5 Interior Design Trends for Outdoor Spaces

various outdoor spaces in a collage While social distancing remains a priority, outdoor venues have provided opportunities to get outside and gather in small groups.  Restaurants across the country have been able to open outdoor seating areas prior to dine-in options.  Many of the current interior design trends for outdoor spaces reflect their popularity for life plan communities, 55+ housing, school and university campuses and hospitality venues.

Even when we are not experiencing a pandemic, biophilic design principles reinforce the value of spaces that meet our innate need for nature connections. The WELL Building Standard calls for its projects to have a biophilia plan to incorporate nature through environmental elements, lighting and space layout.  This includes interior settings as well as porches, patios, courtyards, dining terraces, pool decks and rooftop venues that encourage people to get outdoors.

rooftop venues are one of the design trends for outdoor spaces
This stunning rooftop view is from The Vistas Apartments at Willow Valley Communities in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

1. Taking it to the Rooftop

Rooftop venues were initially limited to large cities where ground level space is at a premium.  However, restaurants, hotels, higher education campuses, senior living communities and other venues in less urban areas are influencing this trend. Rooftops offer an intimate, private setting for gatherings with built-in entertainment provided by the views.  Due to their location away from street-level activity, these scenic outdoor venues offer a unique experience with an air of exclusivity and tranquility.  To increase usability, we recommend covering a part of your rooftop space for shading and rain protection.

A variety of comfortable seating to enjoy the views is a priority, but a wide range of spaces can be considered.  Rooftop venues are well suited to a bar/lounge, dining venue, sustainable gardens or even a game room/activity area.  And if you really want the wow factor, rooftop pools are another option.

building rooftop at Waverly Heights in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania
This building rooftop at Waverly Heights in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania provides an outdoor amenity that screens the roof from adjacent apartments. The traditional roof gutter downspouts were replaced with rain chains which are anchored in plant containers and drain to the green roof where the water is absorbed by the plants.

Rooftop venues can be part of a sustainable design strategy.  At Waverly Heights, walkways wind around a green roof area with sedum plants to assist in stormwater management. Raised beds with heat tolerant perennials and shrubs provide seasonal interest.  In addition, bird houses and climbing vines attract birds and butterflies.

lighting for night and day use is another design trend for outdoor venues
New lighting, furnishings and finishes breathed new life into this patio at Pleasant View Community in Manheim, Pennsylvania.

2. Days and Nights Outdoors

Another interior design trend for outdoor spaces is extending their use beyond daylight hours.  Good lighting is a must in terms of basic safety and security. It also adds another level of ambience and enjoyment. Outdoor-rated string lights continue to be popular with many styles and LED options readily available.  Make sure the space is bright enough for people to safely navigate and consider the transition between a patio area and the interior to avoid blind spots. Include task lighting for a bar or outdoor kitchen.

outdoor seating space at dusk. various chairs are set around several separate fire pits

To make the space usable at different times of day include umbrellas for flexible shading options.  Conversely for cooler weather, consider implementing outdoor heaters and/or an outdoor fireplace or fire pits. These are available in propane, natural gas, gel or bio-ethanol fuel options.  Keep in mind that some of the more ecologically-friendly options provide ambience without generating heat.

design trends for outdoor spaces include blurring the lines separating them from the interior
A room with a view that can be opened up to the balcony takes outdoor connections to the next level, like the top floor clubrooms at Village On The Isle in Venice, Florida.

3. Blurring the Lines Between Indoor and Outdoor Spaces

The third design trend for outdoor spaces is enhanced connections with the adjacent interior spaces. Removing barriers between the two spaces and using consistent detailing and finishes strengthens nature connections from interior areas. Unobstructed views into outdoor venues also encourage more use.

“For spaces opening up to a landscaped courtyard, we work with the landscape architect to understand what may be blooming on the exterior.” Stacy Hollinger explains.  “Then we’ll try to incorporate those colors or complementary tones into the interior palette.”

design trends for outdoor spaces include blurring the lines between inside and outside
The new pool for Meadowood Community features an operable NanaWall system and interior tile that extends out under the pergola. This unites the two spaces for larger events and wellness users feel more connected to the outdoor environment.

Particularly for flooring, the use of materials approved for indoor/outdoor applications encourages physical use and increases the perceived visual expanse of space. For the pool area at Meadowood in Worcester, PA, a cascading roman shade feature protects outdoor fitness activities from the elements and rubberized paving provides a surface suitable for numerous fitness activities.

“One of the lessons we’ve learned over the years is that natural concrete can create sun glare,” reports Hollinger, “So we provide clients with options for coloring it.”

According to Landscaping Network, concrete can be colored with stains, integral pigments, color hardeners and dyes for varying end results.  Integrally colored concrete only works for new applications since pigments are added to the concrete mix prior to installation.  Dyes are popular for creating detailed graphics, like a school’s logo. However, use caution for outdoor applications since they will likely fade with sunlight exposure.

design trends for outdoor spaces are also evident on college campuses
The planning concept for new upper-level student housing incorporates outdoor spaces that seamlessly integrate landscape elements with hard-scape features and flexible furnishings to encourage student activities and interactions.

4. Making Outdoor Spaces Work Harder for You

Our 4th interior design trend for outdoor spaces is designing spaces to serve multiple uses. To energize your outdoor venue, we recommend varying the seating options and creating diverse activity zones. For example, if you only provide dining tables and chairs, you are likely limiting the potential space uses. Focus on flexible furnishings and durable materials that stand up to the elements.

Aesthetics are important, but also consider the longevity of furniture selections to minimize unwanted replacement costs.  According to Patio Living’s Outdoor Materials Guide, some of the best options for durability are aluminum, wrought iron, recycled plastic and marine grade polymers. These composite materials often look like wood while wearing much better than the real thing.  Furniture made with a combination of recycled plastic and resin is highly durable and resistant to moisture, stains, mildew, and insects.  Recycled plastic furniture is made of high-density polyethylene derived from milk cartons, shampoo bottles, and other post-consumer materials.

multi-functional venues are one of the design trends for outdoor spaces
Meadowood’s courtyard includes varied seating areas, a full cooking kitchen, trellised patios, an herb garden, a fire pit, water features, exercise areas and walking paths.
a 3d rendering of a patio outside a campus career center
The patio outside this campus career center will provide a multi-functional, welcoming venue for day-to-day use and special events. Durable furnishings highlight the university’s signature red color.

Garden walls are a great opportunity to double as seating or to display potted plants.  Other uses include a temporary artwork display area or staging area for refreshments during events.  Modular options are readily available for outdoor furnishings so you can shape and adapt a space as needed.

a higher level of detailing is a current design trend for outdoor spaces
The Vistas rooftop venue at Willow Valley.

5. Attention to Details for Outdoor Spaces

The final interior design trend for outdoor spaces is the high level of detailing found at commercial venues today.  Many of these details, like cushions or pillows, require extra care. And make sure material choices are appropriate for your climate, reflect your brand and align with maintenance goals.

Also consider UV resistance and color fastness due to likely exposure to the elements.  Keep in mind that water-resistant fabrics tend to be less breathable.  Water resistance is a priority for awnings and umbrellas, but breathability enhances user comfort and helps avoid mold and mildew for seating.  Sailrite offers an Outdoor Fabric Comparison Chart for a wide range of land and water-based outdoor applications.

meadowood courtyard water feature at dusk

Planter box speaker
Planter box speaker, credit Residential Products.

Lighting options have increased dramatically to help meld functionality and style.  Likewise, discrete speaker options have evolved beyond faux rocks to include other shapes and forms.  For example, the planter box pictured at right is a simple, cost-effective approach for obscuring speakers.

Less is definitely more for outdoor spaces, but the final touches can have a big impact.  Exterior art installations and accessories provide visual interest. Accessories can be as simple as surrounding plantings or potted plants. Other possibilities include decorative lighting, sculptural elements or colorful umbrellas.  Consider opportunities to reinforce your organizational brand or create a sense of place through color selections and unique accessories.

patio and adjacent micro courtyard at Brandermill Woods in Midlothian, Virginia
This patio and adjacent micro courtyard at Brandermill Woods in Midlothian, Virginia illustrate that much can be achieved in a small area.

Design Trends for Outdoor Spaces:  Creating Appealing and Functional Experiences

The objective for outdoor venues is to be as well-designed as your interior spaces in terms of form and function. This requires high-performance materials that can stand up to the elements and comfortable spaces for people of all ages and abilities.  For commercial, institutional and multi-residential buildings, outdoor venues require the same safety, accessibility, health and welfare considerations as interior spaces.  Outdoor spaces may be getting more attention right now due to the pandemic, but they should be an integral part of every building.

Stacy Hollinger, IIDA, Partner, leads the RLPS Interiors team.  A graduate of the University of Delaware, Stacy has 27 years of commercial design experience. She lives with her family near a popular nature preserve and loves spending time outdoors. Stacy appreciates any opportunities to apply her interior design background to help our clients create appealing outdoor venues!

Blog Editor – Jodi Kreider, LEED AP