Making The Most of Al Fresco Living: Extensions, Decking, Doors, Floors and Grass


Here Comes the Sun

Al fresco living, when the summer finally starts, is one of life’s great pleasures. You might not appreciate it, but here in the South East, we should consider ourselves blessed. OK, so we might have to put an extra layer on, but it’s rarely too hot to set foot outside, you’re not constantly warding off mozzies and (best of all) the sun sets at a sociable hour, allowing you, your friends and your neighbours to slowly pickle yourselves in prosecco.

Should you be lucky enough to have access to your own garden, you’ll appreciate the extra entertaining area as an extension of your internal living space. If you’re thinking of carrying out any work to your home, it’s always good to consider how this will relate to your garden. Chances are, if you’re doing anything major, your garden will need some remedial work, so you’d best think about this now.

Projecting EavesWhich Side Are You On?

Unless you are currently house hunting you won’t have a say in this, but if you are, you’re probably favouring a South facing rear garden. Don’t rule anything else out though. A directly south facing aspect could leave you baking in the height of summer and sitting behind drawn blinds. So, if you are looking at extending to the south, think about your shading options.

A projecting eaves detail, taking the roof beyond the rear line of your extension may not only provide critical shade, but it will also give you shelter from the rain, allowing you to leave your doors open in summer showers. I love sitting with the doors open as the rain hits our zinc roof. It gives even the most English of days a tropical feel.

My own preference is west light, but then, I’m not a morning person and while observing the sun going down, with a chilled glass in hand may be a rare privilege these days, it is still a pleasure.

If you are carrying out building work, think about how the sun will move through the day, both internally and externally. If you have a choice of where to build, create sun traps rather than dark pockets. Place your roof lights strategically, not simply to maximise sunlight, but also (especially for south facing properties), to minimise overheating and glare.

If you’re using an Architect, see if they’ve considered these factors. It may be worth asking them to model their proposals and track shadows through the day and the year. This may also be of benefit in reassuring your neighbours and convincing the planners that an extension beyond your permitted development rights would be acceptable.

If you are on the north side, don’t despair, select your materials carefully to reflect light. Reflective paint, for example Dulux Lumitec, does work, although it is pricey. Chances are, you’ll catch some rays at either breakfast or in the evening. Try to make the most of them and locate your openings appropriately.

Whichever way you are facing, make the most of what light you have. This is especially important when considering the original rooms of the house, if you are extending. Unloved, inner rooms, or long dark tunnels, created by poorly conceived extensions are commonplace. If unavoidable, be creative with their use and make the most of their introspective character.

Sliding doorTo Slide, or to Fold?

This has been the topic of a couple of threads in the MLH Facebook group. I think it depends on the width of the opening.

Bi-fold doors are great in that they fully open up, making the most of your connection to the garden. They do, however start to bunch up, when fully open, once you get over three or four leaves they create an unsightly stack to one side.

You could split them, folding in two directions, but where the two sides lock together in the middle, you’ll be left with a fatter central mullion (vertical bar) where the two sides meet.

The other thing to consider with bi-folds is the number of leaves. Always try to go for an odd number. This allows the end leaf to open as a regular door. You can have this arrangement with an even number, but again, you’ll end up with the problems of having two separate runs.

In summary, Go for as low a number (preferably odd) of doors as possible. If you can stick to 3 large leaves, bi-folds are a good option, although the maximum panel width is likely to be 1.2m.

Sliders allow you to have much larger panels (up to 3.5m x 3.5m), with slimmer frames (down to 20mm). The down side is that they can never fully open, but if you do have a large enough opening, when open, the collected doors will look better than a stack of bi-fold doors for large openings

In summary, anything over 4.0m wide, and I’d seriously think about sliders.

Either way, the slimmer the frame profile, the better, although this will be governed by your budget. As mentioned, sliders give you the slimmest profiles, with large glass panels, meaning fewer sections, increasing the sense of inside to outside connection. The wider the opening, the more effective these can be.

There are a number of these products (both bi-fold and sliders) on the market, but most of them come from a relatively small number of frame manufacturers. A UK based window company will generally use a European profile to fabricate their own products. Reynaers and Schuco are commonly used.

I’ve used a number of different suppliers, from the high end, bespoke UK engineers at Culmax, to others such as Alco Glass, Fineline Aluminium, Sunfold Systems and ID Systems. Any Google search will throw up scores of companies in this field. Grabex, based in Orpington have been recommended to me by Reynaers. They have a showroom at their factory in Orpington.

There are also options on whether to use top, or bottom hung systems. They each have pros and cons and I won’t pretend to be an expert on them, but top hung systems need to have sufficient support overhead. Make sure your engineer knows which system you will be going for. If in doubt assume top hung.

Whatever you opt for, apart from maybe the kitchen, this is the biggest single purchase you’ll make in a project of this nature. However, this is the item you’ll regret skimping on.

Whichever you go for, certainly internally, choose a dark colour. White can be too prominent and may impact the view from the inside to out, while darker colours frame views.

Shoes on DeckingInside Out

Having children running in and out of the house, through to the garden and back is a common feature of our life. In shoes, out of shoes, wet feet, dry feet. If not the children… next door’s dog is also a regular visitor.

Unless you enjoy patching up screaming toddlers and cursing stubbed toes, a level threshold is essential. Naturally, you’ll have to ensure you have appropriately designed drainage, but it really is worth the effort.

The next trick to integrate your external room is your selection of floor finish. Porcelain is a natural choice, as it can, in one form or another, make the transition from inside to out, apparently seamless. You have to remember that the bedding for the external flags needs to be secure and tiles for external use need to be frost resistant and have the appropriate slip rating. You would often use a 10mm tile internally and a 20mm version outside, depending on how you bed it down.

Porcelain isn’t, however, everyone’s cup of tea. Whilst it’s perfect for use with underfloor heating, when the heating is off, it can be cold underfoot and it has a hard acoustic quality and, although there are some beautifully detailed replica stone tiles, porcelain can lack the warmth of timber, both visually and psychologically.

Externally decking is a popular alternative, but traditionally requires a great deal on maintenance. If not looked after it can get into a poor state very quickly. If you use this option opt for a sustainable hardwood, jet wash it and oil it twice a year. Have the children pretend they’re pirates and get them to oil the poop deck (it never fails)!

Composite decks are a more recent development. Recycled timber dust is reconstituted with a recycled plastic bond, creating a material that is as workable as timber, but far more resilient to conditions and requires very little maintenance when compared with real timber. There are an increasing number of manufacturers out there, with Timbertech being the UK market leaders. These boards come in a range of colours, which may allow them to tone in with your internal floor finish, maintaining a smooth transition from inside to out. The super slick option is for discreet fixings with no visible screws. Of course, as the number of manufacturer’s increases, the range in price and quality does too. I imagine the recycled content of these products is also variable.

Whichever flooring you choose, don’t be a slave to the look. Unless you want to end up a slave to your floor, it won’t look like an Elle Deco cover for long. Choose a forgiving finish internally that suits your lifestyle. I’ve been to a number of clients where I’ve admired their pristine floors only to be told that it’s going to be the first thing to be ripped out when works commence. Too dark and streaking is an issue, too light and there’ll be muddy footprints everywhere. Once you’ve settled on this, start thinking about outside.

AstroturfMud vs Astroturf

Our lawn was a thing of beauty… before we moved in. Since then it has been used and abused by paddling pools, water slides and junior footballers. There was a period of about three weeks a year, where it looked vaguely green, but either side of that it resembled a cross between the Somme and Glastonbury. Then I specified a few green roofs and decided I’d done enough to justify ripping it out and laying Astroturf. It’s the best thing I’ve done.

We truly have an extra outdoor room now. It drains instantly and five minutes of sunshine will dry it out after a rain shower. There are no muddy footprints and I haven’t spent a second feeding, watering or mowing it in over five years. Admittedly it doesn’t repel leaves, so there’s a bit of sweeping to be done come November, but this is something I can live with, besides a broom takes up considerably less space in the shed than a lawnmower.

It’s pet friendly too and easy to clean up accidents, so ideal for potty training!

Of course that’s not the whole picture. Whilst saving on water, fertiliser, electricity and man hours, an Astroturf lawn doesn’t allow birds to feed on worms, doesn’t photosynthesise and will eventually end up in landfill. That’s without considering the materials and energy that go into its manufacture. You may wish to offset this decision with planting elsewhere. As a father of three, I’ll be specifying green roofs for the rest of my days to offset our own carbon footprint!

Garden lightingLighting

External lighting can make a great feature, but if I’m honest, our deck lights were a novelty that lasted until they blew. We’ve never replaced them and they’ve not been missed. A decent floodlight will allow you to party long into the night though, so I’d say this is more essential and a lot cheaper. If you want atmosphere in the evenings there are so many novelty lights available that don’t need to be hardwired into your concrete. Whichever option you go for, go LED, with a dawn ‘til dusk diode, to save energy, increase lifespan and meet the building regulations.

Neel Dakshy RIBA

Neel Dakshy Architecture




Founder of MGF, Helen is a mum of four who spends way too much time on the interweb and not enough time in bed. She loves wearing her dressing gown, car boot sales and watching TV programmes featuring food. Her specialist subjects include 'how to overfill your car boot' and 'how to avoid dusting'. Follow her at Twitter: @Ginfund, Facebook: @MGFund, Instagram: @mummysginfund and online: