A Word About Concrete Patios

I had an inquiry the other day about a concrete patio–I was being asked to build one, which I don’t do. But I did reply with questions she’d want to consider before committing to a design and a contractor.

I’ve googled a bunch of images that illustrate dos and don’ts of concrete patios:

  1. Size

One of your first and most important considerations has to be size.

In some municipalities there will be by-laws restricting the percentage of impervious surface on your property. This will include your house, other buildings including garage, porch, driveway, pool, and any other solid surfaces. In Vancouver for example, all impervious materials can cover a maximum of 60% of the total property area.

What are you going to be using your patio for? If dining with a 6 person patio dining set is in your plans, you’ll need a minimum width/length of  2.5′ for a chair, 2′ for pushing it back and getting in or out, 1.5′ for walking around when the chair is pushed back, x 2 for both sides/ends, and the width/length of the proposed table. For a basic Home Depot type patio set, tables being about 3.5′ x 6′, you’ll need at least 15.5′ x 18′. Just for eating.

Maybe you don’t want a dining set–and in fact, I usually recommend against it, because it takes up a lot of room for a single purpose–maybe you want a conversation set, sectionals, various seating arrangements around a fire pit or water feature that are multi-funtional. (You can still eat from your lap around the fire pit.) Do the same math: you need the full dimensions of the furniture, room for knees and getting by knees–or extended legs, room for getting around the back of seating, if that’s needed or possible. (Sometimes seats/sofas will be up against a fence or retaining wall. Or the seat may in fact be the retaining wall…).

And then, you might want your patio to be divided into different rooms. A bistro table for breakfast at one end, a fire pit with an integrated seating wall at the other, and possibly a water feature or planting pocket in between. Just do the same calculations–and always be a bit generous, you’ll never wish you’d made your patio smaller!

OK, so let’s get on with some images:

2. A plain rectangular concrete pad doesn’t have to be boring

Image credit. This is typical of new construction, especially spec houses.

You’ve all seen this. I had a mini version of it myself, until my sister, nephew and I jack-hammered it out. Mine was much smaller and less functional, this is actually a decent size especially in addition to the previously existing under-portico space. But could it be more boring? Here are some suggestions for improving the plain vanilla rectangle, especially if you already have one that could use sprucing up:

Image credit. Concrete patio with brick soldier course

I love this simple decorative touch. In this case the soldier course matches the brick building, but it doesn’t have to. But as a pretty bold colour, it would at least have to complement the colour of the house. If your house was green clapboard, I probably wouldn’t recommend it, unless you want your house to be known locally as the Christmas House.

There are lots of concrete block alternatives in greys, tans, pinks. In fact, looking again at the bricks in the picture, it looks like they salvaged materials from different sites and mixed them randomly. I love it! They even complement the house next door–how very neighbourly!

This brick accessory was done at the same time as the patio was poured. If you are doing it after the fact there are a few points to note: the outer edge of the bricks meets the outer edge of the steps. If this were yours and your walkway already met the edge of the steps, you could extend your bricks/blocks to the patio wall edge. For an after-the-fact addition, you’ll have to be creative in making the whole look…whole. Always ask “Does this look like someone didn’t think it through?”

Here’s a Pinterest page with some similar applications. And some…others…I wouldn’t necessarily recommend.

Image credit. One of my faves: an integrated concrete seat.

This integrated seat–which is just a wall and the wooden bench attached to “floating” brackets; they’ll have been installed at the time of pouring–could easily be added to a pre-existing patio. If the patio is fairly old, and thus impossible to match the colour, it might be worthwhile having the new concrete coloured to a significantly different colour, but in the same hue or family. Note that at the top right of the pic the seating wall is positioned on top of the patio surface, whereas top left of the pic it’s located on the grass. Nothing wrong with that in theory, but in practice it makes mowing inconvenient. I’d guess that the fire pit was already installed or gas-plumbed when someone noticed there wouldn’t be knee room. In that case I’d have suggested the concrete addition extend beyond the edge of the seating wall so the mower could mow over the edge. But, small deal.

Image credit. Concrete patio: Raise the grade.

Changing grades is always a cool way to define rooms or areas. This is a much bigger job than the others so far, essentially doing a whole new patio, but with much less prep needed.

Here’s another treatment I really like: diamond-cut an existing patio:

 

Image credit. Diamond cut concrete patio-repurposed

I somehow imagined it was my own idea when I proposed this for a client:

Plain vanilla concrete pad

The original plan here was to diamond cut large semi-random sized blocks interplanted with Scotch moss with a pergola at the end. Still left lots of room for the kids to play basketball.

The proposed diamond-cut patio top right

Unfortunately we ran out of money, so it was low priority. (The rest of the project you can see here. You’ll need to scroll almost to the bottom of the page.)

I wasn’t able to find the original site for this image, so someone might be requesting its removal–in the meantime, enoy the tumbled glass filling the cut spaces. And of course the expression: “urbanite”

I’m not sure “urbanite” is the right term. I think it refers to recycled concrete, but maybe this is actually concrete from a different site installed here. If so, they’ve done a great job!

And now for something completely different, and certainly not for the financially faint-of-heart:

Image Credit. diamond cut concrete using the motif found in the homeowners indoor carpet!

Please look up the source: Concrete Decor. You’ll be gob-smacked!

Ok, so you’re installing a new concrete patio, but a rectangle is still the most appropriate shape for your needs, and you’re budget-conscious. You still have options:

Image credit Concrete slab with stained, stamped edging

Now the above pic is actually intended for a hot tub, which probably explains why they didn’t worry too much about the “focal point” air conditioner. Stamped concrete is definitely more expensive than regular concrete, but this small amount would not add an awful lot to the final price tag.

3. Beyond the rectangle

This was the picture that inspired this post:

Image Credit Patio with “rock garden”

I actually saved the picture for the raised deck with ferns growing out from underneath. But when I was reviewing my Houzz ideabooks yesterday this other element seemed so much more interesting. Now obviously this isn’t concrete, it’s some kind of natural stone. But it could easily be poured concrete or concrete pavers, with lots of cut outs for the boulders and gravel and assorted little plants.

Here’s something similar, complete with concrete “boulders”:

Image credit. Concrete boulders

And another:

Image Credit by New York Plantings

Again, not concrete, but could be.

4. Simply accessorized

Thanks Landscaping Network, I’ve found many inspiring images as well as useful info on your site. Here’s another

Image Credit Landscaping Network.  Several small modifications take this simple patio to the next level

Note the cutouts for planting pocket (is there another zig-zag below the red flowers?), and the seating wall that goes around the back corner. They could possibly have removed the umbrella stand from this otherwise carefully staged photo!

Image Credit. Hope this picture was taken before landscaping…

Coloured concrete and contrasting white gravel. Two things to consider if you’re thinking of this kind of mixed materials: a. your patio furniture has to have large enough feet that they don’t sink into the gravel, and b. you may find yourself getting a little fed up with having to sweep the gravel back into place all the time. Crushed gravel is better for this than pea gravel, larger better than smaller.

Here’s another similar application, in this case a small front patio:

Image credit. Mixed materials, concrete and gravel

Because they’ve left the level of the gravel lower than the concrete surface, the gravel should stay where it’s put and not need continuous sweeping. But it creates another problem–tripping hazard. Here people will feel the need–even if the need doesn’t really exist–to look down at their feet to make sure they’re not “slipping off the curb”. People’s eyes should be free to scan the landscape or the front door. And then there’s the person with high heels… This is probably the spot for larger (`2-3″) flat Mexican beach pebbles.

…With Cut outs:

Image Credit. Too hard to find the original source; pretty sure this is NOT the original source.

This is easily accomplished before laying the pavers. With poured concrete the cut outs would be framed at the beginning

Image Credit. Again, not concrete, but could be. The art/water feature installation sits above a large reservoir and of course the lighting has to be planned from the beginning.

I wonder why they only installed lighting on three sides?

And yet another:

Image Credit. Another cut out effect. Love the little boxwood hedge. I might have chosen a slightly more mature tree.

5. Some reservations…

Here are some illustrations of less than totally successful simple concrete patio designs, and some reasons to hire a designer not just a contractor:

Image Credit. Stamped concrete with “boulder” edge

This is a cool effect–the “boulder edge”. And the nicely complementing crescent planting bed beside it. But why didn’t they continue the patio under the deck. Admittedly there’s only 11 steps (77″, minus the depth of the deck, probably 10″) of height, but digging down the grade of that turf by another stair height of 7″ would give a ceiling there of 74″, (and that grade change that’s so attractive). Not enough for tall people to comfortably walk around, but definitely room for access. Those windows could be looking out at a nice accessory seating area, or children’s play area. The grass under the deck and stairs will never grow (we’re looking at noon-ish sunlight, almost overhead, so mid-summer, so that is the maximum light it will ever get), so it’s completely wasted space. And with the steps just barely making it onto the edge of the patio, it gives the impression that it’ll slip off any moment. An alternative to extending the patio (Plant nerd alert!) would be to plant low-growing, dry shade loving plants such as Epimedium and Asarum canadensis.

Image Credit. Nice surface but what’s with the shape?

Shape: There should be some logic associated with the choice of shape for your patio. Form follows function: in other words (my translation), if it doesn’t fill some need, it’s hard to justify. This snakey edge just gives the lawn mower more work, and provides little beauty in return.

You can often use shape to define the different “rooms” or functional areas of your patio.

Image Credit. Patio shaped to evoke different rooms.

This patio attempted to do that. You can see that the lounge area is shaped to follow the curvature of the bay window. But the S-curve to the left of that is just gratuitous. Making that space a little planting pocket would make it look more intentional.

Image Credit. Really attractive coloured stamped concrete. And no, maybe not “simple”.

I’m kind of being picky here. I love the colour, the stamp pattern, the edge, the grade change with steps, the fire pit and the seating wall. Just about everything about this I like. But one thing that I’m almost loathe to mention: the secondary circle is too big. (“But you said…” I know, I know.) Assuming that fire pit is about 3.5′-4′ in diameter, it means the radius of the circle is about 10′-ish (and another 1′ for the seating wall). So the people sitting on the seating wall are almost 10′ from the fire. Which is too far. Yes, there’s lot of room for chairs in the space, but not chairs and space between the chairs and the fire, and space between the chairs and more people on the seating wall. So the seating wall is totally useless, and thus, why have it. Much better for the distance from the outer edge of the seating wall to the fire to be 5′, giving a radius of 7′, not 10′.

So Bottom Line:

Think about all the ways you intend to use your patio, and make the finish product meet the needs while avoiding the pitfalls. Simple 🙂

As always, would love to hear comments, concerns, questions.

 

 

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A Word about Lighting

If you scroll down to the pictures of exterior lighting you’ll assume that the reason any of us want lighting is to provide light–lots and lots of light. But as Richard V. Morse says in this article, light is a means to an end. You want to read, or you want to see the fish in the aquarium or you want to highlight the china in the cabinet, or you want to put on your makeup. And in each of those cases there’s good lighting and bad lighting.

For exterior lighting, the reasons are usually safety–so you don’t trip on your way from the car to the front door; security–so bad guys can’t hide in the shadows; enjoyment–you can use your outdoor spaces when it’s dark out; beauty–highlighting your garden features.

Since the following pictures have no landscape lighting at all, I’ll leave discussion of “beauty” to another post. (It’s hard to show up beautiful garden structure and features if this is what the garden is fighting.) For now let’s just see how the existing lighting meets any of the four purposes. These are all within walking distance of my home:

Looks like an architectural version of a skunk! Or a zebra? Or that little boy in Addams Family! Referred to here as the “spaceship effect”!

Actually, the only house of the collection that does have an element of landscape lighting–illuminating the house number on the boulder. There’s so much light that safety and security are adequately dealt with, but it’s so sharp, it wouldn’t invite lingering out in the garden.

This isn’t photo-shopped–it really is that bright!

Another property with such sharp light/dark contrast you’d seldom choose to take an evening stroll in the garden. The fence/wall in front hides the front yard, so one can’t tell what shadows exist there, but for sure there’s no other landscape lighting, and even if there were, it would be completely eclipsed by the house lighting. One of the (many) problems with this degree of brightness is that it leaves the shadows extra dark. So it doesn’t necessarily meet the security need as well as might be assumed. I’m not sure why soffit lighting has become so popular, but it does nothing to beautify the home (imho).

This wouldn’t be so bad if the house lights were the same degree of warmth as the carriage lanterns. But still too bright on the lower floor.

Soffit lights–again. Creating spots of light over the windows–for what purpose I wonder? They are doing nothing for any of the four lighting needs.

The following are just too egregious! I’m speechless!

I guess that’s “slow rain” falling in front of the lens. In this case it’s not too much light, but too harsh, not in the right places, and illuminating too much wall.

Here again, not so much the amount of light, or number if fixtures, but the quality of the light and where it’s placed. blue-grey light on very grey walls.

This is how stark it really looks.

I’ll try to find some really nice, effectively lit homes and gardens for a future post. If there are any in my neighbourhood!

What is This??

Some Kind of Sedum?

Somewhere I’ve got the tag for this but I’m not in the mood to search right now. (Maybe someone could help me with this??)

For the meantime, just sit amazed at the perfection of these late season flowers!

When planted, Aug 13: (you can tell the size of the plants by the size of the rain drops : )

Just starting to sprout, Aug 25:

Oct 22: