If you happen to live in a place where ice and snow are the usual winter backdrops, then the last place you’d probably think of hosting your holiday party is outdoors. But why not surprise your guests this year by taking the celebration into your backyard? With a little vision and creativity, it is possible to create warmth outside—even in December. Just ask Connecticut landscape architect Eric Rains.
An avid entertainer himself, Rains has made an art out of designing warm and inviting outdoor spaces that bring people together and inspire the senses. Believing that “real entertainment can only happen when people are comfortable,” he finds beauty in designing landscape settings that are personal and connect to the area’s native surroundings. Whether it’s an 80-acre 1920s country estate in Maryland with grand rooms opening to a large outdoor terrace or a spacious equestrian estate in Connecticut with a four-acre tree house path and watercourse, Rains’ projects place great emphasis on giving his clients and their guests an opportunity to touch, see and smell nature. With entertaining on our minds this month, Previews® Inside Out spoke to Rains about giving guests an unforgettable outdoor experience.
Previews Inside Out What are the essential elements for creating warm and inviting outdoor entertaining spaces?
Eric Rains Comfort is probably what drives successful entertainment spaces. If you want people to truly relax, make sure they have room to move around. Just make sure the scale of the space is matched to the use. Utilizing color, textures and patterns is what gives a space a sense of harmony. Having these design elements work together will yield an environment that is invigorating and refreshing.
Previews Inside Out In your opinion, what is the most luxurious landscape element for outdoor entertaining spaces?
Eric Rains In general, ample space itself can be luxurious. What you do with it is what guarantees its luxury. This could start with “context,” where you identify and build upon any natural or built features that will contribute to the desired qualities of the your space. For example, if you live in a city where you have views of a significant building, bridge, water body and/or park, you will most likely want to reinforce the visual connection with your space. Likewise, if your property features something like expansive land, a mountain range or an ocean, you will want to make sure that the scale of your space is in balance with that openness. Once you have done this, appealing to the human senses is the next step in the process. The equation consists of the balance between what people see, smell, taste, touch and hear within your space. Achieving the right portions of these components is certainly luxurious.
Previews Inside Out How do you balance a modern homebuyer’s desire for outdoor entertainment spaces with landscape and environmental concerns? How important are water elements in your view?
Eric Rains If you live in an area where there is abundant rain, rather than deposit it directly into a storm sewer system, retain it on your property and use it as part of a water feature. Or consider a swimming pool that is balanced with vegetation so that it does not require chemicals to stay clean. Construction materials can be purchased from architectural archeologist companies rather than fabricating new materials that serve the same purpose as those that already exist. Probably the simplest solution is to purchase materials that are grown or produced in close proximity to your home. This eliminates shipping and road traffic. Anytime vehicles spend less time on the roads is a positive in so many ways.
Water elements can play a subtle or dramatic role in an entertainment space. In either role, it is not critical. If the preference is to have water, it can certainly be used in ways that support the concept of the space.
Previews Inside Out Which landscape architects of the past are your icons? What have they taught you about creating warm outdoor entertaining spaces?
Eric Rains John Ormsbee Simonds, Russell Page and Dan Kiley are among the tops in my mind. Their understanding of human nature and needs is incredible. They have taught me that designing outdoor entertainment spaces for a specific client requires the ability to assimilate their needs, wants and desires—and then to apply that to an exterior space, whether on the ground, roof or floor below.
Previews Inside Out When it comes to creating an inviting outdoor space, what are the most popular landscape features today?
Eric Rains A tremendous amount is being done with complete outdoor kitchens, fireplaces and living room/dining room terraces. By viewing and treating the outdoors as an extension of the indoor environment, it has strengthened the sense that you can live on your terrace as much as you do in your home.
Previews Inside Out From your perspective, how have outdoor entertaining needs changed in the last decade? How has this shift impacted your design?
Eric Rains Making them less dependent on the weather or even the seasons has been a noticeable change. Heated terraces, fireplaces and windbreaks can make a terrace useful for a much longer period of time throughout the year. Then, if you are dealing with heat as an obstacle, fans, shade and perimeter mist systems can be integrated. The use of outdoor spaces is not completely subject to the elements. This elevates the role of outdoor spaces as it relates to quality of life.
Previews Inside Out Can you talk about the outdoor room? What is your ideal outdoor room?
Eric Rains An outdoor area with comfortable seating and a great sound system can make for a terrific evening. This can be enough if integrated into the event. But, if there is available space, you could have your guests move from that area to an outdoor dining table with beautiful lighting and furnishing. With this, the house is only a passage for your guests to get from the front walk to the party.
Previews Inside Out Homeowners on the West Coast might be able to entertain outdoors during the holidays—but that is less true on the East Coast and many other locales. Do you have any ideas for bringing the outdoors in for a party?
Eric Rains There is a lot that can be done with heated terraces, fireplaces and radiant heat, so we do not have to be as confined to the interiors as we once were. For example, my wife and I had a holiday party a few years ago where we used a transparent tent over our terrace. Our fountain with koi in the basin remained the focal point. And because the tent was transparent, the garden wall-lighting outside the tent contributed to the ambience inside the tent. We opened all the doors to the terrace so guests could move back and forth as they wished. We had 175 people attend that evening, so the terrace played a huge role. For smaller events, we use every means possible to make the outdoors visible from inside. With evening events, lighting is the key and it’s not just outdoor lighting. There needs to be a balance of light between the indoor and outdoor environments. In my work, understanding indoor light levels is very important to an exterior lighting design.
Previews Inside Out Do you have any advice for someone throwing an outdoor party?
Eric Rains Convenience is important. If you are hosting a party, make sure you have what you need where you need it. If you are designing this space, put in all the infrastructure components: water/gas/drain lines, sound and electric connections. As for the party itself, think of everything that your guests will see, smell, touch and taste. The perfect combination for a great party is the perfect setting, simple décor and lighting, great sound, the right guest list and uncomplicated food and drink options. Designing your own space makes it easier to put a great event together on short notice.
Eric Rains is principal of Eric Rains Landscape Architecture, LLC, (ERLA) based in South Norwalk, Connecticut. A 21-year landscape architecture veteran, he has practiced in the Fairfield County, tri-state area and Washington, D.C./Baltimore metro areas. His projects have won numerous awards; they have twice won the “Jury’s Award of Excellence,” the Connecticut Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects’ most prestigious award.