How to do it ... Furnishing outdoors

Share this content:

Many facilities and communities may be overlooking an invaluable annex right under their noses — outdoor spaces that can provide a welcome and inviting place for residents to relax, reflect and commune with others. Consider these tips from the experts for furnishing and equipping these areas.

When creating or remodeling outdoor spaces, the most important consideration is how they will be used. A well-planned outdoor space can provide a valuable addition, but your efforts are likely wasted if you simply want to provide an area for your residents to get fresh air.

“To design a successful and engaging outdoor space, designers must consider the programming and activities that the community plans to host in that space,” says Jeanna Korbas, senior director of design for Aptura. Take into account open spaces for activities and more intimate spaces for privacy. Many communities use them for outdoor cooking and dining. 

“Farm-to-table is a major trend now and many senior living communities are getting in on it by creating raised gardens where the residents can sit and grow and harvest fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit that are then used in the preparation of meals.” 

But don't overlook umbrellas for shade and movable heaters for cooler mornings and evenings, she adds.

Inviting spaces encourage socialization and promote accessibility — both are critical in eldercare. Architect Christopher Karpus, NCARB, president of Karpus Design, knows the value of incorporating outdoor elements. 

“Key is providing residents with a transition space between the indoors and outdoors with comfortable, cushioned seating and a sheltered and shaded area that is secure,” he says. 

The operative word is “inviting,” particularly for residents who don't get out much. Include comfortable and supportive furnishings near facility entrances with bright, contrasting colors. 

“Outdoor spaces that mimic the comfort and security of indoors can encourage residents, especially those with dementia, to socialize,” he adds. 

Michael Zusman, CEO of Kwalu, says many communities are now embracing the “town square” concept that includes such features as courtyards and café tables and chairs for reading or conversation. Korbas suggests paths for walking and respite spots for shelter and reflection.

Be careful not to crowd spaces. Karpus suggests grouping wider seating where there is room to navigate. And look for function over form. While “there are many lovely resort-styled pieces that work wonderfully in the hospitality environment, many are too low and deep for our senior population to utilize outside,” warns Korbas. “Scale is key and comfort is king.”

Natural elements are as important design considerations as the furnishings themselves. A cleverly designed terrain can aid in rehabilitation provided through therapy programs, according to Korbas. 

“Gardens and running water provide a peaceful place to meander, especially with brightly colored, seasonal vegetation,” adds Karpus. “A nature walk with a destination or an outdoor structure or gazebo can induce exercise and promote health.” 

But be sure your spaces can safely accommodate traffic and provide adequate shade, and remove irregular elements like steep slopes, he adds. To ensure furnishings blend with the elements, choose colors like relaxing blues, warm yellows and calming grays, according to Zusman.

“Well-designed outdoor settings can also have a calming effect, resulting in decreased blood pressure and lower stress levels,” he adds.

Weather is the Achilles heel of outdoor design, so choose climate-appropriate furnishings and fabrics. Both Korbas and Zusman suggest quick-drying fabrics that are fade- and moisture-resistant. Fabrics that retain moisture can become a mold issue. 

Zusman cautions to choose furnishings that withstand the same vigorous cleaning as indoor materials. And Korbas warns against furnishings with metal parts that can quickly scorch skin after a few hours in the sun. 

Mistakes to avoid

- Ignoring natural elements. Exploit ready-made features like greenery, and incorporate the healing effects of natural daylight and running water.

- Overdoing it. Create inviting spaces but don't overcrowd them.

- Choosing furnishings and fabrics without regard to weather.