In the early days of the pandemic, Toronto designer Sarah Keenleyside found herself at home with an eight-month-old son and a career that was suddenly on hold because her television show, HGTV Canada’s Backyard Builds, was on hiatus.
Like many of us, she felt lost and purposeless. “It was the most unsettling time,” says Keenleyside, who remembers well roaming around her small semi-detached house and wondering, “What am I going to do with myself?”
Then, she looked out into her overgrown backyard, a 1,200-square-foot space that she and her husband had ignored for years. The pandemic had give her time to consider her own backyard. “Instead of seeing an eyesore, I suddenly looked at it as a blank canvas where I could create something beautiful that could function as an extension of the main floor of our house,” she says.
She got to work and transformed her yard into a series of separate living “rooms” or zones – a place for toddler Jack to play as well as areas for lounging, dining and barbecuing. She added a deck, a stone patio, raised perennial beds and a garage that looks like a cool studio space. In short order, it became the family’s favourite place to relax, unwind and entertain.
“If COVID taught us anything it was to appreciate the outdoor spaces we had access to,” says Keenleyside, who is among the 17 per cent of Canadians, according to insurance company Aviva Canada, who renovated backyards, decks and balconies in the last year to give themselves more recreational space and breathing room.
Now with winter right around the corner, she’s been busy making the necessary tweaks and adjustments to carry this cherished outdoor living area through the shoulder seasons so she and her husband can sit outside on chilly evenings, catch up on their day and share a hot toddy or warm, mulled wine.
Extending the livability of outdoor spaces into the autumn – and even winter – has become an integral part of outdoor landscape and design. And there are many ways to warm up an outside space via lighting, fire and water features, curtains, spas, decorative panels, fabrics and accessories.
Bert Minor, design and sales manager for Ottawa-based Jonathan Robert Landscape, says the first thing he tells clients is to “think function before form.” He recommends carefully assessing how you want to use your outdoor space and then, with landscaping, lighting, covered areas (pergolas) and careful placement of furniture, it’s possible to create an all-season vibe.
“A growing segment of our customers want covered outdoor kitchens or outdoor living rooms with heaters or fire pits,” Minor says. “Their motivation is simple. They want to use the outdoors year-round.”
With that same goal in mind, Natalia David, trend and design manager at the Home Depot Canada, built a deck on the back of her Toronto home during the pandemic and is now considering adding a hot tub. But she says the easiest (and a less costly) way to cozy up your outdoor area is with plush, but durable all-season furnishings, cushions with slipcovers (so you can throw them in the wash when needed) and lots of throw blankets, ideally placed in a basket by the seating area. David also likes to place decorative lanterns on tables or hanging from trees to provide a soft light that instantly warms up an outdoor space.
Keenleyside, too, is a big fan of discreet, indirect lighting. “There is nothing worse than a motion-detector light that when someone moves, it goes on. I like to do wall sconces on a fence or garage, that shine up and down, rather than out.” String lights or repurposed Christmas lights are another, cost-effective option that instantly make the outdoors more festive and a little bit magical.
“A trick from my interior design background is to bring in pendant lighting over a seating area to make it feel more intimate.” For her own project she purchased a woven basket – “You can get them at HomeSense for $15 or $20,” she says – and cut a hole in the bottom of it. “I flipped it upside down and hung it from an exterior-rated lamp cord. The basket allows a lot of light through and it’s a great trick to add personality and ambience to a backyard.”
And one of her favourite ways to (literally) kick up the heat a notch is to install a fire feature, which in the case of her backyard reno, meant investing in a propane fire pit made of lightweight concrete that is so sleek and simple it looks like a piece of art. “In cities like Toronto we’re not allowed wood-burning fire pits, so this was a way to create a communal area where our friends and family often gather after we eat.
“And I made my own table top that converts it into a coffee table. Again it’s all about multi-function and getting the most use out of everything you invest into your home – inside or out.”
Apartment and condo dwellers can extend the life of their outdoor area by hanging curtains that function as a backdrop to cozy up a balcony or patio, as well as provide protection from the wind. “If your building allows it, I like to hang a sturdy bleached white fabric,” says Keenleyside, who attaches the fabric with clips suspended from aircraft cable, which is readily available at any hardware store.
David says the pandemic has taught us to enjoy life as it comes. “Outdoor living – regardless of what the temperature is outside – is being embraced in a way we’ve never seen before. Scandinavians and Norwegians have understood the importance of it for a long time. Now North Americans are embracing it, too.”
Extend the livability of your outdoor spaces with Scandinavian-inspired outdoor furniture and cozy accoutrements.
Decorative screen, starting at $750 for each 3-foot-by-6-foot panel, ikonikstyle.ca.
Lubek slate grey sectional, $2,799, article.com.
Belmont firepit (gas or propane), $3,595, dekko.com.
Nude chunky knit throw, $39.99, homesense.ca.
Amphora Collection pedestal light, $3,105, hollacecluny.ca.
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