Category Archives: Guest Post

the completed Manor College outdoor classroom

Guest Blog: Designing an Outdoor Classroom

Outdoor learning isn’t a new new concept: outdoor classrooms may have become increasingly trendy in recent years, but California has an “environmental education” movement dating back to the 1960s, while Waldkindergärten (“forest kindergartens”) started cropping up in Europe as early as the 1950s.  With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, historians and journalists pointed out that open-air schools helped curtail the transmission of tuberculosis and other contagious diseases in the early 1900s, and may prove useful in the present crisis.

Last year, Manor College enlisted our help in creating a new outdoor classroom for the benefit of their students and faculty.  In this blog post, we’ll explore some of the design considerations that we encountered on this project.

Pop-Up or Permanent?

Some higher education institutions pivoted quickly to outdoor learning by employing temporary solutions – for example, UC Davis and the University of Virginia both utilized tents.  Other colleges, such as Saint Michael’s in Vermont, offer degree programs in environmental science, agriculture, and similar fields and have been fostering outdoor learning environments for years (Saint Michael’s established their Teaching Gardens in 2004).  How long you envision using your outdoor classroom will dictate the permanence of its components.  Our client had begun exploring outdoor learning spaces some years ago, including the addition of a gazebo in 2017, so our design and construction needed to stand up to long-term use.

Manor College's outdoor classroom gazebo
Manor College added this gazebo to the campus in 2017 but it was inefficient for its purpose. This is the site of the new outdoor classroom.

Purpose-Driven Features

Before jumping on the outdoor classroom bandwagon, carefully consider its intended purpose.  Will it be primarily used for small seminars, or need to accommodate larger groups?  Are you looking to construct something to host classes outside only when the forecast is cooperative, or do you need to factor weather-proofing elements (ex. overhead shelter) into the design?  Is this a space where lectures will be given, or does it need to be large enough to hold dance troupes, orchestras, or other performing arts ensembles?  Manor College opted for a simple “theatre in the round” approach, with a central circle surrounded by three tiers of seating, making it a multi-purpose space suitable for a number of uses.

close-up of hardscaped outdoor classroom at Manor College
The terraced seating was a natural fit with the gentle slope of the location.

Location, Location, Location

Choosing the right spot for your outdoor learning space is an important decision.  Tucking it into a quiet corner of the campus may seem ideal to reduce distraction, but putting it too out-of-the-way may deter faculty from holding classes there.  On the other hand, a location next to a high-traffic road, sports facility, or other bustling area may introduce too many distractions for effective learning.  Be sure to consider accessibility for all potential users of the space: a classroom that seamlessly facilitates wheelchairs, ASL translators, and other potential aids will make for a more welcoming experience.  When possible, it’s also nice to “go with the flow” of the surrounding landscape instead of against it.

The new outdoor classroom at Manor College is built into the side of a small hill; the terraced seating blends seamlessly into the surrounding slope.  Some attractive landscaping boulders and perennial shrubs provide a nice natural border for the space.  A smooth paved path connects the classroom to surrounding walkways, helping ensure its accessibility by all faculty and student body members.

hardscaped outdoor classroom, with Manor College banner in foreground
Planting progress: some attractive shrubs provide a lovely border to the new classroom.

Parting Thoughts

With so much of modern life bound to technology and various screens, it feels important as ever to maintain some connection to the natural world surrounding us.  Countless studies and newspaper articles demonstrate that outdoor education provides a variety of benefits, including more engaged students, higher academic achievement, and fewer absences.  While the sky’s the limit regarding the types of outdoor furniture and equipment you can include in such a space, our Manor College project shows that a relatively straightforward but thoughtfully designed structure can be highly effective.  If you have additional questions before getting started on your own outdoor classroom, don’t hesitate to contact Woodward Landscape Supply or us – we’re here to help! 

Author Info

For over 40 years, Souder Brothers Construction has provided a full range of services for commercial and high-end residential construction projects. Based in Horsham, PA we serve customers throughout southeastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey. Visit our project galleries for examples of our work!

How to Create Your Own Outdoor She-Shed

pink she shed

Photo Credit: Scott Lewis via Flickr under License

Do you dream of your own private space outside your home?  Whether you need a practical space to work or a relaxing place to wind down, a she-shed is the perfect outdoor escape. She sheds are a growing trend amongst women who want a space to call their own.

Don’t know where to begin? As long as you have a usable structure to work with, creating a she-shed isn’t difficult. With a clear purpose in mind and some inspired decor, you can make it as luxurious as you’d like. Follow these simple steps to create your very own outdoor she-shed:

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outdoor kitchen on patio

Pro Tips: 5 Ideas to Create an Amazing Outdoor Kitchen

If you’re trying to figure out what to do with your backyard and that lovely patio, why not consider building an outdoor kitchen? It’s a perfect blend of aesthetics and pure outdoor functionality, and it might just help you create a fun outdoor wonderland your family and friends can enjoy. While this might seem like a cumbersome project at first glance, there’s nothing you won’t be able to achieve with a bit of planning and careful preparation.

From deciding on the perfect layout, through meticulous landscaping, all the way to choosing the right appliances and accents, there are plenty of wonderful way you can make your outdoor space and patio come to life. Here are the five decorating ideas that will help you create the outdoor kitchen of your dreams.

outdoor kitchen and dining area

Plan your layout carefully

It all starts with the layout. The way you plan and organize the floorplan for your outdoor kitchen will mean the difference between seamless maneuverability and unimpeded functionality, and an outdoor space where nobody really wants to hang out and socialize. Remember, it’s not just about buying a grilling station, it’s also about meticulously planning the floorspace to create an inviting setting.

To that end, start from the back door and analyze every area of your patio and backyard. Decide where you want the cooking area to be, the dining area, and the lounge area. Keep in mind that the cooking area will take up a lot of space, so be sure to move either the lounge or the dining area off the patio and into the backyard. This will allow you to enrich the setting with beautiful natural elements as well.

outdoor dining table

Create a welcoming setting with natural elements

Landscaping might not seem like a primary concern when it comes to designing an outdoor kitchen, but in reality, it has the power and potential to make or break the ambiance – so there is a real need to prioritize landscaping in your initial design. Simply put, it’s one of those inspirational features that will help you create a better setting for cozy outdoor living.

Consider adding lush greenery to the patio and be sure to raise a vertical flower garden on the fence in order to create that highly sought-after oasis vibe. Add decorative gravel or stepping stones that lead from the patio to the central area in the backyard, and don’t forget to add lighting features that will bring a warm, intimate outdoor setting to life.

outdoor dining area surrounded with string lights

Illuminate the setting just right

Before we get into the standards of outdoor kitchen appliances and furniture, let’s take a moment to address the importance of proper patio and backyard lighting. When it comes to outdoor kitchen design, there is a need to mix task and accent lighting interspersed with warm natural lights to create the perfect ambiance that will invite people to socialize and have fun, but also allow you to cook efficiently.

Aside from contour LED strips on the counters, walkway lights and lanterns, you will need to bring natural light sources, so be sure to keep a scented candle supply at hand to set the mood for every occasion, and introduce a fire pit in the center of the yard as well. While the candles are casting a soft glow on the dining table and the lounge area, the fire pit will create a striking focal point that will draw people around it.

outdoor dining area on sunny patio

Choose furniture and imbue with unparalleled comfort

Now that you have all of the aforementioned elements in place, let’s take a look at the furniture selection and how to choose the best pieces for your outdoor kitchen. For example, the furniture you choose to put around the fire pit needs to be durable and flexible enough to withstand the changes in temperature but also the rest of the outdoor elements.

After all, you want to prolong the lifespan of your outdoor features as much as possible. Be sure to research the best materials for outdoor sofas and armchairs, and don’t forget to add bar stools to the cooking area in order to create another interesting focal point.

outdoor kitchen appliances

Introduce the most important appliances

And finally, choose your appliances carefully. Not all appliances were made to withstand the elements, and some might break down quickly during sudden changes in environmental temperatures. With that in mind, be sure to choose only the appliances that are purposefully made for the outdoor setting.

Some of the essential appliances you’ll need include a grill station complete with a built-in freezer, an outdoor fridge, a sink, a food-prep area, and ice maker, a wine cooler, and plenty of storage space for all utensils, dishes, pots, and pans. Of course, you can also install a kegerator if you and your friends are partial to a cold glass of beer.

An outdoor kitchen is an amazing addition to any outdoor living space, but it’s important to know just how many details go into creating the perfect al fresco cooking and dining experience. With these tips in mind, you will have the know-how to design and create an outdoor kitchen your family and friends will simply adore.

How Much Should My Paver Patio Cost? – Guest Post

Paver Patio - Hardscaping Materials and Supply CompanyThe home remodeling or improvement project that adds the most value to your home, behind only kitchen and bathroom renovations, is creating an inviting and functional hardscaped outdoor living space. If you have done work on your home recently, or if you are budgeting for an upcoming project, chances are you’ve searched the web for average project costs. Quite a few websites offer price ranges, most of which are loosely based on formulas, costs in your region, and average industry labor costs. Some even offer the dreaded “price per square foot” estimate that can leave you with more questions than answers.

When reviewing these websites, I found them to be severely lacking in both the information each provided, and the information each requested. They asked only for my zip code and the square footage (SF) of the patio. That’s it. Based solely on these two questions, I was given estimates ranging from $6 per SF to $15 per SF – not a helpful or informative range. No website asked me for my soil type and none seemed to care about the access to my property and to the project area (maybe they could just carry 50 tons of stone through my 3′ fence gate).

They didn’t specify, so I was left wondering if all paver types and styles cost the same. I also hope the fact that my yard drops 2 feet from one side of the house to the other side will not be a problem. In short, I was left with quite a few questions. Are there any special considerations because I am in a new home? What if I don’t want a square patio? Where will all of the runoff water go? What about adding steps, walls, stone pillars, or a fire feature? Do I need to worry about permits?

The bottom line is that dozens of questions need to be considered when budgeting and planning for your paver patio project. Only a qualified hardscape contractor is equipped to look at all the factors that affect price, functionality, and the feasibility of your dream outdoor oasis. An experienced, accredited contractor builds 50 or more projects like yours annually. He or she will determine what makes your project unique. And what makes your project unique will influence the price – never accept a generic estimate that is drawn up on a “price per square foot” basis. You want a unique project, so demand a unique design and a detailed price. Continue reading

The Uses of Mulch – Guest Post

What is a mulch?

Mulch is a landscaping material that is spread or laid over the surface of the soil to cover it. Its main purpose is to keep the moisture in the soil, prevent the weeds from growing and keep the soil cool; plus an added bonus to keep the garden look pretty. Organic mulches, because they decompose, helps in keeping the soil fertile and saves you from buying fertilizers that can be very expensive.

Type of Mulch

There are two types of mulches:

  • Organic
  • Synthetic

Bulk Hardwood Mulch - Hardscaping Supply

Examples of organic mulches are compost, newspaper, composted manure, chipped or shredded bark, shredded leaves and grass clippings, or straw.

Organic mulches decompose through time and needs to be replaced when it does. This type of mulch will help in improving the soil by adding to its organic content. Keep in mind that the drier and the woodier the mulch, the longer decomposition time and the nutrients it provides the soil will be lesser.

Examples of synthetic mulch are landscape fabrics, stones, gravels, and black plastic. They are good for holding moisture in and blocking weeds. The only drawback with inorganic mulches is that they do not provide any nutrients to the soil plus, they don’t require any replacement any time soon. Continue reading