Creating Value-Added Outdoor Spaces

Instead of an afterthought, activated outdoor areas can provide a solid return on investment, expanding a project’s usable square footage and improving the experience for end-users.

On too many projects, the outdoor areas are viewed as additive or leftover spaces that can be filled with landscaping, hardscape and maybe a few benches. They are seen as an afterthought, spaces that can be figured out when everything else is complete.

But that can be a costly mistake. When done well, outdoor spaces play an integral role in a project’s overall design — adding significant value and building on the programming goals of the indoor space. Instead of an afterthought, value-added spaces can generate considerable return on investment, making a project work for users in different ways.

On a fundamental level, value-added outdoor areas have the ability to reduce the square footage needed indoors by serving as an extension of the building — ultimately reducing project costs or freeing up budget for other priorities. For example, adding an outdoor amphitheater and open-air meeting areas of different sizes to a corporate campus can reduce the need for indoor collaboration spaces. Add in the proven stress-reducing benefits of exposure to daylight and nature, and outdoor spaces provide the further benefit of promoting employee health and happiness. These types of exterior spaces add significant value to the end-users when compared to creating similar spaces indoors, including increased productivity, focus and creativity.

Outdoor spaces are also an ideal venue for promoting community and connectivity. Convenience features, such as plug-in spaces for pop-up restaurants or a farmers market, add energy to a project and help draw people to the space. Outdoor think tanks, pin-up space, digital displays and fabrication labs facilitate creativity and collaboration. As many companies move to a hybrid working model, these types of value-added spaces will be more important than ever, providing optimal environments for employee engagement, productivity and connection.

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Flexible outdoor areas can reduce the square footage needed for indoor programs.

In educational environments, creative use of outdoor space benefits students’ learning and social experience while enabling schools to make the most of what is often very limited square footage on-site. At Tarbut V’Torah (TVT) Community Day School, LPA extended learning to the outdoors with growing grounds and farm, writable surfaces, an outdoor art courtyard, interactive water-play creek, amphitheater and child-size huts that act as reading nooks. The transformed outdoor space reflects the school’s “learning happens everywhere” philosophy and promotes its values with students, faculty and the surrounding community. Well-designed outdoor spaces in education projects can be used to create a welcoming atmosphere that facilitates learning, exploring, playing and gathering, while providing multipurpose spaces for activities such as grabbing lunch with friends or working together on a project.

Outdoor spaces also add value to a project by enhancing users’ health. When created with wellness in mind, outdoor areas can encourage physical activity and mindfulness and promote a sense of purpose and belonging. The benefits of a healthy environment are exponential. They include reduced risk of chronic disease, better coping mechanisms and more astute decision-making. With California State University Northridge’s Oasis Wellness Center, on a campus where students and faculty complained of high stress levels, LPA designed a series of flexible outdoor rooms, including shaded respite areas, a zen garden, an amphitheater with a fireplace and a labyrinth to allow for students to “unplug” and retreat from the busy collegiate day to focus on wellness and mental downtime. By promoting wellness, the center also supports the university’s larger goals of student satisfaction and retention.

On healthcare projects, access to and views of nature have been shown to reduce healing and recovery time. Time spent outdoors can lower blood pressure, strengthen the immune system, improve general brain function and lessen pain and inflammation. Elements such as strolling paths lined with fragrant plants, mobility gardens for stretching and sensory gardens featuring wind chimes and water features all promote the recovery process. Exterior spaces can be used directly for patient care as well. Physical therapists use outdoor space to improve the patient experience by providing a more energizing, positive environment. Break-out pods and semi-private gathering space can be used for team meetings or provider-patient consultations. Communal tables, dining areas and shade gardens can provide a relaxing environment for visits from family and friends and for the medical practitioners.

Environmental elements such as wind, sun and rain present a challenge for exterior spaces, but they can often be managed through pre-planning and design. Integrating landscape architecture into the earliest stages of the design process can result in solutions that manage environmental factors while allowing the outdoor spaces to support the larger project goals. At Richard R. Oliphant Elementary School in Desert Sands, California, LPA’s integrated design team navigated around the region’s high winds by strategically locating the buildings to protect an outdoor learning courtyard. By including landscape architects in the initial planning stages, the team was able to locate the buildings to allow for usable exterior space directly adjacent to classrooms, shaded and protected from the elements.

To create real value, outdoor spaces should provide optimal thermal comfort, no matter the weather. And the design needs to consider all the elements that can affect its functionality and long-term value. Appropriate lighting is another key component of enhancing usability. Whether the solution is pendant fixtures on tree branches, backlighting for wooden seating platforms or something more traditional, lighting design should support the use of the space while improving the functionality and safety of the outdoors.

Often, exterior elements that would create long-term value are cut from the final design for cost reasons. As designers, we are committed to ensuring that our clients maximize their return on investment and understand the added value that outdoor space can bring to their project.