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Patios and Terraces: Most Versatile Outdoor Living Spaces

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Southern Californians take great pride in their homes, but to a greater extent take pride in their outdoor living spaces. Not only does the great weather make for easy entertaining, but having a beautiful space that is just as pleasurable makes it that much easier to relax and enjoy good company.

Of course, the enjoyment of indoor-outdoor living space is nothing new. Porches, courtyards, and balconies have been featured in American homes since the earliest years of this country. However, it’s only in the past few decades that patios and wood decks have come into their own. They are versatile indoor-outdoor spaces that are easily accessible from several areas of the house, while also being adaptable to a host of activities. 

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Casual or formal, small and simple or grand in size and scale, patios and terraces are among the most popular and versatile outdoor living spaces found in Southern California. 

Home plans from the 1980s and beyond reflect those qualities by integrating them into countless house designs. A patio may be a simple concrete pad dressed up with a picnic table and some potted plants or it may be an artful composition of intricate brickwork, carved benches, formal gardens and a reflecting pool. 

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Although the terms patio and terrace are often used interchangeably, they are historically distinct. Patios and terraces evolved as separate approaches to the design of outdoor living space. Centuries ago, the patio was common in the Middle East as an inner courtyard paved simply with smooth stones set into the packed earth. 

Around 1000 A.D. the Moors carried the idea of the patio to Spain. Spaniards then migrated to the New World found a perfect use for the inner courtyard in the southern and southwestern regions of this country. Houses were then built in a rectangle or square with their outer, nearly windowless walls turned against the sun, so the bright and airy inner patio became a natural spot for outdoor living. 

These early American patios functioned similarly to how we use them today as they were planted with flowers and vegetables, equipped with a well and a hearth and made comfortable with places to sit and talk or dine. However, the patio did not become popular as a common feature at the back or side of virtually any kind of American house until the 1950s, when the post-war housing boom dotted the suburbs with Cape Cod cottages and single-story ranch houses. 

The terrace, by contrast, evolved on the hilly terrain around the Mediterranean, where it was impossible to carve a large-level patio like space from the uneven, steep-sloped ground. Terraces -- from the Latin word terra, or earth -- were originally fashioned from two or three flat platforms on earth, each level bounded for safety by balustrades or low walls and connected by steps carved into the hillside. 

In ancient times, the estates of wealthy Greeks and Romans featured grand terraces with statuary, fountains, formal gardens, carved marble balustrades and stairways. 

Today, grand and formal terraces are especially appropriate for house styles in the Italian or French tradition, where wood decks might appear too casual. Like a patio -- a cool, less formal alternative to masonry, but one that requires regular upkeep. 

Most terraces are bounded by some type of balustrade, a feature that is not common to patios. Traditional balustrades are constructed of brick, cast concrete or some other stone lookalike. 

For a more rustic look, compatible with half-timbered Tudor-style homes, balusters can be constructed of heaven wooden timbers. For contemporary exteriors, the balustrade may be of the same siding as the house. 

A terrace might look more formal than a patio, and better suited to a sloping site, but the similarities between the two outweigh the differences. The distinction is largely a matter of design and personal taste. Patios and terraces can stretch across the front or back of a house, or lie at either side. 

And a patio or terrace can be as formal or casual as you like. With some professional design guidance, the decision is easier to make.

A geometric design, planned to match the scale and proportions of the house, can be quite formal. This formality can be reinforced with symmetrical planting beds and evenly spaced container plants or by the placement of a small reflecting pool or walkway. Informal patios and terraces may have an irregular or a straight-edged contour, with casual plantings and arrangements of furniture and fixtures. 

Concrete is a popular construction material for patios because it is inexpensive and relatively easy to install. Other types of masonry include brick, slate, flagstone, tile, or a combination of two or more for textural interest and aesthetic appeal. Even though the cost of concrete has increased in the past years, it still represents an excellent value compared to other building materials. 

Concrete is truly an all-purpose outdoor surface, capable of withstanding plenty of hard use and climatic extremes. It can be installed quickly, provides a permanent nonslip surface and requires a little upkeep. 

The most common complaint about concrete patios -- that they can look like parking lots -- can be overcome with an exposed aggregate finish and a few colorful plants in containers or in open planting spaces. The utilitarian look of concrete can also be disguised by staining it a neutral, warm color or by embossing a pattern into the concrete while it is still wet. Using special equipment, concrete professionals can make the surface look like bricks and cobblestones. 

With the addition of a few open planting areas, or several groupings of large containers, a patio or terrace is the answer for a person who doesn’t go in for gardening in a big way, but doesn’t want to stare out at an unrelieved expanse of concrete. These spaces can be landscaped with low-maintenance perennials, shrubs, and trees or planted with annual and bulbs to provide seasonal color. 

The durable surface of a concrete or brick patio is also ideal for all kind of entertaining, from an intimate dinner to a dance party to a large wedding. When you think of a patio or terrace as an additional room, the possibilities are unlimited -- as long as the weather cooperates. (Which it almost always does in Southern California!)

Patios and terraces are among the most popular and versatile outdoor living spaces in the Southern California home. In form, they are both old and new, equally at ease with a traditional Spanish or Mediterranean design, an English country home or a contemporary with postmodern roots.

Topics: Exterior