Decks and patios spell relaxation. They’re where we go to put up our feet, dive into a book, get lost in our thoughts, or share a meal with family or friends. They are bridges to nature—private places to soak up rays or gaze at the stars, listen to the whisper of aspen leaves or chattering magpies, and drink up the intoxicating scent of lilacs or wood smoke. They offer peaceful sanctuary from artificial lights, dishwasher hum, and satellite TV.
In a perfect world, these outdoor escapes would be accessible and comfortable twenty-four hours a day, twelve months a year. Unfortunately, though, our alpine-desert climate isn’t always conducive to reclining in a chaise lounge. From blistering sun to fierce winds to freezing snow, the weather in the Wood River Valley can be full of extremes. The good news is, there are ways of addressing some of these daily and seasonal fluctuations so that you can enjoy your favorite “room” more frequently.
“If you’re starting from the ground up, be sure to think holistically,” advises Ketchum architect Jack Smith. Your deck or patio should be considered in the context of your house design, building site, landscaping, and potential views. Your lifestyle and budget are major factors, too.
Orientation is key in extending your outdoor living experience. As a general rule, says Eiron Schofield of Living Architecture in Ketchum, your patio should be positioned to maximize “good” (early morning and late afternoon) sun year-round, while minimizing the risk of overheating in summer. Before drafting plans, most architects conduct a study to discover when and where the sun hits at any given time of day or year. “Generally, what we do is evaluate the path of the sun to find an outdoor space or spaces that would give you the widest variety of use over the longest timeframe,” Schofield explains.
Decks facing to the south and southwest tend to get the most sun. While this might be a bonus when temperatures drop, it could be insufferable in midday summer heat. Orienting toward the east or southeast would allow you to relish the soft morning light, while facing west would let you capture those final golden rays before dusk. Looking north may give you spectacular vistas, but too much shade. Incorporating more than one outdoor space, each with a different orientation, would allow the most versatility.
The Wood River Valley has many microclimates, and conditions can vary dramatically depending on the site of your house. Certain homes bask in sun all year long; for others, winter sun is fleeting or almost nonexistent. Some residential areas are pummeled by wind, while others are more protected. One neighborhood may receive heavy snow while another stays dry as a bone. But most places in the Valley are subject to a variable combination of elements that can be infuriatingly hard to predict.
So, how to cope? We quizzed local architects and design gurus for answers, and they all agreed that the best plan of action depends on your building site and other individual circumstances. Whether you’re designing a new deck or trying to make the most of your current outdoor space, here are some ideas and tips that could help. >>>
Sun & Heat
Summers in the Wood River Valley are famously dry and sunny; sometimes it seems as if we go weeks without seeing a cloud. But while those long, sun-drenched days are a blessing, they can also be a curse. If you want to hit the deck during the middle of the day, you may need protection from scorching rays.
On south- and west-facing exposures, which can get brutally hot, an overhanging roof provides welcome shade. Without walls on three sides, you’ll still be able to see the inquisitive yellow warbler buzzing around your garden or hear the mesmerizing sound of water rushing downstream. Keep in mind, though, that a permanent overhang must be built to withstand the weight of snow and will diminish direct sunlight in winter.
A canvas awning can be an effective alternative for blocking sun, while offering flexibility. “It can be rolled back so you can control the coverage at different times, and then taken down before the first snow,” notes Mike Doty of Mike Doty Associates in Ketchum. Similarly, a portable tent or gazebo could be set up on your deck for everyday use or for a special summer party. Don’t forget, it should be anchored well to resist strong, sudden gusts of wind.
Landscaping can serve as a natural form of sun protection, says Sun Valley architect Peter Ripsom. Tall, deciduous trees such as cottonwood, aspen and birch offer partial shade in summer and then, in winter, drop their leaves so the sun shines through. Evergreens, on the other hand, offer cooling shade in summer and provide color, shelter, and privacy in winter.
Arbors and trellises can create an aesthetically pleasing and cooling canopy, adds Ripsom. Certain plants, such as hops and Indian creeper, will grow quickly over a lattice to provide ample amounts of shade, while allowing dappled light to filter through. By choosing deciduous varieties, you’ll be able to maximize the sun exposure during the cold season.
Finally, Ripsom says, the obvious choice of a good, sturdy umbrella may be your best option. Offset (also known as side-post) umbrellas can be rotated and tilted, allowing you to control the level of shade at all hours of the day. When the wind picks up, an umbrella can easily be closed and whisked away to your garage or shed.
If you’re building in a windy spot, consider designing a courtyard area that’s protected by other parts of the house, suggests Jim McLaughlin of McLaughlin & Associates in Ketchum. A courtyard open to one side provides a shield from gusty winds, while permitting a view and some airflow. On the other hand, a fully enclosed space would be toasty during the winter months. You might want to add a cutout window to frame a favorite vista, with shutters that could be pulled closed when the wind begins to blow.
If your existing deck or patio is too exposed to the wind, transparent Plexiglas screens can serve as an effective buffer, Ripsom notes. They can help deflect unwanted wind without making you feel closed in, obstructing your views, or eliminating refreshing midsummer breezes. (Warning: Birds may get confused and fly into them.) The screens can be made so they’re removable, or with opaque glass for more privacy.
Carefully positioned trees and shrubs could also help soften the wind, Ripsom says. For instance, a single row of evergreens, with small shrubs planted in front, should effectively avert the wind at ground level. For best results, the trees should be planted a distance of about five times their mature height from the area to be protected. A well-placed stone wall, fence, or berm offers another potential line of defense. >>>
When temperatures plummet on clear summer evenings and in the fall and spring months, an outdoor fireplace or firepit could provide enough heat to keep you comfortable. “They allow you to sit outside with the warmth of a campfire,” McLaughlin explains. A built-in stone fireplace would add an interesting visual element, while a portable firepit would cost less and offer flexibility.
Before considering either option, be sure to check with your city’s building and/or fire department to learn the dos and don’ts. In Sun Valley, explains fire chief Jeff Carnes, you must have a permanent structure with doors, a chimney, and a spark arrestor (a screen to catch sparks) positioned a safe distance from combustible material; portable firepits aren’t permitted. Also, if you opt for a built-in fireplace, you’ll need a building permit.
Natural gas and propane heaters, like those used at some restaurants, deliver heat from above—a pleasant way to warm up a chilly barbeque. The average heater can radiate heat up to 15 or 20 feet, boosting the temperature 10 to 25 degrees. Prices vary, but it is generally possible to snag a residential model for less than $250.
Take a cue from early spring bulbs that stubbornly bloom—in spite of snow cover—near house foundations and garden stones. Position boulders or stone walls near outdoor seating, and make great use of reflected heat during the winter months.
Shoveling is the simplest and least expensive way to keep your deck free of snow. Clear your patio as quickly as possible after a snowfall, before the snow settles and turns into a “glacier,” as Mike Doty puts it. Rather than just flinging the snow aside, try piling it neatly along the edges of your patio to create snow walls (like an open-air igloo) that can help shelter you from the wind.
If shoveling isn’t your cup of tea and you have no budget restrictions, pavers heated by radiant hydronics may be an appealing option. Under-ground snowmelt systems use a boiler to push nontoxic heated glycol through a network of pipes, conducting heat up to the pavers. The system can be operated manually, or automatically with moisture and temperature sensors. Glen Muirbrook, owner of Mountain States Radiant Heating in Ketchum, estimates installation costs for a residential property at about $8 to $11 per square foot.
(like an open-air igloo) that can help shelter you from the wind.
While automatic snow removal can be delightfully convenient, there can also be downsides. The automatic sensors can be temperamental on snowmelt systems, and it can take a long time to produce enough heat to melt snow when the sensor finally turns the system on. In other words, the monthly utility bills can really add up.
John Mills, of American Heating in Hailey, notes, “If you don’t have snow storage areas—a place to push snow—then hydronic systems are a perfect solution. Some areas, like walkways in narrow spaces, really benefit from a hydronic system in spite of the costs. In those instances, heated surfaces just make more overall sense.”
Electric-mat heating systems are also available; but, no matter which convenience seems to suit your property best, operation expenses should be taken into account. “The smaller the area, of course, the more expensive the system installation is per square foot,” says Mills. “The initial purchase of the components is the same, though, whether you’re heating a small walkway or a larger paved patio.”
Are you ready to spend more time outside? In spite of the climate variations in the Valley, nearly any outdoor space can be made more livable with a little foresight, or with the addition of simple shelters or barriers.
Senior Editor Stacy Whitman’s first book, Shacking Up: The Smart Girl’s Guide to Living In Sin Without Getting Burned, was published by Broadway Books in April 2003. She has written for national magazines including Shape, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Self, and Travel & Leisure.