Follow this sequence to develop your plans: Start with rough sketches that show the basic contours of the structure; move on to scaled drawings; then create final drawings that illustrate the details of any specialized construction procedures.Satisfying the inspector
Most building departments do not require architect-quality plans, but do want to see how all the pieces of a structure fit together. Inspectors don't like to squint over unclear drawings, and they may want to see a complete list of materials you plan to use.
Produce at least one plan view of a patio or walkway (how the structure looks from overhead) and one cross section that will show footings, excavation depths, how you intend to build the base, and any reinforcing elements like rebar or wire mesh. For a wall, you'll need "elevations" (drawings that show how it looks from the front and side).Plans save time and money
With a complete set of drawings in hand, you can more easily estimate materials. Detailed drawings can also help you spot ways to save money on materials. For example, if the patio requires forms that are 12 feet 2 inches long, you will need to buy 14-foot boards -- that means wasting nearly 2 feet of each piece. By shortening the deck a few inches, you can buy less expensive 12-foot boards.
Drawing plans enables you to solve problems before you start building -- wasted pencil lead is less costly than wasted materials and time. The more detailed your drawings, the more likely you are to catch design flaws that would otherwise slow construction of the project. And if you have some or all of the work completed by a contractor, plans are invaluable.Making a landscape plan
Putting plans on paper requires discipline. The task will proceed smoothly if you approach it one step at a time.
A patio, wall, or path plan starts with a base map, which is simply a scaled drawing of your property. You can zip through this step by locating your plat map -- it's probably among the papers you received when you bought your house. You may also find a plat map at your county clerk's office. Once you have the map, have a copy shop enlarge it to 24x36 inches. If you can't find a plat map, make one yourself. With a 100-foot steel tape measure, a sketch pad, and someone to help you, measure your property and make a scale drawing of its important features. Here's what a base map should include.
- Dimensions of your property and location of property lines.
- Outline and dimensions of the house and its position relative to property lines.
- Exact locations of exterior electrical outlets, dryer vents, and water supply -- anything that protrudes from the side of the house where you plan to locate the patio.
- Locations and dimensions of all exterior windows and doors, including the distance from the ground and which rooms they represent. Show them all, not just those on the deck side; you may change your mind about the patio location.
- Positions and dimensions of any outbuildings, such as garages and storage sheds, and other major landscape features, including large trees, playground equipment, and planting beds.
- Dimensions of roof overhangs and locations of downspouts.
- Locations and dimensions of existing walls, fences, stairs, walks, and driveways. This map will show everything you need to know when you plan your patio.
Once you have a record of your property's existing elements, note what's right and what's wrong with it. Tape a piece of tracing paper over your site plan and trace the major elements. Gather up the notes and the sketches you made when you conducted an inventory of your site and transfer the findings to the tracing paper. (Leave your site plan unmarked -- you might need it later.) A site analysis is a bird's-eye view of conditions in your yard, both the things you like and those you would like to change. Note the prevailing winds; you don't want your patio situated in a wind tunnel, so you may need to move it or build windbreaks.
Draw arrows to indicate predominant drainage patterns so you can avoid putting your patio or wall on swampy soil. If the best location is in a runoff area, you may have to build a drainage system to divert the water. Indicate where the shade falls and where the sun is strongest during the part of the day you plan to use your patio most. Make note of neighbors' views and plan for privacy. Also note the things you want to shield from your view. You don't need to indicate solutions for each of these situations yet; that's a step you will take later. Remember to include the elements you consider assets -- pleasant views, the direction of cooling breezes, or natural areas that you could link to your patio via pathways.Making a bubble plan
A bubble plan is simply a base map with circles containing notes on it. The bubble plan will probably be the most useful planning tool you'll use. Bubble diagrams encourage you to try different ideas. They are designed to let your imagination run free so you can look at different situations to come up with the best landscape plan. The site analysis you prepared is a snapshot of your landscape as it exists; the bubble plan helps you imagine how things could be. To draw a bubble plan, tape a sheet of tracing paper over your site analysis and retrace the house and major features of the landscape. You should be able to read your site analysis notes through the top sheet, but if you can't, lay the site analysis to the side and use it as a guide. Now look at the various areas in the yard and brainstorm how you could use them. Draw circles on the paper, identifying the purpose of each area -- disregard budget limitations or time constraints for now. When you make a bubble diagram, think about the purpose or function of an area first. Consider the kind of structure you need later. If you decide you're ready to finalize your design after you've drawn your first bubble plan, take a second look. There's a good chance you've forgotten something.
Use abstract terms at this stage. For example, label an area close to the house as "entertainment," if you wish, but don't identify it specifically as "patio." You may discover other areas with the same purpose and find in later planning stages that a patio doesn't belong there at all. Similarly, "privacy" or "increase privacy" would be better labels than "fence," "wall," or "trees." Indicate various needs in a general way and move them around to make the best use of your landscape. If you want a place for entertaining large groups and a smaller space for family dining, move the bubbles around to see where they might fit. One solution might be to place them on different sides of the house. They might work with one area attached to the other. Or you might see a way to have one area completely removed from the house and the two connected by a path. Maybe you wouldn't connect them at all. With the bubble plan, you can test all the options.The final touches
Once you have found the best solution for your property, sketch in the structures that meet the purposes you have defined. Get as close to scale in this version as you can. It will be the launching pad for the plan views and elevations you'll take to your building department for approval. Put in the main structures first -- the patio, steps, walls, and paths -- and modify them if necessary. For example, if a rectangular patio doesn't look quite right or if a large oak interferes with one of its corners, don't reduce the size of the patio. Round the corner or cut it at 45 degrees. If the walk from the patio to the garden bed strikes you as straight and boring, put curves in the path. Trees and plants come next. Add planting areas with contoured bed lines, and use circles to designate new trees and shrubs. Then label the rooms in your house and make one last check to see that the uses of exterior space are compatible with the space inside. Finally make notes of the tasks you need to accomplish: "remove this tree," "build fence here," "replant this garden," and so forth.Computerized landscaping
Some home centers and lumberyards will help you lay out your patio, wall, or overhead structures and draw plans using computer software. Bring in a rough drawing with dimensions (height, width, and length) and ask for help. If you're computer savvy yourself, browse the Internet for similar planning software you can use. Most programs produce several drawings -- a plan view, an elevation, and a perspective view. Many also will produce a bill of materials you can take shopping. Some programs have limitations, displaying only a few material styles and lacking the capacity to plan unusual or odd-shape designs. Structural requirements that differ from typical building codes may not be covered. Most professional contractors draw their plans by hand. It's quicker and more flexible.Revive an old patio
If you have a patio that needs renovation, use the planning steps to turn it into an enjoyable, usable space. Start by noting faults and assets, just as if you were planning a new patio. If the area is too large, subdivide it into smaller, more intimate spaces with planters, container gardens, or movable seating. Perhaps you could add an outdoor kitchen, fire pit, or water feature. Maybe all your patio really needs is a new dining space and a spot to set up a portable or built-in grill. If the patio is too small to entertain guests, build an extension. If you don't have space close to the existing structure, build a detached patio farther out in the yard and connect the two with a boardwalk or path. To make an old concrete patio more attractive, consider mortaring brick or stone paving to its surface.Pro Tip:
Dealing with inspectors
Building inspectors have an important job: They assure that structures built in their jurisdictions are strong and safe. To accomplish this goal, they have the authority to stop construction on any job they believe is being built incorrectly.
Work with an inspector in a respectful, businesslike manner. Present clean and complete drawings and materials lists. Find out how many inspections you will need to check your project and be ready for each. Do not cover up anything an inspector wants to look at, or you may have to dismantle your work. It's seldom a good idea to argue with an inspector. Inspectors know more than you do, and getting on the bad side of an inspector can make a job miserable. Comply exactly with all of the inspector's directions.Refresher Course
A quick look at patio planning
Putting your plans on paper is the final step of the planning sequence. This allows you to sort out the considerations involved in locating and designing a patio that fits your site, reflects your personality, and will provide you with enjoyable space for years to come. Here's a quick glance at the things you should keep in mind when committing your design to paper.
Planning for purpose
List all the activities you foresee for your patio: lounging, barbecuing, entertaining, soaking in a spa, container gardening, and more. In your design try to accommodate as many of these activities as possible.
Size and shape
Unless you expect to entertain large groups, there's little need for a huge patio. Just make sure you have ample space for all the activity areas you need. A rectangular patio provides the most available space, and a simple shape is often the most attractive design. But don't be afraid to add angles. An octagonal patio holds a round table nicely. Simple 45-degree angles add visual interest, often without sacrificing much space. Consider dividing the patio into two or more sections: one area for lounging and another for dining and cooking. Orient one section at a different angle, or use planters or steps to create a transition between the two areas. A patio doesn't have to be right next to the house. A peninsula or an island patio offers a pleasant retreat from daily life.
Situations for comfort
As you plan your patio, note the sun and wind patterns in your yard. Situate the dining area in evening shade. Provide a lounging area with part shade and part sun. Put in plantings or a fence to minimize wind gusts.
Don't neglect the add-ons that make a patio more than just an outdoor floor. Consider an overhead structure or trellis to provide shade as well as a trellis for climbing plants. And you can add a high railing with lattice panels to increase privacy and screen undesirable views. Built-in planters and benches are great for unifying different areas of a patio. You can use large flowerpots and attractive furniture, which can be moved to suit the occasion, the same way. If so, allow space for them in your plan. Plan for lighting as well. Low-voltage lights are inexpensive, easy to install, and can be mounted around the patio. You may also need additional line-voltage lighting and an electrical receptacle or two. For comfortable breezes on a still evening, think about installing a ceiling fan for a covered patio. Consult an electrician about extending wiring from the house or adding a new circuit for electrical features.