THE OUTDOOR ROOM
In most urban environments access to private green or open outdoor space is considered a luxury, often linked to income. The Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen people working from or confined to their home, has brutally clarified the extent of that privilege: people with access to balconies, roofs, gardens or parks were able to derive some benefit from the lockdown, while those without were trapped inside during the U.K.’s sunniest spring on record. One result is a change in the way the public, designers and architects are thinking about this issue and how ‘home’ – where we dwell – may be redefined. In the future most of us will need more flexible spaces and reconfigurable rooms, with outside space a given rather than a luxury. It is indicative that real estate agents and architects are reporting that clients say they will never again live in a house or apartment that does not have at least a small outdoor space.
In search of the practical outdoor room
Until very recently nearly all social housing realised by developers in the 20th-21st C provides little in the way of space beyond the scheduled rooms, and possibly a token balcony. This minimal exterior architectural element is intended to serve as the front garden, back yard, flower garden, vegetable plot, sundeck, clothesline and playground all in one – yet is too small to accept these activities. Traditionally, architects have to justify our design decisions to our clients through the quantifiable – economy and efficiency. How many of us consider the impact of what we design upon the minds and health of the users when we fail to address the issue of natural human behaviour and needs?
Left as an undefined minimal area the ubiquitous glazed and very public balconies of apartment buildings, off the living room and facing the street, often become storage areas: because they are too cold or windy and afford no privacy, or because not enough storage space is provided in the apartment itself. Conservatories or glazed-in balconies are only indifferently successful because they are often too hot or cold for much of the year, although they are promoted by heating cost experts/the eco-minded and architects passionate about glassy buildings and “transparency”. They are not about gardening as their diurnal temperature fluctuations are too high, they lack proper irrigation and soil depth, and a successful elevated garden places a time demand on tenants for which they may not be prepared.
The crucial missing spaces in a typical apartment or tenement block are an “outdoor room”, along with an internal “escape” room-space to provide moments of privacy and quiet. This short essay examines the outdoor room and what it provides.
Although few architects have reinvestigated this crucial space, the balcony / terrace / loggia is a key area for architectural innovation in plan section and urban facade composition. It is an important space which can provide for very diverse living needs and expression. We named it “The Outdoor Room” for Scotland’s Home of Tomorrow competition in 1997, emphasising its importance as a vital additional living space in a dense urban environment.
At the time – prophetically – we maintained that the idea of the “outdoor” room and a redefined living space offered ways of addressing the new synergy between architectural spaces and inhabitants at a time when modernism’s segregation of work, play and living accommodation is no longer valid. A contemporary shelter must provide flexibility and adapt to changing financial security for non-owners, and is fundamentally a space which can be economically built and repeatedly customised over many decades in response to changes in family structure, living patterns and mobility.