Top 5 ways Pittsburghers Are Using Outdoor Living Spaces

Top 5 ways Pittsburghers Are Using Outdoor Living Spaces 

The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly changed the way we work and spend our leisure time.  This has had a significant effect on how Pittsburghers are using their outdoor living spaces and our landscape design process.  Outdoor living is more important than ever this year as Pittsburghers are looking to get out of the house, spend vacation time (and money) at home, relieve stress, look for ways to socialize at a distance and adjust to the “new normal”.   We have been talking with so many people who want to maximize their outdoor living spaces for 2020 and beyond.  We thought it would be useful to share a list of the top 5 outdoor living ideas we have been designing and implementing this year.  These can range from small retrofit landscape modifications to full scale landscape renovations.  We have had some wonderful conversations with our clients on how we can make improvements to maximize their outdoor living experience and we see these fresh new ideas being popular for many years to come.

1. Outdoor Office

Coming out of the Covid-19 spring we have been hearing so many people saying they are working in the basement and it’s so nice to take a few outdoor breaks during the day. Perhaps walk around the yard, have a seat in the garden, or have lunch on the patio.  It didn’t take long for us to ask, “Hey, if you like it out here so much why not get out of the basement and just work outside!”.

Let’s face it, as humans we were designed to be at our best in the outdoors.  There are countless studies showing the positive impact of nature on our wellbeing.  Psychology Today published a good workplace-specific article.  In the 2009-piece, Jonathan S. Kaplan Ph.D. states, “Recently, an article in Miller-McCune caught my attention. It mentioned several research studies related to the positive impact of nature on the human condition. Having plants, going for a walk in the park, or even looking at a landscape poster could produce psychological benefits, reduce stress, and improve concentration.”  

As we have been thinking deeper about the human/nature connection and helping more people work outside, we have found the following 3 steps to be effective.

1. Think big picture.  Have a wish list.  Brainstorm all the ways you can use your outdoor space and the benefits.  Everyone thinks about a place to sit and work on the computer but there are endless possibilities.  Here are just a few that we have helped clients conjure up:

  • A place to take a stroll for creative thought and inspiration.
  • A place for face to face meetings.
  • Space for an assistant or colleague to join you on occasion.
  • Space for client meetings.
  • Multiple spaces. One for creative thought and another for serious business.
  • Views from an inside office to an outdoor garden.


2. Have a goal. How will you be using the space? Is working from home your new normal or is it just until we are all in phase green?  After the brainstorming exercise above, most people are realizing it will be some combination.  Fortunately outdoor offices can be designed to adapt to the unknown needs of the future workplace.

3. Design for maximum impact. Once you have some goals established, Eichenlaub can help you design your ideal outdoor office space.

  • Trees and fragrant plants for stress relief.
  • A nice view from your indoor office windows.
  • An impressive and welcoming entrance and sitting space for clients that tells the story you want to tell.
  • An inspiring outdoor “boardroom” for productive meetings.
  • An inviting space to clear you mind and get re-invigorated.

Most people will be working from home in some way, Eichenlaub would be happy to help you be as comfortable and productive as possible.

2. Wine Terrace

The wine terrace sort of combines socializing with relaxing.  People are seeking a comfortable space or “wine terrace” in the front walkway area for that comfortable summer evening drink and, since it is in the front, they can engage a bit with neighbors as they stroll by!  The keys here are:

  1. Are you relaxing or socializing? Plant a few strategically placed screening plants so, depending on how you are sitting, you can be screened enough to imply “do not disturb”. Or if you are up for socializing, you can be visible to engage in some small talk with the neighbors as they pass by.
  2. Keep it intimate. Extend the existing space enough for a bistro table and two chairs.  It is not a patio, it’s a wine terrace!
  3. Make it pretty. Our landscape designers love the challenge of designing small spaces.  It’s always important to consider details, views, and intricate plant combinations.  First you will need to create a small pace for your table and chairs.  This usually means extending your front walkway slightly in a way that does not look like an afterthought. Proportions are important so you do not feel too exposed or too “boxed-in”.  Finally, the planting plan around your new wine terrace will create the feel.  This is crucial and will typically include layers of well thought out shrubs, perennials and ground covers. Textures, leaf colors, and flowering times also need to be carefully thought out to get the most of this relatively small space.

The great thing about a wine terrace is, because they are relatively small and you are typically retro fitting an existing space, they will not be as big of an investment as an entire new backyard living space.  Combine that with both the added curb appeal and the social element and you get a lot of bang for your buck with this one.  Here’s one more thing to consider.  Because there is a huge demand for improving outdoor spaces during this COVID-19 summer, all the good landscape design and installation companies are booked well into summer for outdoor living projects.  The last thing you want to do is rush into a major project without taking the time to create a well thought out design.  A wine terrace can be designed and installed relatively quickly.  This will fast track you to a new outdoor space you can enjoy while we work on a master plan for the rest of your property.  All these things put together make the wine terrace a clear number one landscape renovation project for 2020.

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3. Family Time

While enjoying time outside at home is nothing new, families are spending more time together and doing things a little differently.  The biggest thing we are hearing about is eating together outside.  Come lunchtime everyone wants to get outside and enjoy the nice weather we have been having. Enjoying dinner together have also been a top priority for families.  We have been re-configuring, and at times, completely re-designing patio spaces to accommodate our clients’ changing needs. Dinner tables, family sitting areas and mealtime shade structures are a few examples.  Yard games have become very popular and creating spaces for family-time evenings are high on the wish lists right now.  Creating functional spaces around focal points like water and fire features where families can get outside and enjoy each other’s company is going to be the 2020 alternative to sporting events and vacations.

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4. 20 minutes of calm

I believe this concept came from Dr. Mary Carol Hunter, ASLA — a landscape architect, ecologist, and professor at the University of Michigan.  Dr. Hunter’s research was recently featured in a wonderful article by Jared Green in The Dirt.  Quoting the March 20, 2020 article- “(Dr. Hunter) can state with confidence that just 20 minutes of experiencing nature has major benefits. Her findings, which were widely covered in the media last year, were published in the Frontiers of Psychology.  The article goes on to say “She (Dr. Hunter) recommended walking or sitting or looking closely at a tree, plant, bug, or animal. “Get rid of your tech — your smart phone — and actively pay attention to something in nature. The experience of nature is what is key. The intentional focus gets you the stress reduction faster.”

Everyone’s experience of nature may be different. It can be experienced on a trail or street, in a park or plaza, within a backyard, on a patio with some plants, or out a window. “You can also close your eyes and listen to birds or insects.”

At Eichenlaub, we have seen firsthand how people’s lives have improved with a well-planned outdoor living space.  More recently we have been having great conversations around our clients’ “20 minutes of calm” and we have found, as Dr. Hunter suggests, that everyone is a little different.  We have found that understanding our clients’ 20 minutes of calm has enabled us to design spaces that people will love and value.  Below are a few of the elements we have been designing based on our clients’ 20 minutes of calm. 

  • Creating a space for “light gardening”, small cutting gardens, herbs, small vegetable gardens
  • Adding seasonal color, lots of pots and annual flower areas
  • Renovating planting areas to invite bees and butterflies
  • Creating areas to enjoy a sunny spot with a breeze
  • Creating more shade
  • Creating views from the inside out
  • Screening undesirable views
  • Creating a more pleasant feel at night with outdoor lighting
  • Adding the soothing element of moving water
  • Creating a spot for morning coffee (that isn’t all wet!)

Click here to read the full “20 minutes of calm” article.  

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5. Small gatherings

The number one thing we find people are missing most right now are social interactions.  You can only enjoy so much time with the people in your household!  People are re-arranging furniture and re-configuring outdoor spaces to accommodate small groups of 4 – 6 people for outdoor evenings at a distance.  Or creating a space to have another family over for dinner and a movie.  People are coming up with creative ways to stay safe while getting that social interaction that so many of us need.  We are anticipating that many of these ideas will become traditions that are carried on for many years to come. 

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What we are seeing now is nothing short of a Renaissance, a renewed realization in the importance of basic human needs over our increasingly fast paced lifestyle.  Family, friendship, social interaction, the vital role that nature has on our well-being, are in vogue.