Designing your outdoor retreat

Designing Your Outdoor Retreat, with Innovative Living Spaces and Inspired Landscaping

Designing the perfect backyard retreat can be a very rewarding experience that allows you to envision, build and landscape a private oasis of tranquility and beauty, only steps from your back door. A well-planned backyard will not only enhance the aesthetic appeal of your property but also provide a functional and inviting space for you to relax with family and friends, entertain and enjoy outdoor recreational activities for three seasons of the year.

According to the Government of Canada, the average Canadian spends roughly 90% of their time indoors. Biophilia is the concept, set forth by esteemed biologist and naturalist Edward O. Wilson in the early 1980s, that humans possess an innate, biological affinity for the natural world.

Biophilic design supports human health through six defining principles:

  • The inclusion of environmental features like live plants, that create a direct connection with nature in our built environments.
  • Incorporating nature’s endlessly diverse natural shapes and forms in our architecture, interior décor and landscaping.
  • Looking for opportunities to connect with the natural patterns and processes around us, such as sight, sound, smell, touch, and the circadian rhythms that define our sense of time.
  • Embracing light and space, flooding our rooms with daylight, opening windows during mild weather, and creating open-aired spaces.
  • Building space-based relationships with our local ecologies and geographical landscapes such as BC’s mountains, lush green forests, waterfalls, estuaries, rivers and the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.
  • Emphasizing our inherent human-nature relationships, creating a sense of safety and protection, a balance of variety with regularity, while fostering curiosity and exploration, and building a sense of accomplishment and mastery over our environment.

By incorporating elements such as hardscaping, green spaces, outdoor furnishings, lighting, water features, and sustainable practices you can expand your living area, and enhance your lifestyle and enjoyment of your home while increasing the value of your property. Whether you’re looking for a serene sanctuary to relax in, or a vibrant space for entertaining, a thoughtfully designed backyard space can become a cherished haven for you, your family, and your guests to enjoy for many years.

Envision the space you want to create

As you plan your escape from indoors, and design your outdoor retreat, it’s important to envision your living space. Consider your family’s lifestyle and the ways you intend to use your expanded space. Will you be dining or hosting gatherings, lounging around the firepit, enjoying evening movie nights with family and friends, gardening or enjoying the sunset as you overlook a parklike setting?

Begin with rough sketches or landscape bubble diagram software to work with ideas and create a glimpse of how your proposed layout appears and feels. Begin with the existing structures, trees, and landscape features. Then begin adding elements such as seating areas, pathways and plantings.

Choosing a theme and style

You want to select a cohesive theme or style for your background retreat, establishing a harmonious look and feel throughout the space. This may be the time to bring in your design-build contractor and landscaper.

Whether you choose a modern Zen garden, rustic cottage-inspired space, or a tropical paradise, establishing a well-defined theme will guide all of your design decisions going forward, and it will ensure that your finished project has a consistent look and feel.

Open-air kitchens

With families spending more time at home over the past few years, outdoor kitchens have gained significant popularity. Families and friends are embracing the pleasures of outdoor living. The perfect outdoor kitchen can become a year-round haven for home chefs who enjoy entertaining and relaxing outdoors.

You will want a roof over at least a portion of your open-air kitchen. That way you can move the gathering indoors if you’re caught in a downpour, and still finish your dinner. The ‘kitchen work triangle’ is just as important when designing your outdoor kitchen. The work triangle is all about maximizing your kitchen’s layout for the most efficient workflow.

A simple kitchen may include a barbecue grill and pizza oven, with a food prep and plating counter and bar fridge. To keep costs in check, you may even decide to prep and plate your food indoors. More elaborate open-air kitchens often include a sink, dishwasher, weatherproof cabinet storage space, and a well-stocked bar.

Your outdoor kitchen is more than a place to cook; it’s a space for relaxing and socializing. Consider adding outdoor sofas and chairs, with outdoor rugs, or perhaps a designated eating area with a dining table. Umbrellas or pergolas can create shaded areas for those hot summer days. And bar stools allow you to visit while you cook.

Conversation areas and furniture

It’s important to invest in weather-resistant high-quality furniture on British Columbia’s West Coast. Your furniture is going to see a lot of rain. Choose pieces that match your theme or style and will offer ample seating for your family and guests. Cushions, throw pillows and outdoor rugs can make the space more comfortable while contributing to its overall aesthetics.

Choose furniture that suits your outdoor space, while mimicking your indoor colour scheme and decor. Consider comfort as well as positioning, and choose long-lasting materials and textured fabrics that are suited to outdoor living.

Fire pits and outdoor fireplaces

Adding a fire pit or outdoor fireplace can create a cozy ambiance for enjoying the evening meal or visiting with friends. Fire pits are an excellent way to anchor your outdoor space so you can use it year-round, extend your outdoor season, or stay out later in the evenings after sundown.

Fireplaces are a great choice for intimate settings and relaxing with loved ones. They can provide a smooth transition between the dining or living room and the outdoor area, sharing one fire across both spaces. They can also be positioned to block prevailing winds to reduce heat loss.

Outdoor entertainment

Watching movies on a big screen on a warm summer night brings home entertainment to the next level. Building your outdoor cinema system will enable you to watch movies from the comfort of your backyard.

Your home theatre projector will need to be at least 2,000 ANSI lumens of brightness, with 4K resolution, enough to project an outstanding image on the screen size you’ve selected. Portable projectors usually lack the brightness you’ll need for a backyard theatre system, so you’ll want to build a weatherproof enclosure to protect a high-calibre home theatre projector for the months it will be outdoors.

You also want an outdoor projector screen with a higher gain. A projector screen with a gain of 1.5, for example, will project back the light 1.5x brighter than the light being projected at the screen. And you want a screen that’s 16:9 HDTV format, which is great for watching both TV and movies or a 2.35:1 Cinemascope projector screen, with the aspect ratio most modern movies are filmed in.

Outdoor projector screens come in retractable, folding and inflatable. For a permanent backyard cinema, a retractable projector screen with waterproof housing is the way to go.

Hot tubs and swim spas

Hot tubs typically have water jets that create swirls and bubbles around sitters as they relax in the hot water. They are designed for relaxation, rest, and unwinding after a long day. They’re also perfect for having a few friends or neighbours over for a barbecue, followed by drinks in the hot tub.

Hot tubs and swim spas have similar price tags. Swim spas are moderately sized jetted tubs. They’re designed so you can swim against the current created by the jets, providing the impact-free exercise of swimming or water aerobics. Swim spas are a great option for homeowners who don’t have the space or budget for a swimming pool.

Hardscaping elements

Hardscaping refers to the non-living elements in your landscape. These include pathways, patios, decks, pergolas and water features. They will provide structure, helping you organize your backyard retreat while improving its functionality. Natural or cultured stone, concrete pavers and wood are popular choices for creating hardscape features that complement the surrounding landscaping.

Green spaces and plantings

Green spaces and plantings can add natural beauty, some much-needed privacy and a sense of tranquillity to your backyard sanctuary. Consider opting for native and climate-appropriate plants that will thrive in your area, requiring minimal maintenance and watering.

Layers of foliage can be created by incorporating plants of varying heights while providing texture, depth and visual interest. Strategically planting trees, hedges and trellises can offer shade and privacy in key areas. Including a small vegetable or herb garden can provide your family with fresh produce and an enjoyable gardening experience.

Landscaping features

The soothing sound of flowing water can enhance the tranquillity of your backyard space. Water features such as a fountain, pond or waterfall can create a calming atmosphere while attracting birds and wildlife. It’s important to prevent stagnant water by including a maintenance routine in your design.


Choosing proper outdoor lighting can extend the usability of your backyard retreat well into the evening hours. The same principles apply as when choosing indoor lighting. You want a combination of ambient or mood lighting, task and accent lighting to create a warm and inviting ambiance while offering increased visibility in the cooking or perhaps DJ area. Safety lighting can help your guests find their way back inside or identify a change in ground level.

Solar-powered lights, string lights and lanterns can lend some additional energy-efficient and charming illumination after the sun goes down.

Maintenance and seasonal changes

If you create a maintenance plan that includes regular pruning, watering and cleaning, your backyard oasis should serve your family’s needs for at least three seasons of the year. Your design should consider the changing seasons and be adaptable to different weather conditions.

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