Patio Possibilities

Before you effectively plan your patio, you need to know about all of the possibilities to achieve the outdoor living space of your dreams.


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Before you effectively plan your patio, you need to know about all of the possibilities to achieve the outdoor living space of your dreams.

At their simplest, patios are areas of your yard that you pave and make into durable, weatherproof spaces for walking or using furniture. With a little imagination and careful planning, however, the simple backyard patio can become a cloistered retreat resplendent with lush plantings and quiet nooks, an extravagant entertainment center with dining areas and extensive seating for guests, or a luxurious spa complete with a hot tub, swimming pool, and shady cabana.

Today's patios are much more than just back- yard stations for grilling hot dogs. They are a part of our lifestyle -- extending our family rooms into the outdoors to take advantage of nature, sun, and fresh air. They are transitional spaces that blend the best of indoor and outdoor life. More than ever, patios are where we entertain guests, spend time with families, or just get away from it all.

Make the most of your project -- and your budget -- with careful planning. Good planning includes becoming familiar with the various materials and knowing how patios are built so you can communicate effectively with designers, builders, and other professionals. The result will be a patio that increases the value of your property and is a pleasure for years to come.

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The size and style of your patio depends on how you plan to use it. It should be a comfortable, well-planned solution to your family's needs. If you entertain often, you'll want an area large enough for guests to comfortably converse, mingle, and dine. If the patio is used only for occasional family barbecues or for relaxing and reading, it can be fairly small. A well-designed patio features different areas that fulfill a variety of expectations. There can be cooking centers, meditative retreats, and outdoor musical stages, often all at once. Listing your primary goals is the first step toward effective planning.

A patio is placed directly on the ground, and the final design often depends on the shape of the terrain. To some extent, land can be altered by machines into a new topography. Of course, extensive site work will affect the cost of your project--expect to pay several thousand dollars for site work that includes grading your land and adding retaining walls. Imaginative design often can solve problems, including uneven land or steep grades.

Before you call in the bulldozers to carve flat areas into your backyard, be sure to consider other options that could be more cost-effective, such as creating a series of smaller, stepped patios or adding a deck that vaults over the landscape.

Patios don't readily fall into distinct categories, but some styles share basic characteristics. Some common forms:

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  • Open patios are designed to take maximum advantage of sunlight and fresh air. There are few obstructions, and the patio area is usually set apart from large trees and overhangs. They are often found in northern climates, where warming sunlight is valuable. An open patio helps extend enjoyment of the outdoors into spring and fall.
  • Covered patios usually are constructed next to a house, where extended eaves or an overhead structure shelters the patio from sun and rain. Often, a portion of the patio floor extends beyond the sheltering roof so that a portion of it is in full sun. A covered patio is much like a porch, except that the flooring is usually masonry installed directly on grade.
  • Getaway patios are located away from the house. They are usually small, intimate areas surrounded by plants and landscaping features that provide a sense of privacy. Getaway patios can be open or covered by a simple arbor or gazebo-like structure. They are connected to the main house with a path, and are often built in yards large enough to create separate garden rooms. They include simple furnishings, such as outdoor benches, tables, and chairs.
  • Poolside patios provide durable, waterproof surfaces and open areas for sitting or sunning. Slip-resistant surfaces, such as textured concrete or split-face flagstone, are commonly used for poolside patios.
  • Entry patios are built at the front of the house. These public spaces are relaxing and inviting. They are characterized by wide, paved areas and often include landscaping features such as built-in planters, casual seating, and pathways leading to side yards and garages.

Regional Styles

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Patio designs often take their cues from regional influences. Climate, culture, and indigenous plants all play an important role in the design of outdoor living spaces. Regional styles fit well with their surroundings, taking advantage of established methods of construction and materials that originate in the region. This usually means the landscaping components are readily available and cost-effective. An English garden and formal brick patio placed in arid Arizona not only would look out of place, it might be difficult -- and expensive -- to maintain. For advice about regional materials and plants, consult an experienced professional landscape designer or contractor in your area.

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A patio is made in layers. The bottom layers form a stable base for the top layer of paving material. Careful preparation of the substrate is essential to the long life of the patio. If settling occurs, low spots can develop; large paving materials, such as flagstones or concrete, might crack.

The first step is to a establish satisfactory slope and grade to the project area. To encourage proper drainage, patios should slope away from residences and other buildings at a rate of about 2 vertical inches for every 8 horizontal feet of patio surface.

Once the shape of the patio is laid out, the top layer of sod and dirt is stripped away to a depth of several inches. Protruding roots and stones are removed, and any holes are filled with dirt and tamped smooth. The first layer is about 4 inches of gravel. The gravel is raked flat, then a heavy vibrating tool called a plate compactor or tamp is used to vibrate and pound the gravel into a smooth, firm base. The compacted gravel base forms the foundation for any subsequent patio surfaces. Typical installations include:

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  • Concrete patios are poured directly on top of the compacted gravel. A 4-inch-thick slab is standard. Large slabs include steel rods, called reinforcement bars, and expansion joints to control cracking.
  • Brick, stone, or concrete pavers set over concrete make the most stable, durable, and expensive finished patios. A 4-inch-thick concrete base is poured over the compacted gravel and allowed to set, then the finish material is applied. Concrete grout holds the paving material in place.
  • Brick, stone, and concrete pavers set over sand are called dry-fit. Dry-fit construction requires a layer of landscaping fabric over the compacted gravel to inhibit unwanted growth and a bed of sand over the fabric. Paving material is set on top of the smoothed sand, and sand or dry mortar mix is spread between the pavers to hold them in place. After being soaked with water from a hose, the mortar mix hardens to lock the paving material into place. Another option is to fill the spaces between the paving material with soil and plant decorative, low-lying groundcover or grass. Dry-set patios are the easiest to construct.
  • Tiles are always set on a base of concrete, and mortar grout holds the paving material in place.

Base Gravel

Gravel used as the base for patio construction typically is called class-5 gravel or 3/4-inch highway gravel. It is a mixture of small irregularly shaped pieces that fit together tightly when tamped. Don't order pea gravel -- it won't settle into a firm base. Enough gravel to make a base 4 inches deep for a small, 10x10-foot patio would weigh approximately 5,000 pounds -- about 2 1/2 tons.

Types of Brick

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Warm, earthy brick is a classic material that blends readily with many styles of houses. Its durability makes it a favorite material for outdoor use, and its modular shape is ideal for building many structures, such as patio floors, planters, and garden walls. It comes in many colors and sizes, is moderately priced, and is readily available from home improvement centers, landscaping retailers, and masonry suppliers.

Brick for exterior use comes in many grades and styles. The terms used to describe grades may differ from region to region; however, two of the most common grades are moderate weather (MW) and severe weather (SW). MW bricks are the less expensive option, although they are more porous and less uniform in size.

A porous brick absorbs water. If exposed to low temperatures, the absorbed water can expand as it freezes, causing the brick to chip or break. Although the material is still durable, the freeze/thaw cycle can take its toll over time. In damp conditions, such as perpetually shaded areas, MW brick encourages the growth of moss, a feature some people find charming.

As the name implies, SW bricks are made to withstand temperature extremes and high moisture conditions. They are also more resistant to stains caused by accidental spills of beverages or oily liquids. Here are other kinds of brick:

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  • Common brick is a general-purpose material that has many uses. Although it is used primarily for walls, it can be used for patios that don't get a lot of foot traffic, and for patios in mild climates that do not have temperature extremes. Common brick can be "wire-cut," meaning it is uniformly square and has a rough texture on its face and smooth edges. "Sandmold" brick often is uneven in shape but has a smooth face that is easy to clean.
  • Paving brick is made with a dense clay and is fired at extremely high temperatures to produce a product that is especially hard and resistant to moisture. Paving brick is the most durable brick and is a good choice for patio surfaces.
  • Used brick is salvaged from demolished buildings. It has a worn, rustic character that many people find attractive. Because of the added labor of salvage work, it usually costs more than other types of brick. Because old brick usually has had many years of exposure to the elements, it might not be as hard and durable as newer ones. One strategy for using older brick is to buy enough to have replacements if individual bricks crumble or break. Another idea is to make ancillary structures, such as walls and planters, from used brick and buy a paver of matching color for use throughout the patio field. Used brick might not be uniform in size, and it will vary in thickness from 2 1/2 inches to 3 inches.
  • Clinker bricks have imperfections caused by improper firing methods. Defects include irregular shapes, scorch marks, and pitting. Some suppliers offer inexpensive clinker bricks for use as decorative borders or as accents distributed randomly through a field of normal bricks.

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Brick Pattern

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The modular shape of brick is ideal for forming patterns. Over the years, many classic patterns have been developed that are familiar to installers. Some patterns, such as the pinwheel pattern shown at center right, require the time-consuming cutting of individual bricks. For the most part, the layout and installation of various patterns is straightforward. Patterns also can be mixed to create custom decorative layouts.

Irregular shapes and curves usually add to the cost of any patio project. Curves mean cutting bricks, which adds to the time required for construction. Bricks and other types of masonry can be precisely cut with a water or tub saw -- a large, circular blade made especially for slicing masonry. A flow of water onto the blade helps reduce friction and dust during cutting. Do-it-yourselfers can rent a water saw at a rental shop.

Brick Pattern Ideas

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