Fire Pits & Braziers: British Outdoor Living
The design of houses in Britain has evolved immensely over the past century, particularly when it comes to how you get in and out of them
The principle of the front door hasn’t really changed. It’s simply the threshold between the outside world and private spaces inside, a buffer, somewhere to meet and greet and hang coats. Looking at the evolution of house floor plans where the back door is involved tells a completely different story. We start to see that it was functional and sanitary needs that defined the use of the back door.
In most town houses there was no back garden, just a yard (which is defined as ‘a piece of uncultivated land adjoining a building’). The yard would normally give access to a toilet and scullery or kitchen and was not meant to be seen. A place to wash and hang clothes, a place for work, like a farm yard. Doors and windows would be purely functional and offer protection from the outdoors.
Countless houses were built across Britain like this and were considered to be providing the ultimate in technology and sanitation. Further along the evolution, when it was acceptable for the WC to be accessed directly from inside the house it was on an outside wall, at the rear and often accessed through the kitchen. There did not seem to be any desire to have private outside space that could simply be enjoyed.
So what has changed? Well, whatever it was it took a long time.
The types of houses I’ve described were generally built in large numbers and designed to meet the expectations of equally large numbers of potential buyers. This will inevitably be conservative as innovations in house design might mean that the houses are difficult to sell. Houses continue to be built in Britain en masse in this way and the same risk aversion prevails. As recently as ten years ago the idea of open plan living was considered a risk by house builders. Compartmentation was what the public expected, and was something not to be messed with.
Having spent years designing houses in Australia I found this idea astounding. Although, thanks to British colonial heritage Aussies still have ‘back yards’, but they are gardens and you can see them, get to them and there are living spaces that lead directly on to them thereby expressing a desire to live outdoors. In Britain however, attitudes are different but the changes over just the past couple of decades have been dramatic.
I have witnessed this evolution directly and it’s the house builders floor plans than tell it all. From having a separate kitchen, dining and living room, the first step was to have a larger, longer kitchen with a dining table, and even, if you were lucky, double doors connecting to a living room just in case you were brave enough to join all of the spaces together.
Today it’s all open plan living areas and large doors and windows with views and access to the garden, no matter how small. The back loo has been allowed inside the house and kitchens are now seen as a somewhere to gather rather than just a functional place to cook. The relationship between indoors and outdoors has changed from one of protection to connection. Not unexpectedly, sometimes a third door appears for kids, dogs and muddy boots, usually to the side and definitely not be seen.
Bespoke, architect designed houses have pushed this ideal as far back as the early 1900’s, but it has taken this long for what we now expect as normal to become so.
The UK climate is certainly not making it easy to do this, but this isn’t stopping anyone. The two obvious things that need consideration are shelter and warmth, the two basic human needs that houses were meant to provide in the first place. Let’s face it, if it’s bucketing down or blowing a gale then it’s time to go inside (or into the hot tub) but this is rarer than people like to think. I love the UK climate, the dramatic seasonal changes, endless summer evenings and the spectacle of autumn. Outdoor comfort is nothing more than designing with prevailing wind and the path of the sun in mind.
There is one thing amongst all this that will ensure you make the most of any outdoor living space: a fire that you can cook on and then socialise around with friends and family in comfort. Lugging chairs inside and out is not ideal, so make sure the design allows for seating around the fire with just cushions for added comfort. Braziers, or fire bowls are the best, as you can get to all sides. We have a fire bowl with a stainless steel lid, so it can also be used as a low table and stays dry inside when not in use.
I have many fond memories of winter nights when it has been around zero with clear skies and not a breath of wind. The fire burned hot and clean, and any smoke just plumed vertically. While others were tucked away indoors, we were outside, warm and alive, enjoying that transcendental state induced when staring into a fire.