The Importance of a S.A.F.E. Outdoor Space

Published on March 27, 2008


The outdoor living area of your home can provide a pleasing retreat or an entertainment center, if designed correctly. Or, this area can be unattractive, non-useful, and neglected. The shape, size, and type of surface material used in a space heavily influence its usefulness and enjoyment.

S.A.F.E. is an acronym representing four important elements of hard surface design. One must consider its safety, aesthetics, functionality, and expense to achieve satisfaction in the design. To help determine these elements, ask the client the four W’s: Who, What, When, and Where. Who will be using this space? What will they be doing? When will they be doing it? Where on the space will activity occur?

Safety – Safety should be the number one consideration. An injury or discomfort while using the space will discourage its use. So, ask the “W” questions. If formal events are a key use, cobblestones may be very unfriendly to high heels. If the space is for informal relaxation, what surfaces are pleasing to bare feet? If used when wet, will it be slippery? If used in the hot sun, what will minimize the burning of feet? Consider the potential un-evenness of the surface, such as with certain types of natural stone, and the instability that may cause for seniors or toddlers. Are there areas where railings may be required to provide a measure of safety?

Aesthetics – It must be pleasing to the eye. Personal taste is definitely subjective, and providing the client with as much information and experience as possible will help them make better decisions. Exposing clients to other environments will not only allow them to understand the choices of materials, but the configurations that provide the most pleasing use of those materials. Color, texture, symmetry, lines, view points, proportionality, etc., are all issues that the client may need help considering when making choices.

Function – When you know what the space will be used for, you can determine the layout and size of the space. If the client has furniture, such as tables and chairs, is there sufficient space to walk around it? Is the surface large enough to contain all the furniture and the number of people they expect to use it? Does the area separate people, or bring them together? A space that is aesthetically pleasing and creatively designed will still not be used if it’s too crowded or uncomfortable.

Expense – Once you’ve determined the first three elements, you must match that up with the client’s budget. The cost will influence the size and surface choices. However, it’s important not to compromise the safety, aesthetics, and functionality in these choices, for building a space that’s not used at all is the most expensive choice. This is why all the options must be discussed in design and materials to determine what can meet these critical needs, while staying within the client’s budget. And, considerations of a phased approach may be discussed to spread out the expense. Be careful, however, not to compromise these critical elements in each phase.

Using the S.A.F.E. approach will enable you and your client to best design an outdoor living space that they will enjoy for years.

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