Consider that old real estate mantra: location, location, location. Most patios should be accessible to the kitchen, since that's where people generally come outside, and down as few steps as possible. However, a getaway patio — perhaps a new space in addition to an entertaining patio — can be more remote, toward the back of the property.
Walk around the property and check out vantage points to determine location and orientation. "Depending on what kind of landscaping the house already has, how close it is to neighboring homes, and whether there's a view, we can usually come up with a couple of areas that will work. Finding the best spot is key early on," says Nick Tamble, president of Lawn and Landscape Gardens, Ltd. in Minneapolis.
Like location, size matters. It's common to underestimate how big the patio should be. How many people will normally congregate in the space? "If I'm building a patio with a central fire pit and 4 or 5 chairs, it might be a circle of 14 feet in diameter or larger," he says.
There's no specific rule of thumb as to size, but if the site allows, design proportionately to the house, making the patio as wide as the house and as long as the house's height, or matching it to the size of an indoor room.
Think about shape, which may be partially determined by the site. Moir Messervy uses three basic design styles: symmetrical to the house, assymetrical (slightly askew to the house, but still geometric and modern-looking) and voluptuous curves, which flow with nature.
Curved lines are trendy. "Non-geometric patios provide visual interest even when you're not on the patio," Tamble says. "People don't just sit on the patio; they see it from inside the house and out in the yard as well."
Choose building materials to complement the color and style of your house. Black-stained concrete may not look good against a stately Cape Cod. Gray pavers may look out of place next to a stucco home.
Natural materials like local stone are popular but expensive. Concrete pavers provide a lower-cost option, and they come in a wide range of colors, textures and shapes. If you use pavers, break up the space with plenty of plants and furniture, Moir Messervy says. "Pavers tend to absorb light rather than reflect it, and they can look industrial in a wide-open expanse."
Plan the landscaping. Before putting down roots, be honest about whether you're a plant lover or a low-maintenance person. "You can always do the hardscape first and add plant material later, when it's easier to visualize the space," Tamble says. "The surrounding area of the patio makes the space."
Moir Messervy loves to plant right in the patio by leaving a space of ground surrounded by stone or pavers, or jackhammering out a chunk of concrete. "Break the patio up with greenery. If you can't do that, have lots of containers in groupings with different heights."
Finally, think about the extras. A fireplace or fire pit provides evening appeal; a water feature adds ambiance and helps block noise from a busy street. Landscape lighting around the patio is lovely after the sun goes down, and a well-placed trellis can shade the hot afternoon sun and give privacy from a neighbor's second story.
As you plan, make it fun, Moir Messervy advises. "Play around a little, and don't get hung up on details too early. The patio is a part of your home, so have fun with the design and make it yours."