. So, we try to think of ‘How can we design a landscape that will change as the environment around us changes?’

That’s hard to apply on a small project sometimes, but when we talk about resourcefulness, what we always try to do is pick materiality that will respond with the least amount of resources to its environment.

There’s nothing that’s ‘no maintenance,’ but we try to reduce that. We always do a lot of analysis thinking about sun, shade, wind, etc. Rather than control the environment, we simply listen to it and say, ‘This is a very hot site. Maybe there’s a lot of wind here. What can we do that works with that condition?’ instead of trying to fight it.

on keeping it practical …

Something that happens on a lot of projects is that people open a magazine and fall in love with a lot of ideas. We’ll have a project brought to us, and an architect or a homeowner might have ideas for five or six different outdoor spaces. Those can be quite beautiful, but the problem is that most people don’t use five outdoor spaces. They use one or two perfect spaces.

So, we try to look at things and say, ‘Where is the area that matters that you’re going to use every day? Let’s do that really nice, then the areas where we don’t need to put all this money and time and effort into, let’s just simplify those.’ That strengthens the space that’s really good and allows us to not put all this time and energy and effort into something that you use maybe once a year.

on where to start …

I always start with a big idea and look at an entire space. Even if somebody was doing it on their own, I think it’s valuable to have at least some drawing that shows you the size of the space you’re working with.

I say that is because I’ve worked with many clients who’ve come to me and said, ‘I have spent twenty years trying to figure out what to do and put money into my yard and gotten nowhere.’ The problem is that they may attack just one issue — like ‘We need to build a deck’ so they build a deck — but there’s no coordination with all of it.

The big thing is to get an overall picture of everything and then work your way backward. You can certainly phase it in a manner of doing one thing at a time, but if you are simply doing one little piece without having a vision, you may end up not getting a lot of value out of what you put in.

A lot of resources, like the American Society of Landscape Architects have a link that talks about residential design and breaks down some of the processes we use. Someone on their own can certainly use that as a template. There are also several suppliers and plant nurseries […] that will give you some great advice because their job is to sell material that grows.

American Society of Landscape Architects:

on what to avoid …

Not all solutions are ‘plant’ solutions. When we first started, we were affiliated with a plant nursery in Fort Collins. We could meet with people for the first time, and they would instantly say, ‘I need you to come out and tell me what plants to put here.’ Then, we would show up and realize, ‘You don’t need a plant here. You need a wall or a walkway.’

So, make sure that you’re thinking about circulation and drainage. Those are the #1 and #2 things that have to be addressed.

Another one is having too many spaces. A lot of times, we’ve inherited projects where there’s an outdoor fire pit right next to a spa right next to another patio. That dilutes how you use the space. Don’t fall in love with a picture you see in a magazine. If you find the one that works, just do that well, rather than trying to do twenty things.

on budgeting …

I know hiring a professional is expensive and is something not everybody wants to do or even can. There are many design firms in Denver, like ours, who — even if you don’t want a full master plan done with all the bells and whistles — are more than happy to help people get in the right direction with a small consultation. That way, we’ll at least say, ‘Here’s how to get a start to this.’ Don’t be afraid to consult people who’ve done it for a long time, because they can focus your energy so that you’re not putting money somewhere that’s not going to bring you a lot of value.

on inspiration …

I love design, so I look at everything from interior design to shoe design, clothing, fashion. I look at the shapes and forms and evaluate them. If I see something beautiful, I think about what makes it beautiful and how that translates into a design on the land — just looking beyond just landscape architecture.

When I’m digging down, I look at other landscape architects across the country. The American Society of Landscape Architects has an awards section where they put out residential design awards every year. There’s also a blog called Landezine that features new projects once a week from all over the world. I love to see those because you’ll see something in Europe or South America that is a detail that’s so different and is pretty refreshing. They’re often dealing with a lot of the same things we’re dealing with here, but have a solution maybe we haven’t thought of.

I also look at architecture. If I open Dwell magazine and see a beautiful home, what do I love about that home? And how do I pull that same feel and try to bring it out into the landscape?

American Society of Landscape Architects: