Circumstantially or otherwise, home and office dwellers today are eager to embrace the outdoors in everyday spaces. Open air became a defining attribute of ad-hoc pandemic design, and the early-2020s “back to nature” zeitgeist has renewed popular interest in indoor-outdoor living. The resulting market demand for niche home products shows no signs of abating – which is encouraging as an indicator of interest, but should not be taken to mean that indoor-outdoor living is merely a series of consumer choices.
For architects, it is worth considering the principles at the heart of indoor-outdoor design. Rather than extracting elements from nature and relocating them inside, or vice versa, thoughtful indoor-outdoor spaces open themselves up to existing natural surroundings with minimal intervention. Hence, we try to think in terms of “inviting” instead of simply “bringing” the outside in.
Indoor-outdoor living invites the beauty and grandeur of the outdoors into your home's interior, forming a symbiotic connection between the architecture and the surrounding environment. It is also one of EYRC’s core design tenets, and, as we have found over the course of our projects, one that offers infinite variations within California’s uniquely mild if surprisingly diverse coastal Mediterranean and inland desert climates.
We achieve connectivity by minimizing boundaries —both literally and figuratively—between interior spaces and exterior landscapes, connecting the homeowner to the outside world. In some respects indoor-outdoor is a logical extension of open concept design, keeping barriers and walls to a bare minimum.
Our recent Westridge residence on the eastern Santa Cruz mountains considered these thresholds areas from floor to ceiling. Sliding door tracks are flush with the floor and near-invisible when opened to the expansive valley at the property’s rear.
The home’s living area was designed for continuity with its dramatic hillside plot, with courtyard steps planted with emado grasses that cascade down from the great room into the landscape.
There are more modest methods to accentuate transitional areas; indoor-outdoor is ambitious in scope but scalable in practice. Orienting frequently-occupied communal furniture, dining tables and the like near large south-facing windows or patio doors is another way to take advantage of these spaces. Such was the case in our Kingsland project (pictured below to the right), a single-family renovation for two of our firm’s own partners, Takashi Yanai and Patricia Rhee.
While the specific design details may vary depending on your preferences, a universal feature of indoor-outdoor living is the use of natural light. Frequent exposure to natural light has been linked to improved mood, reduced insomnia and overall well-being.
Natural light exposure is also a potent passive sustainability strategy. The Westridge residence’s floor-to-ceiling glass doors and windows predominantly face south and, along with the majestic views, provide additional warmth in the winter through low-angled sun exposure. Supplemented with solar panels and a radiant-heated concrete slab foundation, the home is on track to achieve net zero energy consumption by mid-2023.
Ideally, in a custom indoor-outdoor home, the structure itself is built in response to its landscape. The boomerang-shaped floor plan at the Westridge home is a prime example. While the main living area opens up to nearly three acres of lush wild meadows, an additional wing of three bedrooms is positioned at a roughly 40-degree angle towards existing foliage.
The privacy afforded by this angled orientation created some unconventional opportunities for indoor-outdoor integration, including a treehouse-esque outdoor shower. With an eye to existing conditions and lines of sight, indoor-outdoor connection is possible almost anywhere in the house.
Inevitably, the desire for integration with nature needs to be tempered with more practical considerations of resilience and human comfort.
Courtyards, for example, balance shelter with open air: their walls shield for privacy as well as from harsh winds. A number of EYRC homes, including the Blue Sail and Westridge projects, incorporate courtyards at the front of the home rather than a more traditional central courtyard. As an indoor-outdoor design feature these entryways offer a welcoming transition from outside to in, punctuating arrivals and departures with a moment of natural serenity.
Sometimes a set of conflicting needs are actually complementary. Under an indoor-outdoor approach, aesthetic coherence and material resilience can often go hand in hand. As a naturally-aging material fit for use indoors and out, concrete features substantially throughout the Westridge residence. A simplified material palette can both reduce maintenance needs and cultivate a sense of continuity between interior and exterior.
A fully realized indoor-outdoor home forms the connective tissue between interior shelter and outside life, and fundamentally blurs the lines between home and landscape. Ultimately, we strive to create a spatial frame that grounds occupants in a sense of place and affords them the luxuries of observation, moments of stillness and empathy with their surroundings.
These options offer just a taste of what indoor-outdoor living can create in existing and new homes alike. A recalibrated attentiveness —to angles of light at times of day, to points of entry and other transitory zones, to the topography and ecosystem of your particular site— yields its own rewards at home and beyond.
Since joining Ehrlich Yanai Rhee Chaney Architects in 2012, Bryn Garrett has been involved with a broad range of the firm’s portfolio, from custom residential and hospitality, to commercial, institutional and creative office. Having equal experience in many aspects of the practice gives him a unique perspective on a project’s context, materiality and environmental impact. Bryn is heading EYRC’s San Francisco studio, which opened in 2017.