There’s a chill in the air. And it’s not just the autumn weather.
Many Americans are sobered by the unrelenting pandemic, particularly as the days of socially distanced get-togethers outdoors in the warmth of the sun are dwindling. For the past seven months, outdoor living — and entertaining — has been a lifeline of sorts, providing some small semblance of normalcy as the novel coronavirus continues to upend our lives.
October’s sudden cold snap had kids digging out sweatshirts so they could keep studying on the porch. Invites for backyard meetups became BYOB (Bring Your Own Blanket), and mugs of steaming soup replaced cold IPAs. Fire pits and firewood are hot items as we look for ways to make patios and decks cozier on brisk nights.
And we wonder: Will we be eating Thanksgiving dinner swaddled in puffy coats?
“People were dreading the fall,” says Peter Dunham, a Los Angeles designer who owns the shop Hollywood at Home. “In early spring, everybody buckled up and we found freedom outside where we could see a few friends in a safe way.” Now, he says, people are looking for ways to carve out “a little bit of seating, a little bit of dining and a place to keep living into the fall.”
With COVID-19 and the upcoming flu season, families must remain vigilant. In addition to wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart, current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines state that activities are safer if “they are held in outdoor spaces. Indoor spaces with less ventilation where it might be harder to keep people apart are more risky.”
Byron Risdon, a Washington, D.C., designer, says: “The subject of outdoor spaces has definitely come up with my friends and clients who are looking for ways to extend the season. What can you do to make it a little bit nicer so it will feel more comfortable?” He says a little outdoor structure, such as a cedar gazebo, would be a nice addition and offer some extra cover for when it drizzles.
You can sit on a front or screened porch if it’s raining or even snowing if you have enough layers on. Wanting a bit more shelter, Georgia designer Jennifer Eanes Foster turned her aging deck into a 15-by-15-foot screened porch just before the quarantine. “I had no idea how much time my family and I would spend there,” she says, ticking off dinners, movie nights, afternoon naps, work days and school Zoom meetings. She considers it a “safer space” than the living room for her three teenage children to have friends over to study.
Foster estimates that building a screened porch costs about $100 to $125 per square foot, money she thinks is well spent. For hers, she brought in a steel twin daybed from Amazon and added a mattress enclosed in a zip-up waterproof mattress protector. She had a khaki-color Sunbrella mattress cover and pillows made. All-weather wicker chairs from Target and a black wrought iron table and chairs provide places to read and eat. A wood garden storage chest/potting bench from Walmart that she painted doubles as a hot beverage bar and TV stand.
Even if you don’t have a porch, there are many ways to make your backyard feel more welcoming during cooler weather. Start by freshening up faded pillows and bringing in new fall colors and textures.
“Summer was about vibrant, citrusy colors, but for fall you think about rich, warm shades like earthy reds, yellows and ochers,” says Terry Lin, chief design officer of Outer, a new outdoor furniture brand. “It’s a simple task to switch out your textiles and do more layering outdoors in the same colors that are happening in nature.”
Lin added kilim-style pillows and throws in those autumnal colors (many from Etsy) to the small fenced-in backyard of his San Francisco home. He has areas for lounging and grilling and a small garden. He realized what a luxury it was to spend so much time outdoors when the wildfire haze settled on the city in recent weeks, and his two children had to play indoors.
A spiffed-up outdoor space that functions well can make the falling temperatures a bit easier to bear. Here are some more ideas on how to do that.
Earlier sunsets have us scrambling for candles and lanterns, whether real or battery-operated. Risdon likes the look of the cement CB2 Mayon Tall Oil Lamps ($50–$80) to illuminate an outdoor space.
Dunham says people often over-light outdoor dinners, robbing them of a relaxed ambiance. “You really don’t need that much light, as people forget how much light bleeds out of the inside rooms near you,” he says. He likes the soft glow of Menu’s Modern Brass and Steel Rechargeable LED Lantern ($180–$250 at food52.com), which has a USB port in one side.
If you want go fancier, Joe Raboine, director of Belgard Residential Hardscapes in Atlanta, says with the shift to LED lights, it’s never been easier to add an outdoor lighting system. A good-quality system from a landscape supply center or Home Depot or Lowe’s would start at about $750, he says.
An even simpler option: Try twinkling outdoor string lights to add a bit of magic. Lin likes the vintage look of the Industrial Waterproof Edison Bulbs from Amazon ($40).
Swapping out pillow covers will make your outdoor space seem new, says Lin. No need to buy new pillows; just find something that fits the inserts you have. He likes the look of print pillows in various sizes layered on a sofa or chair with neutral upholstery.
For Dunham, outdoor curtains are part of the fall outdoor look and can help foster a sense of a cozy, interior space. “In a balcony, they can create shelter from a next-door unit, plus they cut down the breeze,” he says. Indoor/outdoor fabrics made to be water repellent are your best choice, he says. A heavier-weight fabric, such as those that may be designated for awnings or marine applications, could be a good choice to keep outdoor curtains anchored down.
To add a slightly more traditional touch, Risdon likes the Pottery Barn Tassel Trim Indoor/Outdoor Pillows ($35.50).
Round up extra quilts and blankets from your linen closet and attic and put them within easy reach of your outdoor space. If you order new throws, make sure they are warm and can be machine washed. Lin suggests the Pottery Barn Fireside Cozy Sherpa Reversible Throws ($49), which he says will keep nippy fall air at bay.
Fire pits, both gas and wood-burning, and chimineas are in great demand. Raboine says fire pit sales are up more than 20% over last year — and some are on back order. He says fire pits, whether round, square or rectangular, can seat more people comfortably around them than a built-in outdoor fireplace.
Risdon likes fire pits because they bring warmth plus light. “There are so many options and some are gas or propane and have a glass panel that keeps you away from the flames,” he says. For a free-standing model, he likes the 30-inch Heavy Duty Fire Pit from EvergreenPatio on Etsy ($279), which is sturdy and adds an industrial look.
Once you have your blanket stash, a large jute laundry basket, such as OrnateArtcrafts’ round braided basket sold on Etsy ($65–$90), would be great for storing them, says Lin.
And a waterproof rug can dress up the space, anchoring your seating and adding color and texture, says Foster. She used West Elm’s Woven Cable Indoor/Outdoor Rug ($30–$700) on her porch. She also painted her ceiling Woodlawn Blue by Benjamin Moore, in the tradition of Southern porches.
Or how about a tiny home office in your yard? Some people have been building small exterior structures with lots of windows and heating, says Raboine. “So many people realize they aren’t going to go back to their offices, so they are making a quiet place to work away from the main house.”
Foster says she thinks in the future, homeowners will put more renovation money toward often-neglected outdoor spaces. She has had many clients asking what they can do to make those spaces more comfortable, functional and hopefully safer as the pandemic stretches into the colder months. “People are realizing that in order to be social, home is the safest place to be right now, she says. “You must find a place in your home where you can be at peace in a time like this.”