How To Design a Stunning, Practical Patio Part 1: Materials and Styles
If you have any desire to sit outside in your garden, no matter how large or tiny, a thoughtful patio design will make all the difference. Over the next two weeks we take you through the benefits of a patio, how to design it and how to choose the right patio style for your home.
Part 1 covers the main materials you can make your patio from and the styles you can create from them.
Part 2 (next week) details the steps involved in designing your own patio
1. What Is a Patio?
A patio is an area of hard landscaping close to a house that is designed as a solid base for garden furniture.
While garden furniture can be placed on lawns, this leaves marks in the grass each time the furniture moves slightly. Lawns in many places are also prone to be muddy and not always the most comfortable or stable base for seats and tables. Similarly, furniture housed in areas of gravel are prone to movement. Not to mention being uncomfortable to walk on in bare feet or heels.
A stunning patio really sets the tone for the rest of the garden. and so it is worth taking some time to consider the design. Patios that suit the architecture of the house will always work best.
There are many options for patio finishes but be careful not to choose on aesthetics alone. A good patio is an investment in your home. Balance cost with longevity. Think of maintenance. Consider your skill level if you plan to DIY build (or the skill of your landscape contractor if you plan to outsource).
2. Patio Construction 101
Before you consider designing your patio some understanding of what is involved in it’s construction is important. Not least when planning your budget. All of the patio materials described below need to be laid on an appropriate substructure. This is needed to provide a stable base for paving materials, allowing them to sustain the effects of weather and bear the load of regular use.
Often the patio needs to be laid on a slight (but exact) slope to drain rainwater from the paving to avoid damage to it or to your home. Don’t make the mistake of simply pricing the cost of your paving when designing your patio. The labour and other materials involved in creating you a long-lasting feature will need to be a major part of the budget.
First, the exact situation of the patio and drainage slope needs to be marked out accurately on site. All installations will require existing surface material to be removed and disposed of. The topsoil needs to be dug out to the correct depth.
The exposed subsoil will then need to be levelled and compacted. This will be covered by a layer of granular sub-base material of appropriate depth for your conditions. A firm sub-base is compacted properly by machine. Note that permeable paving (which lets rainwater drain through the patio rather than run off from it into another area) requires a different type of sub-base (known as DTp2) to non-permeable paving (DTp1).
What then goes between the prepared sub-base and your top patio layer is known as the bedding layer. Types of bedding layer vary according to your soil and environmental conditions, type of paving and user requirements. The main options are usually a continuous bed of concrete or a layer of sand with or without some cement mixed in. Porcelain paving requires an additional primer layer to firmly adhere the tiles to the bedding layer.
The final step is to fill the gaps between the paving slabs or tiles with mortar, sand or a specialist jointing compound depending on your choice of patio material and construction method. Some patio materials benefit from being sealed or impregnated with specialist compounds that protect the stone- but others definitely do not. Contact your supplier for best advice.
Overall do please make sure that you discuss construction method with whoever will be laying your patio and make sure you satisfy yourself that they have the appropriate skill.
3. Patio Materials
Stone paving is a beautiful material for making modern patios. Ranging in size from small square stone setts to larger slabs, stone paving can be used to create endless traditional and modern patio styles. There are many different stones to choose from including granite, slate, limestone and sandstone.
Natural stone is timeless and has unrivalled textural qualities and subtle colour variations that change with the light.
Of course stone is more expensive than other patio materials and it is hugely variable in quality so source wisely. Cheap sandstones can be very porous so stain and crumble easily- beware of false economy. Stone is available in a huge variety of colours and smooth (honed) or rough (riven) finishes so can be used to suit almost any type of building and locale.
Consider which upper surface will work best in your garden. Stone that has been cut into slabs with a machine saw (as in the images shown here) is perfect for either a clean, contemporary look. It’s elegant finish also works well in smart city and country properties. Honed surfaces, further smoothed by a light polishing machine are also popular.
For a more rustic finish in rural and older properties consider riven stone. Riven paving is produced from stone that forms naturally in layers. Slabs are usually split by hand leaving a slightly uneven surface that looks very authentic. Since the thickness varies in the slabs, they take longer to lay, incurring some extra cost. Lightly riven paving is often more slip resistant so do bear that in mind.
The stone paving edges that will join end to end can also be clean cut or left more ragged. The more even the edges, the more closely together they can be joined, giving a modern, seamless effect. Bear in mind also that stone slabs can have different heights- very thick slabs may not be appropriate for your space if you are replacing thinner paving. Thick natural stone slabs can also be extremely heavy, requiring more costly manpower or machine power to move. For more advice contact your local stone merchant or landscape contractor. The major national paving suppliers also send out brochures explaining the different choices and most are also available online. Our best advice- if you are going to invest in a stone patio, choose your product wisely and don’t have it laid by the cheapest cowboy landscaper. Shop around.
Concrete products have improved substantially in recent years and there are some very good stone-like finishes available. The major suppliers offer riven, textured, smooth & even wood effect paving slabs in a range of colours. Also known as reconstituted paving, concrete paving contains ground natural stone as well as sand and cement, mixed to form a very hard-wearing patio surface. Decent concrete paving now makes a very good design alternative to stone for different styles of property. Don’t just settle for the most traditional concrete pavers available from your local garden centre- a bit of research can find you something much more fitting of your garden design project.
The more common finishes are often available as fixed size patio packs which can be very economical and useful for DIY projects. Since concrete paving is manufactured, all slabs are of equal depth and edges are usually cut straight making the patio easy to lay. Another advantage of concrete for a mid-budget option is that matching off-the-shelf circles, walling and edgings are often available to match the patio to other garden features.
Once again think twice about the cheapest as these will be more likely to crack in frost and lose their colour over time.
Concrete poured in situ into a frame on site that is later removed can also make a fantastic, contemporary-styled patio. In situ concrete (also known as “poured in place” has the advantage of creating patios of any shape desired. The continuous slab also looks very modern as there are no paving stone joints. Various textured or polished finishes can be achieved on site.
Porcelain paving is increasing rapidly in popularity in modern gardens.
Made from clay and minerals baked in a kiln at very high temperatures, it is formed into very dense and durable tiles that create excellent indoor and outdoor surfaces. This type of porcelain is highly resistant to seasonal extremes of temperature. Its low porosity also attracts less algae in shadier areas than stone or concrete, making it less slippery.
From a design point of view, porcelain paving tiles offer continuity between inside and outside, making living spaces feel larger and more unified. Their highly regular dimensions require only very small joints between tiles allowing a modern feel. An increasing number of styles is available, ranging from natural stone effects to urban neutral colours and some lovely wood effects. Porcelain paving tiles are usually available in sizes more commonly used in modern designs.
Do make sure that you buy porcelain tiles manufactured specifically for paving-regular wall and floor tiles will not survive exterior conditions. We recommend that they are professionally-installed, since the tiles are difficult to cut and need to be laid with a high level of precision.
Other tiles suitable for outdoor use are available.
Clay terracotta tiles are popular throughout the Mediterranean and decorative glazed tiles are well known in Moroccan gardens.
Ceramic tile mosaics were made popular by the Victorians using both coloured and black & white patterns. These look especially elegant in period city courtyards.
Bricks have been long been used for pathways and patios and are still often used to create lovely patio designs. The relatively small size of bricks makes them very versatile in creating a wide range of patterns. The rather rough texture of brick makes it useful as a slip-resistant surface.
Traditionally brick colours and textures would vary with locale, due to the use of local clays and production methods. The advent of concrete bricks (usually known as paving blocks) has made a highly uniform product that is easier to cut than clay bricks, although the colour and surface of concrete can still deteriorate over the years.
Nowadays a huge variety of bricks are available, although not all are suitable for patios so do check with your contractor or supplier. If you want to match the bricks used in your home, the larger suppliers will often help you locate what you need, Reclaimed bricks are also an option and work especially well in period properties.
Bricks and blocks come in a range of colours from yellowish/buff through a range of reds and greys. Choose a colour that complements your home. For example one that picks up one tone from your house bricks or another property feature. While some contrast is good, avoid anything that is screamingly different. Your patio should not be over-dominant in the garden.
Although traditionally made from stone, wooden or composite patios made from deck boards are another option.
Since decks can be constructed on sloping or uneven ground, they can cost less than levelling the area for a more traditional patio. Deck boards can be cut to create a variety of shapes allowing many design configurations and the boards can also be used to construct or finish matching steps or raised beds.
The strength and proper construction of the underlying structure is key to the success of decking. Boards are fixed to a pre-made set of joists and cross-bars, usually fixed to the ground by posts set in concrete.
As with any garden timber in contact with rain or wet ground, appropriate grade pressure treated wood must be used and all cut ends need to be sealed for waterproofing. Sufficient gaps are required between boards to allow for water drainage and airflow to prevent the wood from rotting.
We like that low voltage lights can be installed flush with decking surfaces. allowing more design opportunities and use of an outdoor living area.
If you have wooden floors indoors, choosing deck boards in a similar colour can help create the inside-outside feel popular in modern homes.
Hardwood boards offer better longevity and weatherproofing but are more expensive and may not also come from a sustainable source (so please do check). Hardwood decking can be varnished or left to fade and weather naturally, depending on the appearance you prefer.
Softwood boards are the least expensive and are widely available from DIY stores. However, there can be a lot of variation between boards, so check them all for knots in the wood and for and warped planks. These will need treating with a suitable decking stain or sealer, often annually, and often several coats are required.
Composite decking provides a lower-maintenance alternative to wood, as it only requires the occasional scrub or light jet wash. There are some fantastic modern finishes and good quality composite is fast becoming the designer’s choice.
Regular gravel does not make a practical material for a patio area for the reasons mentioned in Section 1. above. However, when sealed in place with a liquid resin that sets very hard, resin-bound gravel can make an attractive and hard-wearing patio surface.
Most products are water-permeable and can avoid many drainage issues. The continuous, seamless surface can be made from a wide choice of colourfast gravels. It is slip resistant, so especially good for wheelchair users (and weed resistant). Weed-resistance is another major benefit attractive to many!
Resin bound gravel needs to be installed over a single, solid base to prevent the material from cracking. This can be concrete, or more commonly now, porous asphalt. The resin/gravel mix needs to be hand trowelled onto a pre-edged area by a professional installer.
Once the preserve of bridleways and paths around National Trust properties, self-binding gravel is gaining popularity amongst garden designers. It has featured in several high-profile Chelsea Flower Show gardens in recent years. Unlike conventional gravel, which has been washed and size-graded to take away the very fine rock particles, self-binding gravel mixes tiny pebbles with sticky clay dust that is used to create a semi-solid garden surface.
Self-binding gravel is largely a bi-product of local quarries and so the colour and character of the product will reflect the local stone. Since it is often used locally, lower transport costs can make it an inexpensive patio surface. Some popular products such as Breedon Gravel from Derbyshire are used nationwide.
Self binding gravel needs to be laid on a prepared sub-base and with an appropriate edging laid to keep it in the desired shape. It is spread over the surface while being hosed wet. This helps seal the clay particles around the top of the small gravel mix. A roller or vibrating plate is then used to level and compact the material. When dry and ‘set’ a surface is formed that is much less loose than conventional gravel.
It isn’t perfect but it is cheaper than resin-bound gravel, brick or stone and it can be dug out, raked and re-used if the finish deteriorates over a few years.
What Does Your Dream Patio Look Like?
Let Us Know in the Comments Below!