Bringing the Outdoors In

Murray Arnott, from Murray Arnott Design, had a great post the other day on design elements that can bring more of the outdoors into the interior of your custom log home. He graciously allowed us to post his ideas here on our blog:

Our connection to the earth is an obvious one.  Yet many of us live our lives and design our homes so that we are anything but connected to nature.  We might leave an air conditioned office through a underground garage, drive home in an air conditioned automobile, park in a heated garage, come into the house directly without feeling the outside air on our face, without smelling a natural fragrance.  I have been very lucky in that I have lived in many homes with wonderful settings:  views of gardens, forests, mountains or oceans.  I work at home, with large windows opening up to beautiful maple trees and often eat my lunches under their shade.  But, I too often spend an entire day inside without ever stepping into the outside air.

As designers, we often fail the public by placing too much emphasis on comfort, on shielding ourselves from the very elements that connect us to the earth and our sense of balance.  The poet/philosopher Kahlil Gibran wrote:

…have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master?

When the balance of our attention is focused within the exterior walls of our home, we can forget the context in which our home rests, often a wonderful exterior environment.  I believe your home should spring from the site:  look like it has almost grown out of your building site, not like it was designed elsewhere and just plunked down where it was convenient.  At every level of the design we need to link our exterior and interior environments.  Before starting to design a home, I have been known to sleep on a building site, noticing how the breezes work across the site, where the sun sets, where it rises, how the site fits into the greater landscape.  

In recent columns I have looked at how some basic design concepts enhance our relationship to the outdoors.  A long, thin house places more rooms on outside walls and allows greater penetration of sunlight.  Placing windows on two sides of a room creates more varied views and clarifies perception through the reduction of glare and shadows.  Window seats bring us right up to the outdoors.  Skylights open our home up to the sky.  Creating a private outdoor space for each member of the family allows us to move more easily between indoor and outdoor environments.  Small porches and sitting areas beckon us closer to nature.  Carrying floor and window treatments from the inside to the outside helps to dissolve boundaries.

Designing a screened porch, sunroom or solarium or for your home is a more ambitious step in bridging the gap between the interior and exterior.  In doing so, you are essentially saying, “I want a room where I can be close to the outdoors.  I want to be able to sit and feel the breezes and sunlight directly on my skin.”  Each of these spaces put us more in touch with the outdoors, yet to be in each feels very different.

While definitions of these different spaces can blur somewhat between, here are some of the basic differences.  A screened porch is what it implies: a porch-like room attached to the exterior of your home that, instead of having glazed windows, is screened to keep bugs out.  It is usually sits on concrete pilasters instead of a continuous foundation.  A sunroom is a living space that is either part of your main house or is added to the exterior, having numerous windows, usually on two or more sides.  If it is insulated with double pane windows and is heated, it is generally called a four season sunroom.  If it is not insulated, has single pane windows, and is unheated, it is generally called a three season room.  A solarium generally has full glazing from the floor up including the roof.  

Whether you are considering a screened porch or a solarium, first consider the use it will receive. Where do you live and what is your lifestyle?  What time of year and what times of day will be using your room and for how long?   In northern climates the full use of the three season room may be quite limited, while a solarium may be impractical in a hot southern climate. It is important to emphasize that the experience of being on a screened porch, with the sounds, smells, and fragrances of nature is very different than being in a sunroom.  While  sunroom windows let in the light and views of the exterior, it is a much less sensual experience.  Of course, there are cost considerations.  Adding a screened porch may be very economical, while a full solarium can be quite expensive.

Locating screened porches can sometimes be problematic. Generally, it makes most sense to locate it off the primary living space with a western exposure to catch the afternoon sun.  However, it is important that it doesn’t negatively affect the light and relationship of the primary living spaces to the exterior. Because screened porches are exposed to the elements, the structural and enclosure materials should be pressure treated or weather-resistant such as cedar or redwood.  The floor can be simple open decking (screened underneath) or can be kiln dried tongue and groove.  All trim boards should be sealed on all sides with particular attention to knots.

Sunrooms are gaining rapid popularity.  Many people who add a sunroom or enclose a porch find they spend most of their time there, including eating meals.  Though sunrooms may have a primary western or eastern orientation, in most climates they generally need good southern exposure.  Again, their effect on the interior rooms to which they are adjacent needs careful consideration.  As three season rooms aren’t  insulated or heated, the wall that separates it from the main house needs to be weatherproof with exterior doors.  The windows can be single pane glass or even vinyl or another similar material.  It is important that sunrooms are well vented to avoid over heating, particularly four season rooms.  While sunrooms usually have numerous windows, you may want to add an operable skylight or two for even more light without going to a full solarium.  Or you can make the walls higher than normal to allow for a row of transom windows or a gable window.  Have your sunroom open to the main deck or patio with one or more sets of French doors.  You can also install large folding exterior doors so that you can open up one or more walls almost fully to the outdoors.

Flooring can be any material, though I suggest more natural colors and materials such as tiles.  A three season room may have the walls finished with exterior materials to match the house or use traditional interior finishes.  Keep the furnishings and fabrics light and inspired by nature.  Use natural tones and avoid starkly contrasting colors.

Solariums or conservatories offer a unique relationship to the outdoors. As fully glazed rooms, they keep out the breeze and dampen natural sounds but allow full light and view exposure.  This can give an open and free feeling but it can also like being in a fish bowl–privacy concerns must be fully addressed.  The huge solar exposure makes a great environment for growing a wide range of plants.  It also places significant demands on climate control as both heat and humidity levels can rise significantly.  Used correctly, it can transfer passive solar energy to the rest of the house.  To do so, you will need considerable thermal mass, preferable in a medium dark color, absorbing the heat during the day.  If the rear shared wall of the solarium does act as a thermal collector, heat can be transferred to the house by conduction or be exchanged through vents or by mechanical means.

I believe sun spaces should be playful, so have fun in planning and furnishing it.  Let the child in you come out.  Kids have no problems forsaking formality and comfort for a chance to be in nature.

You can read the original article on Murray Arnott’s website by going to:

http://www.logcabinhomes.com/murrayarnott/Murray_Arnott/Blog/Entries/2013/6/1_Bringing_The_Outdoors_In.html