Steve James, AIA, led a panel at the 2013 International Builders’ Show that offered tips on transforming even ordinary outdoor areas like driveways and sidewalks into special places. James is a principal at DTJ Design in Boulder, Colo., a firm that does residential architecture, community planning, and landscape architecture. James’ approach is to integrate the landscape with the house design and not limit that philosophy to large chunks of space, but every spot where a building connects to the outside. He says he strives to bring a resort atmosphere into his clients’ daily lifestyle.

James adds that exterior living and entertaining spaces are more important now because houses tend to consume greater portions of their lots, so traditional yards are becoming less common. That philosophy also expands inside where James recommends continuing exterior finishes into interior rooms to strengthen indoor-outdoor connections. Natural materials, daylight, and outdoor furniture used inside are other ways to blur the lines between inside and out. James shared several specific techniques for creating a house that offers relaxing, special spaces where homeowners can enjoy the soothing effects of nature in different ways. Below are his suggestions along with a slideshow of past winners in the outdoor spaces category of the Custom Home Design Awards to demonstrate how James ideas can be realized.

  • Courtyards—James looks for any opportunity to create a courtyard whether the project involves a large compound that wraps around an inviting exterior gathering space to dense urban infill sites where a pocket courtyard works to bring natural light deep into a home and presents a private outdoor space for occupants. 
  • Driveways and entryways—Making the most of walkways, driveways, or stairs that lead to the house not only adds curb appeal, but can generate friendlier relations with neighbors. It also turns otherwise unused and sometimes unattractive necessities like the driveway into a functional exterior room. James likes to make these often neglected spaces exciting by creating “a magical journey to the door” through the use of elongated steps that can double as seating, thoughtful plantings that reveal the path slowly, splashes of color, secret nooks, and unexpected but easy to navigate twists and turns. He also suggests pushing the garage either closer to or further away from the street and blending it into other hardscapes between the street and house.
  • One-room deep floor plans—Integrating outdoor spaces into the house starts with the floor plan says James. Most of his designs feature multiple spaces that enjoy two exposures to daylight and he likes to capture corner views whenever possible. His inspiration originated with the Eichler houses in southern California and even working in a cold-weather climate, James incorporates as many windows and glass walls as possible. 
  • A balance of hard and softscapes—James says hardscaped outdoor spaces provide a level of comfort and low-maintenance that means they will be used more often, but a healthy dose of plants and gardens complements those exterior rooms with the serenity of nature.
  • Climate control—“Outdoor rooms furnished with an indoor attitude,” is how James describes his philosophy on how to make an exterior space functional and comfortable year-round. He likes to add fireplaces, especially ones that double as stoves, big fans, artificial lighting, and luxurious cozy furniture to outdoor rooms.
  • Reserve budget for bridge spaces—Those moments of moving from inside to out or vice versa often get overlooked or cut when a project runs over budget James explains. He feels that how someone enters a house or the way an interior room opens up to the outside can be the difference between an outdoor area being used every day or not at all.