The great outdoors
A change in thinking means homeowners now want the exterior space to work as part of the home
When my neighbour finished renovating her house, the thing that pleased her most was the garden. "We never used to use it much," she said. "Now we're out there all the time!" She hadn't invested in fancy landscaping - our little terraced cottages are too small for that - but a simple change in the configuration of doors and windows had transformed the back yard into a place in which people like to gather.
The way that Irish people think about their gardens in relation to their home is changing. Now, when we're doing up our interiors, we're also thinking about that important outdoor space. And that's across the board. It applies to homes with an acre-and-a-half of garden, apartments with postage stamp-sized balconies, and everyone in between. We want our exterior spaces to work as part of the home, and to be able to move freely between them.
"It's such a focus!" says interior architect Denise O'Connor of Optimise Design. "All our projects consider the indoor and outdoor spaces at the same time. When I started out, our clients didn't think about this at all."
The most important thing, O'Connor explains, is the glazing. The positioning of the windows and doors, and the way that they open onto the space, is crucial to how it's going to be used. "The threshold detail is important too. Keep it as level as possible so you're not stepping up or down when you leave and enter the house."
Using the same flooring for indoor and outdoor spaces can reinforce the feeling of continuity. "A lot of the companies that make porcelain tiles will have an outdoor range to match their indoor flooring," she says. "The outdoor tiles look the same but their surface is rougher so that they aren't slippery." She's recently finished a project that alternates wide granite paving slabs with skinny ones. "Granite looks lovely and mixing up the sizes made it more interesting."
It's also helpful to consider the boundary walls. "A lot of the time the walls around a garden aren't very attractive. If you have the money, cladding them in wood can make them look much nicer." For dwindling budgets, O'Connor recommends a lick of paint. "Really strong colours can look fantastic with planting against them." Exterior paints have come on a lot in the last few years. Cuprinol's Garden Shades (€14.95 for a 1 litre tin) now comes in co-ordinated palettes (the Inviting Garden; the Comforting Garden; the Playful Garden) along with tips on how you can use the range for garden furniture, sheds and detailing.
When it comes to designing a family home, O'Connor suggests that you think ahead. What toddlers need, in terms of outdoor space, is very different from the needs of older children. "People go mad doing all sorts of stuff when the kids are little and then ripping it all out 10 years later. It's a very expensive way of doing things." Instead, she recommends that you give the children plenty of space to play, but think forward to how you plan to reclaim it as they grow older. This will come around much quicker than you think.
For planting, she recommends a good hard look at how much you're prepared to bring to your garden. "Gardens require upkeep. How hands-on do you want to be?" Most people can manage a few planters but, unless gardening is one of your hobbies, there is really no point in investing in high maintenance planting. Children are notoriously tough on lawns and a lot of O'Connor's clients are now opting for artificial grass. Prices range from €18 to €35 per square metre. "You get what you pay for," she says. "I prefer real grass myself, but the better quality artificial grass is very realistic. It's worth going for the best that you can afford."
When it comes to outdoor lighting, keep in mind that you're probably not going to be sitting out there in the dead of night. The main purpose of outdoor lighting is to illuminate the space so that it looks attractive when you're inside, looking out.
In terms of outdoor furniture, the Irish family favourite is still the six-seater set. That's a table with a parasol (plus base) and six dining chairs with cushions to go around it.
Of outdoor home space, Erika O'Keefe, outdoor living consultant for The Orchard, says: "They're seeing it as an extra room in the house." Prices for a six-seater set from The Orchard range from a starter set at €995 to the new Monte Carlo set with faux leather cushions for €2,995. "They're really soft and there's no maintenance," she explains. "People don't want to be sanding down and oiling their teak furniture every year. They just want to walk into the garden and use it." Just remember that, unless you have a sizeable shed, garden furniture takes a hammering in the winter months. Look for brands with a 10 year guarantee on frame and cushions.
If you're prepared to shop online, the outdoor furniture from Made.com offers good value. In the Copa range, made from woven polyrattan on a steel frame, a pair of chairs costs £179 (€202). The multi-coloured designs are great and lightweight chairs have the advantage that you can move then in and out of the sun, but they would last longer if they were stored indoors during the winter. The table in the same range costs £249 (€282) and has a glass top so you can see the cool woven pattern underneath.
Tempting as it is to go for brightly coloured outdoor furniture, there's a strong argument for sticking with the plain and accessorising like crazy. No need to spend a lot of money on this. Penneys has come up trumps this year with their Moroccan-inspired Medina accessories. You'd be hard pushed to find something in the range that costs more than €15. Other reliable sources of indoor/outdoor accessories include Marks and Spencer where pieces from the Summer Brights picnic range start at €17 and Debenhams, where the Beau & Elliot raindrops plastic tumbler costs €5.25. Both these ranges include melamine tableware which is much lighter to carry and doesn't break as easily as ceramic. Melamine cracks in the dishwasher though. When the manufacturers say that it needs to be hand-washed, they mean it. I've been caught that way before.
See optimise-design.com, cuprinol.ie, theorchard.ie, made.com, debenhams.ie, marksandspencer.ie.