Summary: Advice for planning a patio, which patio furniture to use, materials and finishes, soft furnishings and tips for buying patio furniture.
During the hot summer months the garden is a great place to unwind and relax. A vast range of stone material suitable for patio laying combined with an equally extensive selection of patio furniture and equipment has increased the potential of the patio considerably. Today gardens of practically any size can have an individually designed patio to enhance the alfresco living experience.
By taking time to plan and design your patio, you can create an area where all the different features combine to produce a unique space that possesses character, comfort and charm. In effect, transforming a popular garden feature into an outside room.
This article looks at what is available to anyone planning to build a garden patio. The article will cover all aspects relating to patios from design and materials to patio furniture, heating and lighting. The actual building of the patio is covered in the lets-do-diy.com project, laying a patio.
To create the perfect patio for your garden, consider the size and position of the patio area carefully. Most people prefer the patio to be close to the house but you may wish to choose a location in a sunnier part of the garden or a position offering a better view.
Patio design and layout
By placing the patio near to trees and shrubbery, you create a naturally sheltered area similar to an arbour. But this type of location can bring problems. Firstly excavating the footings for the patio may cause damage to the roots of the trees and shrubs that were the chief attraction of that particular location. Close proximity to trees and shrubs will almost definitely result in the unsightly problem of leaf mould forming on the patio creating a slippery and hazardous surface.
For a patio that complements the house and garden, proportions are all-important. When deciding on the size of the patio, you must also think practically about how it will be used. If you want to put a table and chairs on it, you will probably need at least 3m x 3m but to accommodate sunloungers and possibly barbeques a larger space may be required. So it’s worthwhile deciding on the type of patio furniture you will be using at this early stage.
Shape is another important factor in your patio planning. Don’t be constrained by the traditional rectangular template – a curved patio is often more space efficient and can blend more harmoniously with the rest of the garden. Experiment with shapes and geometric patterns to highlight garden features or mirror flowerbeds. Mark out the patio area with a hosepipe or string line to help you visualise the space.
Once you have decided on the shape and size of your patio there is another important feature of the design to consider that many people overlook – colour. The variety of stone available to the patio builder is matched, if not surpassed, by the rich diversity of colours in which stone paving materials now come. A quick glance at any paving stone supplier’s catalogue or website will vividly illustrate this. We will look at the colours available later, but at this stage it is a good idea to consider whether you want the colour of the patio to complement or contrast with the colour of the walls of your house.
Then there are the questions of patterned or plain and mix or match? Are you going to use stone of the same colour or do want to create a pattern on the patio surface?
Matching different materials is yet another option worth considering. A patio constructed of two different types of stone can be very effective, as can the inclusion of an area of decorative gravel in the design. But if the mix and match approach appeals to you take care, for not all materials will work well together.
As with so much connected with design, personal taste plays a significant and overriding role. Nevertheless, it is a generally accepted rule that natural stone does not work well with reconstructed materials.
The patio’s perimeter also offers the opportunity for other design elements that can enhance its overall appearance. Firstly, you may want to build a low ornamental wall around the perimeter of your patio. Once again it is at the design stage where you should be looking into the height of the wall, the type and colour of the brick you are going to use and whether the top of the wall will be finished with coping or incorporate areas for planting.
Another option worth considering is having contrasting edging at the patio’s perimeter, which can be in terms of both colour and material. A patio constructed of slabs can be given an elegant block edging, providing a simple but effective counterpoint to the main patio area.
Whatever design you are looking for, it is advisable to produce scale drawings to visualise the finished patio. Scale drawings can also assist in calculating the quantity of materials needed.
Stone slabs or flags come in many shapes, sizes and colours. The main types of stone are natural stone and reconstructed stone. Natural stone is what its name implies and is the more expensive of the two; but natural stone slabs can vary in size and thickness and consequently will require a higher degree of expertise to lay.
Reconstructed stone slabs – sometimes described as reconstituted or artificial stone – are concrete units where a specific concrete mix has been designed to resemble natural stone. A wide range of natural stones can be imitated including Bath stone, Portland stone, Stainton stone and red terracotta.
A word of caution on reconstructed stone slabs. Although they are the less expensive option, the quality can vary greatly and the cheapest stone slab often bears little resemblance to the natural stone it is trying to imitate. So it’s advisable to look around to find the best supplier.
Traditionally the most popular stone for building patios has been sandstone, as it comes in a wide range of attractive colours and textures. But there are other interesting and decorative alternatives.
Travertine is a hardwearing stone common to southern Europe. The largest building in the world constructed predominently of travertine is the Colosseum in Rome. A noticable feature of travertine stone is its naturally pitted surface that is excellent for simple, rustic designs. But it’s the colours of travertine stone that make it so attractive to patio builders. In addition to grey, beige and white there are rich browns, reds and golds that are ideal for creating a patio with a Mediterrannean appearance.
Another stone favoured by professional patio builders is granite. The reputation granite has for toughness and durability often overshadows its natural beauty. Natural granite slabs are usually dark and silver grey, or pink. But its beauty is heightened in the sun as it sparkles and glints providing a glamorous sophistication.
When looking at the variety of stone available you will soon discover that patio slabs can come with different finishes offering another dimension to patio design. These finishes are produced by specific operations: acid-etched, smooth or coarse ground, grit or sand-blasted, rubbed or polished, giving the stone a different appearance and character.
A riven surface refers to stone that has the appearance of having split away from the main rock mass resulting in a rough, textured appearance. Tumbled stone has a distressed look marked by rounded edges and a well-worn quality. Polished stone has a smooth surface imparting a refined elegance, while in stark contrast slabs that have been shot-blast have a coarse, roughened surface.
Block paving and setts
Although the patio slab or flag is the most popular stone material for building patios other materials are available, namely block paving and setts.
Block paving comprises of rectangular shaped blocks similar to bricks. The most common size for block pavers is 200mm x 100mm with a depth of around between 50mm. They can either be made of concrete or clay and come in a wide selection of colours. Clay paving blocks are more expensive than the concrete variety but both can be tumbled or polished
Paving blocks are usually laid in one of three patterns: herringbone, stretcher bond and basketweave.
Whatever stone material you decide to use, accurate plans will help you estimate the quantity of materials needed and get quotes. Remember to check that there are no underground pipes and cables in the area. If the patio is to butt onto an exterior house wall, it must be below the damp proof course. For more information about installation, take a look at our project, laying a patio.
We will help you choose the right look for your garden, whether you want a functional space or a stylish setting for alfresco entertaining. Find out about the range of furniture materials to choose from and the type of maintenance required.
Create the mood for your patio area with carefully chosen furnishings to suit your style and usage of the patio. To search for ideas and inspiration consult magazines and websites for different styles of furniture and possible arrangements. If you use the patio for alfresco entertaining, tables and chairs in classic wrought iron or contemporary wood or aluminium finishes will extend the elegance of the dining room into the garden. If you want a tranquil area for relaxing in the sun, choose comfortable deckchairs, sun loungers, swinging seats, hanging basket chairs, hammocks, and benches piled with cushions.
The range of materials for patio furniture is always expanding, but the most popular types are aluminium, iron, wood, wicker, and resin (plastic). Fashionable “mixed media” furniture combines these materials, for example setting off warm woods with sleek metal frames. When choosing your furniture, it is sensible to consider the level of maintenance required for the material as well as the tone it will set. Cushioned seats are comfy but have to be kept dry so it may be better to opt for removable cushions on a wooden or metal seat.
Materials and finishes
Aluminium (including cast aluminium) is lightweight, durable and easily cleaned. It is popular with owners of contemporary or minimalist gardens and families with children looking for sturdy furniture (although swinging chairs should be avoided). Whilst aluminium can be used to great effect for a retro look, when combined with teak furniture it can also create an attractive mixed media look. As an alternative, stainless steel is becoming more widely used in furniture manufacture, but choose a brand with high-grade rust-resistance.
Wrought iron furniture is a classic choice for an English garden, and can be found with ornate Victorian styling or a rustic country cottage look. Iron is quite high maintenance as it is prone to rust, and you may wish to avoid it if you live by the sea or have no storage space for furniture during the winter months.
Wooden garden furniture retains its popularity and is available in traditional or modern designs. Teak is the most popular hardwood used although there are many others to choose from, including Oak, Cedar, Cypress, and cheaper woods like Acacia. Tropical woods are the most durable but many consumers have boycotted these because of the impact deforestation has on the environment. For environmentally friendly wooden furniture, look for wood with the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) stamp or ‘Wood for Good’ logo. To protect the furniture, you will need to treat it with wood preserver and oil or sealant, or a waterproof paint.
For a look reminiscent of the Far East consider furniture made of wicker, cane and rattan (woven palm). In the past the main disadvantages of garden furniture made from these materials were they can become brittle after prolonged exposure to direct sunlight and are prone to staining if left out in the rain. But to overcome these problems modern furniture made from these natural materials is treated with a weatherproof resin.
Alternatively, garden furniture is now available constructed from hand woven synthetic resin fibres. These products are generally of a very high quality in terms of design, comfort and durability, and while having the authentic appearance of wicker they are weatherproof.
Plastic garden furniture with its basic utilitarian design and garish colours has in recent years become less popular. However, it too has its benefits and should not be discounted too hastily. First and foremost plastic garden furniture is considerably less expensive than furniture made from other materials; furthermore it is extremely lightweight and hardwearing with no maintenance required. The design issue has also been addressed, with some manufacturers now offering styles ranging from traditional to ultra modern. And with conservation now such an important factor in all our lives, garden furniture made from recycled plastic is also available.
When it comes to patio cushions and mattresses for sunloungers, look out for materials with weather resistant properties. Some fabrics, such as Dacron, are water-resistant and repel mildew and staining. You will need to treat them annually to keep them waterproof but they will last longer than ordinary cushions and can be left outside. If the patio is near a pool, avoid cushions that will be degraded by chlorinated water. If the seating is to be out in the sun, bear in mind that dark colours will fade unless you choose a fade-resistant material. Cushions can be ordered to size to fit your furniture with ties or velcro straps for attaching to seats or as a single cushion with backrest and seat welded together.
Tips for buying patio furniture
- Research the options on the internet or in magazines to find materials and styles you like.
- Look out for ex-display or end-of-line bargains. Scratches and minor damaged can be easily repaired or painted over.
- Avoid flimsy materials or complicated self-assembly furniture.
- Ask about delivery costs and warranties.
- Check care instructions to see how much maintenance is required. You may need to weatherproof wood and metal.
- Make sure that all metals are galvanised (or brass) to inhibit rust.
- Allow at least 300mm of floor space around each item of furniture and 600mm for the path of traffic to avoid overcrowding.
Patio heating and lighting
Having spent time and money on the design and construction of your patio, it seems a shame to limit its use just to the summer months. This need not be the case as heating appliances and lighting for patios and gardens are now available through most DIY chains and garden centres.
Set the atmosphere for your patio with a lighting scheme and outdoor heating. As well as serving a practical purpose, lighting can be used to determine mood and highlight garden features. To make the most of your new patio, you may want to add a patio heater to maintain a pleasant temperature on cooler days or evenings. When choosing lighting and heating, you will need to balance aesthetic appeal with practical concerns: consider the complexity of the installation, the volume of heat and light produced, and the running costs and energy efficiency of the appliance.
There are three popular methods of heating a patio. Gas fired patio heaters are easily operated and can be moved to different seating areas. They tend to be similar in shape and are available in a variety of finishes from natural colours to polished metallic finishes. Heat reflectors can be added to direct heat more accurately. Tabletop heaters can attach to tables like an umbrella at the required height.
Electric heaters are becoming more popular than gas heaters as they are more environmentally friendly and efficient. Style varies greatly from free standing umbrella heaters to wall-mounted, table-mounted or floor heaters and most are lightweight and portable. Short wave heaters are the most efficient as they work by radiating infrared heat to people rather than heating the atmosphere as gas heaters do. They are also odourless, silent, and create a warm glow. Some use halogen bulbs to increase energy efficiency and have multiple settings to control the level of heat.
For a rustic look, spend your summer evenings gazing at the glowing embers in a garden stove, fuelled by coal or wood. There are various designs on the market, including raised firepits and braziers or Mexican Chimineas, many of which can double up as barbeques. Chimineas are traditionally made from clay, but modern versions also come in iron and aluminium and have removable chimneys. Garden stoves are often preferred to gas and electrical heaters as they are cheaper to run and less damaging to the environment, particularly when used with sustainably produced wood and charcoal.
Just as theatre lighting brings a stage to life, so it can have the same affect on your garden, creating a dramatic or romantic mood, or subtly illuminating attractive features. Give your imagination a free reign and then find out if your ideas are possible, consulting electricians for quotes.
Whatever the style of your garden, you will find light fittings to suit from lanterns to LEDs, lampposts, security spots to solar-powered lighting. For economical running choose low voltage lighting, and illuminate specific features or create a subtle all-round glow by lighting trees, shrubs, paths, steps and garden buildings.
Accent lighting can be placed on the ground or mounted and angled to the right position. To help you design your lighting scheme, here are some of the effects that lighting can produce:
Washing – position the lights at the base of walls and hedges to cast a soft wash of light over the area. This highlights the patio area and gives it a warm welcoming effect.
Shadowing – by placing a light in front of an object, the object will be illuminated and its shadow cast on the surface behind. The lower the light the more subtle the shadow.
Down-lighting – emphasize specific features by lighting them from above. Down-lighting is often used around doorways and archways and can create shadowy effects. To produce a moonlight effect, position the light in a nearby tree so that shadows from the tree create a dappled light on the patio surface.
Cross-lighting – angle two lights on an object from different sides to illuminate it with a mellow light. By lighting both sides of a step, a soft light is created over the whole step.
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