Time was, housing was built to keep the outdoors out, the demarcation line enforced by solid oak doors and weather stripping. Today, in architecture and design, the outdoors is most definitely in. And those who are serious about their open-air living spaces have spurred a whole new vocation: the exterior designer.
“In my experience, interior designers don’t always want to work outside of the four walls of a house or a condo. It’s not in their wheelhouse,” says Ryan Levy, a landscaper and entrepreneur with two companies: Object Outdoors designs, produces, and sells high-durability planters and Outdoor Elements designs and maintains plants and planters for corporate, hospitality, and residential clients.
“So what would owners and designers do?” he says. “They’d ask me for tips on what kind of furniture and flooring to buy and where to put it and if I thought such-and-such was a good idea and would it fit and can it be the same calibre as the other side of the glass? I’m an expert on plants and planters. It’s not my area. And then I met Mike.”
“I bought planters from Ryan for a hospitality project,” says Mike Rogers, a western Canadian interior designer who has worked with the design team at Earls Restaurants and sought-after independent architecture and design firms.
“I was so impressed with the way his planters are constructed and how they hold up to the elements,” he says while putting the finishing touches on the Object Outdoors showcase at the recent Luxury Home & Design Show. “They’re the little black dress of planters in that they work in every situation. So we struck up a conversation and, eventually, Ryan mentioned to me that he was getting all these questions from his clients that he couldn’t really speak to.”
This latest design trend is a relatively new phenomenon, says Levy, who has seen his clients’ desire for cohesive outdoor spaces skyrocket over the past five years. “It used to be you bought a table and chairs and an umbrella and that was it. Now people want their patios and balconies to be an extension of their indoor space that they can use, if not year-round, at least as often as possible.
“I think it has to do with real-estate prices in Vancouver,” he posits. “You’re paying so much for your 1,500-square-foot subpenthouse that you want to take advantage of that 500 to 1,000-square-foot deck. If you can use it year-round, you’ve just doubled the size of your home.”
“Or, if you’re paying $500 a square foot for your condo, you want to make the most of your 100 square feet of balcony,” adds Rogers, who approaches his projects like interior renovations without the benefit of walls.
“We’ve put in TVs, lighting schemes, kitchens. We’ve even built out freestanding structural elements,” he says. (Freestanding structures are usually allowed under strata rules; attached extensions are not.) It really depends on what they want to use the space for, which is Rogers’s first question for new clients. To get the job done, Rogers is also able to speak the language of the city and strata and work with them. That alone, for many of their clients, is worth their fee.
“On my end of things, the first question I ask a client is what they don’t want to see,” says Levy. In a densely packed city like Vancouver, there’s usually something that clients want to hide from view. It could be the prying eyes across the street, a cement pillar, or even a neighbour’s questionable taste on their adjacent patio.
But what many people don’t take into account, say the pair, is that outdoor spaces tend to be more expensive to furnish and maintain than indoor spaces. “Your outdoor pieces will be exposed to the elements for 365 days a year, to wind, rain, salt air—that’s the big one here, the salt air. You need to look at the quality of the pieces you’re putting out there and make sure they can stand up to our climate,” says Levy.
“You can do it right the first time or it will cost you a lot more money to do it over again,” he says.
Right now, business is booming.
“It’s the nature of the beast,” says Levy. “People assume the outdoors can be last-minute. As soon as the weather turns, they want a blooming garden or the perfect urban oasis.”
While they’re hustling to get patios and balconies ready for summer, Levy and Rogers are also booking clients for next spring and summer. Just like their plants, their ideas need time to mature and grow.