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Planning Outdoor Living Areas

Your family’s lifestyle can change dramatically with the addition of a patio or deck. You’ll find that a well-planned outdoor living area takes pressure off the interior spaces by providing alternative spots for cooking, eating, and relaxing. If you have small children, your life will be easier if they have a play area that is easily viewed by adults who are relaxing or preparing food. Take your time thinking about and talking over a master plan for your outdoor space. Each has the three ingredients you should include in your plan: an outdoor living area, storage facilities, and a service area. Add a play area if you have children. If you like to grow your own food or love flowers, don’t forget to include plans for vegetable and flower gardens.

■ Start with the outdoor living area. The slope of your lot will help you decide whether to plan a deck or a patio. On flat lots, you have a complete range of choices, from brick-in-sand patios to an on-grade deck. If you must work on a slope, you may find that an elevated deck is the only practical alternative. Or, you may choose to build a series of small decks or patios that step gracefully down the slope.

■ Plan for ample room for your typical outdoor activities. A barbecue area should have room for the barbecue unit, plus one or two people to stand and cook; you may want to provide a small counter as well. A dining area should accommodate the table, the chairs, room for scooting the chairs out, and a path for bringing food to the table when people are seated.

■ To make sure the space will be comfortable, set patio furniture out on the lawn and have family members test it out. If the area is too heavily sloped to do this, experiment in another area with the same dimensions.

■ Study the area’s relationship to the interior floor plan. You’ll want convenient access, so take advantage of existing doors or consider installing a sliding glass door. Most people prefer a plan that allows easy access from the kitchen to the outdoor dining area.

■ Consider the view from the inside, which may be obstructed by the railing of a deck. The solution may be to lower the deck by two or three steps.

■ Plan the location and size of storage units to hold your yard and garden or recreational equipment. If a deck is raised 3 feet or more above the ground, the area beneath may fit the bill.

■ Don’t neglect the service area. Make it large enough for garbage cans, firewood, potting benches, or whatever your family requires. Consider installing a screen— either a small solid fence or a lattice structure—to hide or partially hide your equipment and your garbage containers. Make sure that you can easily reach garbage bins from the house and can easily wheel them to the street. At the same time, keep bins out of sight and away from living areas.

■ Before you dig holes or trenches, learn the locations of any underground lines. Your utility companies will tell you (at no charge) where the electrical cables and gas pipes run, as well as how deeply they are sunk. Your building department should know the locations of the main water supply. If you have a septic system, be sure you maintain access to the tank, and avoid building on top of the field.

■ Use graph paper to sketch out ideas to scale. Or you may want to stake out the areas on a trial-and-error basis.

■ Finally, plan for privacy and screening. Consider the plantings you have and those you want to add, as well as fences you might want to build.

With goals established, you’re ready to work out the details, such as the exact size of your deck or patio, what materials to use, and the cost. With the know-how that follows, doing it yourself will yield worthwhile results—convenience, comfort for years to come, and more money in your pocket.

Setback Requirements - Many a homeowner has made the mistake of building a structure that extends a foot or so beyond the legal boundary. Check your plat of survey to find your exact property line. If you are unsure, consult with your building department. In many locales, it’s not enough to simply stay on your property. Setback regulations may require that a building or patio be a certain distance short of the property line. Again, check with your building department before construction. You may also have an easement to think about. If, for instance, a neighbor needs to cross your property to take out the garbage, you may be restricted as to what sorts of things you can build in this path.

A long house with ample yard space on either side. Sometimes you can have more than one living area. In this plan, a small deck or patio provides privacy for lounging or intimate dining, while a larger area provides spillover for parties. The large deck leads to a flower garden, which is on display for visitors as well as for those inside the house. The service area is largely out of sight, yet accessible to the driveway.

A traditional rectangular yard. Many homes have yards shaped like this, with a front yard, narrow spaces on both sides, and a fairly large backyard. If all you need is space for the garbage, the service area can be small and tucked away. A large, nearly square deck or patio can accommodate dining, lounging, and barbecuing. The play area is in plain sight from the deck or from a back window.

A compact arrangement with detached garage. Where overall area is limited, plan the spaces and paths carefully. This living area, though small, provides both a dining/barbecuing area and a smaller section on the side for a lounge chair. The service area, behind the garage, is largely hidden yet next to the garden.

A square space. If a home is located in the center of a squarish space, there may be no one large yard area. The best solution may be to scatter the living, service, and storage areas. Here, storage and service areas are clearly separate from the living area—and also easily reached from the driveway.

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