Home & Garden

How to create inviting outdoor living spaces

A fire pit with seating and an ocean view makes for an attractive gathering spot.
A fire pit with seating and an ocean view makes for an attractive gathering spot.

Most patios begin their lives simple and modest: a slab of concrete, an expanse of decking planks. And yet we dream big, especially in San Luis Obispo County, with its almost year-round temperate climate. We aspire to all the joys of indoor-outdoor living: the backyard barbecues, breakfast in the garden, and sipping wine at sunset.

Sadly, a pre-coordinated patio set and a grill may not be enough to achieve this dream. It’s true that creating a comfortable and inviting backyard living space can be both confounding and expensive. So we have asked three local designers who specialize in outdoor spaces for their best patio makeover tips in a range of styles and budgets.


Alli Addison of Alli Addison Branding and Design believes that hardscape is “the foundation of a space that really sets the tone.” Addison often works with her husband Tyler, who owns Addison Landscape.

The choices are many and include concrete, tile, stone, decking materials — and even decomposed granite. Addison’s favorite will “forever be pavers,” especially interlocking concrete pavers, she said. She typically uses them in a variety of styles and patterns for interest. She noted that pavers are hardier than concrete and come in a “wide array of style, shape and color choices.” An added benefit: they can be removed for a redesign, or if a problem arises.

Landscape architect Jeffrey Gordon Smith tends to gravitate toward materials that “feel of the place,” he said. He recommends looking at the color of the soil and rock in the area and finding a material that harmonizes with it. His favorite material is stone, and he often uses local varieties, such as light-hued Santa Barbara sandstone.

Stone is pricey and difficult to work with, he concedes. So if a client opts for a man-made material, he prefers something with an organic look. An example might be aggregate pavers that have a pebble-like finish.

He noted that expanding existing hardscape may be a water-wise solution for cutting down on the size of a lawn. If this seems too “hard” or stark, consider leaving wider-than-usual joints between each paver, and planting drought-tolerant groundcover in those spaces.


Forget the set, Addison advises. Her preference is to “mix and match, and allow the space to come together, rather than look forced.” For instance, when a client purchased a set of wicker patio furniture, she bypassed the coordinating tables and instead chose a cast concrete coffee table, and a collection of brightly-colored ceramic garden stools for side tables. The result was a one-of-a-kind look.

Interior designer Anne Fortini, who frequently works with her son, landscape designer Ryan Fortini, is seeing patio furniture that is more comfortable, yet stylish, including many pieces that bear a close resemblance to indoor furniture. In particular, she is seeing a greater variety of good-looking aluminum-frame pieces that “weather well.”

Outdoor fabrics have also come a long way. The best of them “will handle sun and rain and quick dry, so you don’t ever have to put them away,” said Fortini.

Smith, once again, takes a natural approach and prefers weather-resistant woods such as ipe and mahogany. These are certainly not budget choices, but they are durable and, after they have lived out their usefulness, biodegradable. “I try to educate clients on the value of buying better — furniture that can deal with the elements and age beautifully.”


Outdoor cooking spaces have become like second kitchens, incorporating cooktops, pizza ovens, refrigerators, ice makers and sinks. Consequently, the cost can be as high as adding an indoor kitchen, so it may be wise to only invest in features you will use on a regular basis.

Consider the trendy wood-burning pizza oven. “An entry-level pizza oven is eight grand,” said Smith. “How many pizzas are you going to make in there?” He noted that outdoor pizza ovens can take a long time to preheat and therefore may not be practical for everyday use.

One of Smith’s favorite outdoor cooking methods is a simple Kamado grill that barbecues, smokes, and “looks like a piece of art, rather than a big stainless steel hummer parked in your yard,” he said.

There are a few splurges that may be worth the investment. Fortini has many clients who request user-friendly electric smokers. Addison favors oak pit barbecues because they “offer a flavor unlike any other.”

As for layout, consider how you work in your indoor kitchen. Locate prep and sink areas together, and have trash and recycling located nearby (Addison recommends under-the-counter pullouts). Leave space for landing areas on each side of every major kitchen component, said Addison. And if you like to chat while you cook, don’t forget ample bar space.


Plunking down a patio set and calling it good is akin to “a sofa sitting alone in a living room,” said Addison. “It wouldn’t look right.”

Finishing touches in an outdoor space are similar to what you’d use indoors — just specially created to withstand the elements. This can include rugs, draperies and art.

Addison likes to anchor seating arrangements with large pots planted with dwarf citrus trees, succulents or topiaries. For a contemporary space, go ahead and add some vibrant color, she said. If your style is more Old World, stick with neutral tones like terracotta, cream, gray or brown.

While elaborate water features may be going the way of the quarter-acre lawn, fire features are a popular way to increase the amount of time people can comfortably spend outdoors.

Smith cautions clients to remember that heat rises, so tall heat lamps are not the most efficient way of keeping warm. Also too high are some propane fire pits — the ones that have an interior tank. The exception may be if you have a small child or active pets and need an extra measure of safety.

His favorite is a low, gas-burning fire pit. Yes, a cracking wood fire may create more ambience, but consider how it feels to have smoke in your eyes. Incorporating the fire feature into a table structure allows guests to set down a beverage or plate.


An often-forgotten finishing touch is lighting, which can transform a patio from gloomy to spectacular after dark. Addison likes to, at the very least, switch out exterior wall sconces to ones that work with the style of the space. Another easy lighting upgrade is the use of oversized lanterns with battery-operated candles. They can line walkways, or act as centerpieces, she said.

For a bigger investment, consider features like up-lighting for the house, as well as illumination for retaining walls and particularly lovely or sculptural plants. The results can be dramatic.

Also important are safety lighting for paths and steps, and task lighting for the bar or cooking area. A common error, said Smith, is placing a light source behind the cook, which creates shadows. Instead, position light directly above the task area.

For what Addison calls the “wow factor,” string your patio with bistro lights. Just remember that these are not the same as the white lights you hang on your Christmas tree. They are designed for outdoor use and therefore are a bit pricier. But the payoff may be worth it. “They bring the space to life,” said Addison.

Tips for creating an outdoor space

CREATE CONTINUITY When considering materials and furniture for your outdoor spaces, keep in mind the style of your interior, as well as the architecture of your house, advised Alli Addison of Alli Addison Branding and Design. Continuity makes an outdoor space feel more like an extension of your home.

KEEP IT LIGHT Dark colors may look great in a store, but remember that dark hues absorb more heat, Addison said. Those black chair cushions, or that dark granite countertop may look great in a showroom, but may not be comfortable to touch on a sunny day. Dark colors may also show fading more quickly.

GO SIDEWAYS Instead of stashing all of your outdoor cushions during the winter, prop them up on their sides when rain is in the forecast, said Fortini. Outdoor fabrics repel water fairly well, so raindrops will simply run down the sides. After the skies have cleared, give them a shake and they’ll soon be ready to use.