Backyard Oasis

This is a great time of year to start thinking about and planning how to make your backyard more accessible and enjoyable

By Wayne W. Broadfield III, AIA, Rachel Krishnan, AIA, & Mark R. Thompson, AIA


It may be cold and snowy in many parts of the country, but it’s a great time to start planning backyard improvement projects to take advantage of the coming spring weather.

Whether you want to add or improve an accessible porch, patio, deck, shade structure, cooking or dining space or landscaping or gardening area, an early-season start will extend the opportunity to enjoy your enhanced backyard throughout the year.

Trellises and canopies are effective shading solutions that can help moderate your body temperature when you’re outside. © getty images/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

Extend Your Living Spaces

Being outdoors is enjoyable, especially after a long winter. But more importantly, it’s good for your mind and body.

Daylight and fresh air can boost your energy, reduce stress and pain, encourage exercise, enhance creativity and mitigate the impact of seasonal affective disorder (aka the winter blues).

Outdoor features can also make your home feel larger by giving you additional options for entertaining, cooking, dining, exercising and relaxing. Accessible indoor-outdoor entertaining spaces, or outdoor rooms, provide you, your family and friends the pleasures of open-air dining, conversation and play, while retaining quick access to adjacent indoor areas.

Think of outdoor areas as you would indoor spaces, defined by floors, walls and ceilings and linked by hallways or, in this case, pathways.

Floors: Patios & Decks

Minimizing the level change between the interior and exterior improves accessibility to your backyard features.

All doors that lead to the exterior must be wide enough to allow for safe and comfortable passage. If your doorway leads to a ground-level patio, ensure that the exterior area in front of the door gently slopes away from the doorway to prevent any water from entering your home.

Patios are typically made of hard, slip-resistant materials such as concrete, stone or brick pavers. During installation, make certain the joints between pavers are narrow and shallow so they don’t catch the wheels of your wheelchair.

If your doorway opens to a deck elevated above the ground, a guardrail may be required to prevent falls, and a ramp is necessary to access the ground level. Decks are typically made from durable, pressure-treated lumber that resists weathering over time. Providing narrow gaps between the deck boards will allow water drainage but still maintain a smooth floor surface.


Walls often define an outdoor space, but their purpose and choice of materials vary widely. Unlike walls inside your home, outdoor walls should be made of durable, water-resistant materials such as pressure-treated lumber, stone, brick, concrete or stucco.

Your location will impact the design of your outdoor space. In colder climates, walls are often used to block harsh winds. In warmer climates, walls can capture prevailing breezes to passively cool your outdoor space.

Your exterior space may be defined simply by “walls” of landscaped borders, bushes or hedges. Plantings used to define a space can be a combination of annuals, perennials and evergreens, giving visual interest with seasonal color and texture. Planting walls can also be edible — an added bonus!


Shade is essential for moderating your body temperature and permitting outdoor activity even on hot, sunny days.

While constructing a shade structure might seem like an overwhelming project, there are several relatively simple ways this can be achieved. Existing trees, landscaping, an umbrella or structured elements, such as a trellis or canopy, can provide shade. Locating shading elements depends on the orientation of your home and existing backyard features.

Among your first considerations is whether an overhead structure is attached to your home or is free-standing. A canopy is often attached to your house, requiring additional cost and engineering, and is built with solid materials that would block not just sunlight but also weather.

A trellis is a free-standing structure comprising an open-framed beam and joist system, providing partial shade and sunlight that filters to the ground.


Outdoor pathways act as corridors between different passive or active areas.

Accessible pathways must have a manageable slope and be wide enough for your wheelchair. They should include some wider areas for turning around and be built of stable, firm and slip-resistant materials, such as crushed stone, concrete, stone or brick pavers.

Providing pathway, landscape and wall or ceiling lighting will highlight the variety of your outdoor features, improve safety and extend the hours of use. © getty images/doug bennett

Similar to patios, make certain the joints between any pavers are narrow and shallow so they don’t catch the wheels of your chair.

Entertaining Areas

An accessible outdoor entertaining space will provide you with the pleasures of open-air dining and significantly increase the amount of time you spend outdoors.

Cooking is one of the most popular outdoor activities and today there are many options, including grills, smokers and fire pits. No matter what type of cooking apparatus you use, make sure that you provide enough clear floor space to safely maneuver and for others to congregate.

Because of the extreme heat of this activity and size and shape of the equipment, a wheelchair side-approach is often the only way to safely cook and access controls. You may need an assistive device to safely close and open a grill or smoker cover. If you are cooking over an open fire pit, make sure the pit height and width allow you to reach the entire cooking surface.


Gardening is a creative and stimulating activity that can relieve stress, enrich physical and mental health, add color and fragrance to the backyard and provide healthy food.

Elevating a planting container for improved access and better visibility can be accomplished by various vertical or raised gardening techniques. Wall- or rail-mounted pots and planters, pots on pedestals, stepped planters, hanging baskets and vertical trellises all allow you to get your fingers dirty. Make certain the size and location of these types of planting containers are within your reach.

The traditional raised bed — an enclosure of short retaining walls filled with planting soil — necessitates a wheelchair side-approach. Wall materials vary from wooden frames and recycled plastic composite timbers to stacked stone and masonry. Allow for water drainage and proper soil nutrients.

A front-approach raised bed provides more accessibility under the planting box and should be designed based on your wheelchair specifications. © getty images/ozgurcoskun

A raised bed can also allow a front approach with access beneath the planting box. An elevated box is designed around the vertical clear space needed for your individual wheelchair. This type of raised bed will limit soil depth, so select plants that will thrive in a shallow depth. Most root growth in vegetable gardens occurs in the top 6 inches of soil, allowing for a diverse variety of plants even in a shallow bed.

For this type of raised bed, avoid deep-rooted vegetables like asparagus and rhubarb, top-heavy plants such as okra and corn, and creeping vines that will quickly outgrow their box, like pumpkins and sweet potatoes.

Attracting beneficial garden critters such as bees, hummingbirds and butterflies through use of specific plants, bird baths and feeders will add sensory delight in addition to pollinating your vegetable plants to yield more harvest.

Maintaining a garden requires water, so locate an accessible water source with a lightweight hose nearby, or install an irrigation system for the planting areas.

Fire & Water

Fire pits and fireplaces, in addition to adding physical warmth, can create a calming and cheerful ambiance and are natural gathering places.

Determine the proper fire box or pit height designed to meet your reaching ability. A fireplace with a protruding hearth may not allow enough reach into the fire box. Elevating a fire pit eliminates uncomfortable bending over at the waist if the pit were at ground level.

Consider gas-fired rather than wood-fired flames to ease setup and cleanup, but factor in propane storage or an in-ground gas line with accessible controls. When using wood, make sure you provide a nearby wood storage system that accommodates your reach range.

Water features range from a simple waterspout to a koi pond with waterfalls and lily pads. The sound of moving water has a serene effect and can provide white noise to mask unpleasant surrounding traffic, equipment or neighbors. Fountains can be free-standing or wall-mounted.

A small pump recirculates water from a basin that must be periodically drained, cleaned and filled. The pump will require an accessible waterproof electrical outlet in addition to an accessible water source. Determine fountain height and placement based on your reach range.

Elevated ponds, similar to raised garden beds, increase accessibility for setup and maintenance, as you can more comfortably reach farther into the pond’s interior.

Other Things To Consider

Pay special attention to features that provide shade, weather protection, heating or cooling to extend the outdoor season.

Extend the use of your outdoor space into the evening with light fixtures highlighting landscaping, walls, paths or other features. Place light fixtures in reachable locations in order to easily change lamps, and locate switches inside and outside the door to your home.

Develop a maintenance plan during design to ensure a new project doesn’t overwhelm your annual budget or ability to keep things looking fresh.

Consider engaging a local residential or landscape architect with accessible design expertise to determine the most effective features for your home and the dimensional qualities for your needs. Outdoor spaces can be expensive to remodel, therefore, thoughtful planning will align the design with your specific wishes.

For more information on this or any architecture issue concerning accessibility, contact the Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA) Architecture Department at 202-416-7645 or

Wayne W. Broadfield III, AIA is an associate director of architecture for PVA’s Architecture Department. Rachel Krishnan, AIA is a project manager for PVA Architecture. Mark R. Thompson, AIA, is the senior associate director of architecture for PVA Architecture.

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