Outdoor living spaces are an invaluable addition to your garden. When you've come home from a long day at work and want to flop down on a comfy surface with a glass of wine, or when the sun's rare appearance means a cocktail evening with the girls is on the cards, having part of your garden dedicated to relaxing or entertaining is a small luxury with huge rewards.
If you're looking to design an outdoor living space, whether it's for eating alfresco or relaxing in the sun, there's a few must-haves you should add to your list. A big fat sofa is a must, as well as some form of outdoor cooking equipment, whether that's a barbecue or a full-blown kitchen. Add some outdoor speakers for your favourite chill-out playlist and a cocktail bar trolley for drinks on tap, and you've got the perfect outdoor living space for all occasions. Read on for more ideas on how to create your dream outdoor room, then head to our ideas hub for all the garden inspiration you need.
1. Choose your location wisely
Choosing the location of your outdoor living space on views alone is a common mistake that can really put a dampener on the fun factor. It’s best not to set up furniture too far from the house, or rather downstairs loo, for the comfort of your guests. Think about prevailing winds too – if you don't have covered patio or awning, like this set up from Luxaflex, a neighbouring fence can provide a handy windbreak, or hunker down next to a summerhouse or shed. It’s also worth tracking the sun at different times of the day. A sunny spot at midday can be cast into chilly shadow by 4pm if it’s too close to the house.
2. Design the perfect lighting scheme
Approach the lighting in your outdoor space in a similar way to your living room – aim for a magical atmosphere, like this design from Farrow & Ball, rather than Wembley Stadium in garden form. The most effective schemes feature lighting at different levels – on the ground (uplighting trees or shrubs), on the table, and strung from above, around a tree, gazebo or parasol. Go for solar-powered lights in the ground and use battery-powered LEDs to spread the sparkle. Don’t forget to stock up on candles – choose citronella infused in midge season.
3. Add shade for stylish sun protection
There’s nothing relaxing about sweating under the midday sun so do make provisions for some form of shade when planning your outdoor space. Sail-style shades and parasols offer heat relief without blocking a summer breeze, or your views. Look for shades made from UV-blocking materials to protect skin (anything graded UPF 40 or above is good). If your garden is more exposed, a gazebo will offer protection from sun, wind and light rain. In all cases, do ensure your shade is properly anchored to prevent it taking off in high winds. Try Ikea's Dyning canopy for a bargain buy.
4. Keep warm with a heating source
Entertain long after the sun has gone down by including some form of heating. Fire pits are pretty affordable and boast the added allure of real flames (this image, from John Lewis & Partners, is a case in point). Throw a grill over the top for a generous barbecue area, too. Chimineas control the flames better and funnel smoke upwards, which can prove safer with little ones running around.
Gas patio heaters are more portable and fairly safe if positioned at head height but can prove expensive to run. Infrared outdoor heaters, which heat surfaces and people, not the air in between, are thought to be more energy efficient and provide a wider spread of heat than halogen versions.
5. Add a portable outdoor kitchen…
For an outdoor kitchen without the faff (and expense) of connecting new power and plumbing supplies, create a makeshift cooking area using portable furniture. Several companies now make trolley-like companion modules for their barbies; try Ikea. Designed to be wheeled out when required, these smart units provide prep space and storage when cooking. Use insulated ice buckets in lieu of refrigeration, and screw utensil rails to the garden fence to hold tongs, herbs and spatulas.
6. … or go the whole hog with a built-in design
If you really want to take the party outside, build a permanent kitchen on your patio. The best outdoor kitchens are fully equipped to entertain, without constant schleps back inside for supplies. This means an outdoor-rated fridge, sink with running water and an all-singing, all-dancing barbecue. If you're adding a cocktail bar (see below), make sure there’s cupboard space for glassware and crockery (melamine if you’re entertaining children).
For extra style points, paint your kitchen in an on-trend sage green or soft grey hue, or opt for a colour pop like bright yellow for impact. We love Sadolin and Sandtex for quality outdoor treatments.
7. Don't forget the drinks trolley
Whether you're hosting or enjoying your favourite tipple alone (we're not judging), creating a bar area is the luxurious finishing touch you never knew you needed in your outdoor living space. The fancier among you will opt for a tiki bar or built-in design (perhaps attached to your outdoor kitchen), but a wheelable drinks trolley like this beauty from Garden Trading is equally appealing.
8. Opt for modular seating for flexibility
If you are splashing out on new seating, consider a modular collection that lets you add new sections as required (or as funds allow). There are clear advantages to this kind of pick and mix approach. You can build up your seating area as your family grows, and the smaller modules are easy to shift around if you need room for a table or fire pit. They can also prove simpler to store stacked up. From a design point, they tend towards a smart, contemporary shape. Look for models with deep seats perfect for lounging – this set from Neptune is our dream buy.
9. Small space? Replace a dining zone with a bistro set
If lack of space dictates a choice between ample laidback seating or a table, go for the former. BBQ food is easy to eat on laps but there’s a limit to how long you can loaf about on upright dining chairs. Just serve food and drinks on a couple of bistro tables that can be folded away (like the above from Dunelm) to make space for dancing later.
10. Choose cushions that'll last the summer
Seat cushions designed to be left outside should be covered in a water, UV and mildew repellant material – look for phrases like ‘Outdoor Use’ or ‘Weather Resist’. This doesn’t mean the water won’t soak through to the padding, just that they won’t disintegrate at the first sign of rain. Marine-grade textiles are particularly resilient to rain and sun but can be quite stiff. It’s worth remembering that all outdoor cushions will last longer if stored inside during winter. Style-wise, choose a lively mix of patterns and colours like Cuprinol have here.
11. Add outdoor rugs for comfort and style underfoot
The quickest and easiest way to add a splash of pattern outdoors is underfoot. Rugs designed specifically for outdoor use are widely available and come in bright colours and fabulous patterns – we love this dynamic geometric design from The Rug Seller for jazzing up boring patio slabs. Most outdoor rugs are made from tightly woven synthetic fibres that don’t absorb water and are textured to be slip resistant. The majority are washable with diluted detergent and a brush. Some are designed to be pressure washed so you won’t need to worry about kids dropping hot dog ketchup.
12. Breathe new life into furniture with outdoor paint
While the outdoor furniture section of the garden centre is always something to lust after, often a quick lick of paint is all it’ll take to breathe fresh life into your old wooden furniture. Okay, maybe some hardcore sanding may be required to revive wood that’s been exposed to the elements, but the results will be rewarding. Not least because outdoor paint specialists have vamped up their colour palettes in recent years, so you’re no longer restricted to grey, darker grey or moss green – Protek's wood stains come in a range of hues from bright yellow Primrose to soft Beaumont Blue. For a bright update (that compensates for all those flowers you failed to plant, again), paint mismatched chairs in rainbow hues.