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When it comes to creating a functional and beautiful outdoor oasis, structures like decks, pergolas, pavilions and fences offer plenty of design options.

“I ask homeowners a lot of questions when we first meet. You have to get a sense of what makes your clients tick,” says Joshua Dean, landscape designer with Wheat’s Landscape in Virginia, Maryland, and the suburban Washington D.C. markets. “We walk around the space and talk about hopes and dreams. I want to move away from how they’re using the space now toward how they want to use the space someday.”

With so many segments to a project, planning has to be a give-and-take process. “We’ve gone from an approximation of an outdoor room to full exterior design,” Dean says. After he meets with clients, he goes back and puts together a design agreement that lays out the plan. “I come back with a concept, not so much a well-developed plan because I want and need the clients’ input. They’re the ones who have to live here and use the space.”

Miles Kuperus Jr., president of Farmside Landscape & Design in Sussex County, New Jersey, uses a slightly different planning technique. “I do a design session right in front of the client,” he says. “We collaborate and build a plan together. I block out various spaces and move them around so they can see their options.” He also asks plenty of questions about how many people will be using the space, what kind of entertaining they like to do, and so on.

Seating is another issue for the key design elements, especially for areas where people gather and relax. “I have to consider sun and shade patterns in this part of the country because it can feel like a 20-degree difference in the shade versus being in the sun,” says landscape architect J’Nell Bryson of J’Nell Bryson Landscape Architecture in Charlotte, North Carolina. “Landscape/night lighting also is being used on almost every project I design because people want to sit out during the evening hours, too.”

Another issue Dean throws into the mix is how products withstand the elements over time. For example, he says they’re installing more aluminum and fewer wood fences. “We do maintenance on properties, and what we’re seeing is that wood doesn’t hold up well,” he says. “You get warping, sagging, the gates won’t close properly. It becomes a long-term maintenance issue.”

Pay attention to housing and design trends.

Dean has noticed that clients are not asking for decks in recent years. “Many of the newer homes we work on are built so that the back door is the same grade as the front, so a deck isn’t the best choice,” he says. “In addition, material costs have skyrocketed the past few years.” Because most of his homeowners prefer the look of natural stone patios, masonry has become the focus. In fact, he installed no decks this past season.

Kuperus says he’s also not building as many decks. “Decks have a high cost and last 10 to 15 years, even with the plastic wood products,” he says. “There’s a permanence to hardscape, and you can get more hardscape square footage at a lesser price.”

He does point out, however, that there are some applications when a deck still works best. “If you’re a full story above ground, you need a deck. It makes more sense and is a better use of space,” he says.

Many designers say there’s been an increase in requests for pergolas and pavilions, which consist of four posts and a roof but without walls. “Pergolas help to define a space from a design standpoint and encourage people to sit down and enjoy the view,” Dean says. “A pavilion increases useable space, but it doesn’t have to be permitted up to a certain size in this area.” These structures also may include retractable shade awnings, bug screens, heaters and fans, offering multi-season appeal.

Pavilions are increasingly popular in many regions. “I don’t get many requests for pergolas,” Bryson says. “They’re aesthetically pleasing, but they don’t guard against rain and sun, so my clients usually opt for a covered structure since shade and weather protection are more functional for our part of the country.”

Help clients prioritize.

During the planning stages, Dean lists specific tasks and includes an outline of cost per section to help clients decide what’s really important to them.

“This starts a whole new set of discussions, which helps clients set priorities,” he says. “I often hear, ‘You recommended that fire pit, and I didn’t really want it at first, but now I love it and really have to have it.’”

Getting the numbers out there from the start helps manage expectations and smooths the decision process. “I explain that I can design whatever they want, but we need to talk about what they want to spend,” Kuperus says. “We have clients with a $100,000 house but a $150,000 landscape. There’s no typical range for us. It’s more about creating quality of life for our clients.”

Don’t forget that you’re creating a space you want clients to love.
Keep clients in the loop.

As the project unfolds, Kuperus says he’s methodical about communicating. For every job, he lays mock ups, explains the next phase to homeowners, and keeps clients informed every step of the way from design through construction. “We get their input,” he says, “It’s never a good idea to make decisions in a vacuum without them. Nothing good will ever come of that.”

Because even the most well-planned projects experience little blips, Dean automatically sets a contingency budget for every design. It’s usually a percentage of the job. “I explain that I’ll draw down on it if I need to, but I go no further than that point,” he says. “I’ve found if we have a little money to work with if something comes up, we communicate better and get to the end of the project in a more productive way.”

Don’t neglect aesthetics.

Function is always the first consideration, but don’t forget that you’re creating a space you want clients to love. For example, Bryson says that for pool areas, “aluminum fences with pickets are a great low-maintenance option. You install landscaping on both sides of the fence, making this type of fence the least visually intrusive.”

Plantings also create boundaries and privacy, while adding beauty. “I use living fences when possible, meaning plant material that creates a wall or hedge. Because of code restrictions on fence height, plants ultimately will provide more privacy because they can be allowed to grow taller than a fence,” Bryson says. “Plus, ‘green’ fences absorb more sound, encourage wildlife, and add a visual softness that fences do not.”

Kuperus says that homeowners may ask for specific design elements, but he tries to help them embrace the whole concept of outdoor living. “You don’t want hardscapes that are too hard,” he says. “You need to soften those edges with planting beds, accessorize with pots, and plant herbs nearby. Now you’ve got fragrance and pollinators and a sensory space. That makes people want to be outside. You’re changing the way they enjoy their homes.”

It’s a view many landscape professionals share. “I believe that when people spend more time outside in their gardens, they become stewards for the natural world,” Dean says. “When we create a space that people truly experience, we create an emotional response. Gardens make us want to take better care of our world.”

The author is a freelance writer based in the Northeast.