Design solutions: Outdoor rooms

Extend your living space into the garden with an outdoor building or structure. Designer Andrew Wilson guides you through all the most important requirements and possibilities


The thought of using the garden for outdoor living is not a new phenomenon, as throughout history gardens have been decorated with gazebos, summerhouses, pavilions or follies, all used to decamp from the house. This concept has merely increased in popularity as the decades have gone by, perhaps reflecting a more leisured society. An interesting slant on this is the development of the garden workspace, or office. As more of us adopt flexible work patterns and work from home, the garden is becoming the choice location for creating additional space as a work area, rather than cluttering up the home.

Rules and regulations
Before you get started, it is vital to consider the importance of planning when building in the garden. Structures are normally allowed under what is described as ‘permitted development’. However, if you happen to live in a conservation area, there may be specific regulations – check with your local authority. Additionally, if you live in a listed building, a part or the whole of a garden may be described as the ‘curtilage’ – an area around or near the building in which new structures will not be allowed. The main difficulty here is that the curtilage is never accurately defined and is therefore open to interpretation.
Garden structures should not cover more than half of the garden area – and in conservation areas no building should be erected with a volume greater than 10 cubic metres – without first seeking planning permission. Flat-roofed buildings should not exceed a height of 3m and ridge-roofed buildings 4m. Planners may also insist that new buildings be at least 20m from roads. It is easy to flout these rules, but the penalty of fines or demolition will cause much more heartache in the longer term.
Different structures
The most decorative of garden buildings or rooms is the gazebo, built to be open to the elements and designed to focus on a particular view or facilitate watching the stars at night. These structures need to be light in weight and elegant in construction in order to maximise the view. Steel or aluminium are the preferred materials, as they are structurally strong but slender. Timber has been used in the past and can be useful if the gazebo is linked to a pergola structure, for example. This is often a useful way of terminating a pergola walk. Many examples on the market are traditional in design and often fussy but commissions for designers such as Thomas Heatherwick have produced incredible, innovative results. If you’re after something different, possibilities certainly exist.
The gloriette or gloriet is a similar structure, which was often a pavilion in the centre of a garden, or a focal point on a mound. Another similar structure is a belvedere, and all these structures would be built into fortifications or in a position to command a view, either strategic or beautiful, across surrounding countryside. In each case it is the view from the structure that is key.
The folly, however, is designed almost exclusively to be looked at, a focal point or punctuation point within a larger landscape. Although it may be said that they have now had their day, the sheer eccentricity of folly production cannot, I believe, have died out. I would have had one, a small turret at the end of my garden, had not the previous owner sold off a parcel of land prior to our purchase. Such structures present the opportunity of conversion to a suitable use, or the possibility of creating a garden ‘room’, left as a partial ruin.
Substantial structures
For more substantial garden rooms and buildings it is the structure itself that is more important as well as the function that the building performs. Traditionally these buildings have been constructed in timber, which is either stained or painted for protection and a longer life. For a simple summerhouse this is entirely appropriate, a destination or focal point within the garden that is used in warmer periods as a backdrop or focus to outdoor activities. However, for a more functional space, perhaps an outdoor office or guest room in the garden, the structure would need to be fully insulated to prevent damage from condensation over the cooler periods of the year, or from overheating in the summer.
There is a variety of companies specialising in structures that can still be finished externally in timber, if this is what you want. Many will also organise planning consents, which can be tedious, as well as the delivery, installation and mains connection of these satellite structures. Double glazing, lighting, heating and outdoor terraces can make these valuable additions to both house and garden, and the popular trend for green roof systems creates micro-habitats and a softer profile suited to the garden setting.
Although the buildings often provide an escape within the garden, the cost of excavating for cables and other services needs to be considered as part of the project, together with any disruption this might cause to an established garden. The thought of leaving the telephone behind and effectively decamping within one’s own garden, however, is tremendously appealing and comes with a much lower carbon footprint than jetting off to the Maldives.
Choosing materials
More traditional and permanent materials, such as stone or brick, are often entirely appropriate to the garden setting, but will always prove a much more expensive option. Glass creates a more contemporary character, but can be limiting in terms of privacy and solar gain. The use of a combination of materials with clever ideas such as folding or sliding walls and retractable roof systems, can create open air conditions when the weather permits, and enclosed, protective structures when the weather closes in.
1 When considering a garden room or structure, check sizes, heights and locations within your garden with your local planning office. In particular, with listed buildings or within conservation areas there may be additional limitations that need to be identified before any work starts.
2 Match the intended use with your budget. An infrequently used summerhouse need not be expensive or grand, but a garden office will need to be much more substantial, insulated and mains connected as usage will be much greater.
3 Consider the distance of the structure from the house. Seclusion may be important, but as this distance grows, mains connection will become increasingly expensive.
4 Bear in mind the architectural style of your property and either match this in the architecture of the building, or break away for a complete contrast. Use planting to diffuse the height and scale of the structure and make a separate terrace or seating area, enabling you to create a new focus within the garden.
5 Think of the garden room as an investment for your home with the possibility of a guest suite, a gym, a home office or a play facility all possible on a much more economical basis than a house extension.
Useful websites
Substantial buildings.
Simple designs with a gently modern look.
Traditional designs, bespoke available.
Innovative designs in wood and glass.
A range of contemporary designs. 
A wide selection.
Summerhouses and pavilions plus a National Trust range.
English Heritage Buildings - oak-framed pavilions built to last. 
This article first appeared in October 2007, issue 130.
Andrew Wilson is a garden designer, writer and lecturer, and an assessor and judge for RHS show gardens.
Photograph by Scotts of Thrapston.


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