Outdoor structures to take your garden to the next level

It’s hard to imagine that only a generation or two ago the typical Australian backyard featured not much more than a lemon tree, a vast expanse of grass and a Hills Hoist in the centre – usually at the end a concrete path coming directly from the laundry. It was unlikely to be accessible directly from the home’s living areas, but was handy for backyard cricket matches.

Oh, how times have changed. Our backyards are now an integral part of the family home and as well as containing swimming pools and landscaping, they are often rooms in their own right with outdoor kitchens and living rooms becoming ever more popular as homeowners look to get the most out of their space and Australia’s generally cooperative weather.

As we increasingly use our gardens for activities beyond backyard cricket, the garden’s built environment is also changing with everything from lightweight pergolas and Bali huts to custom-built pool houses and granny flats or studios making an appearance. Each of these structures serves a different purpose – from providing shade while lounging by the pool, to a fully equipped kitchen for outdoor entertaining to a teenager’s retreat than can also provide potential investment income.

“Clients are either moving towards a clean modern design that connects directly to the rear of the home such as a pergola to gain the immediate indoor/outdoor connection, or a more traditional structure within the garden,” says landscape architect Steve Warner of Sydney’s Outhouse Design. “Using a structure such as a gazebo or summer house located away from the home gives the garden a sense of interest, also creating a reason to venture into the garden and explore. We are finding clients want to connect with gardens and natural materials such as timber and stone or at least shapes and patterns that are more organic.”

Steve Magliano of Melbourne-based Acorn Garden Houses agrees, “In the past 5 years there’s been a massive push for outdoor spaces, from pergolas to pool houses. Most of the things we do, even the pergolas, now include kitchens. [A recently built pergola] had a big stone fireplace and kitchen with the barbecue and fridge under a glass roof section.”

“Depending on the client’s budget and the style they’re looking will determine whether it goes to an architectural draftsman or an architect,” says Magliano. “We come up with the designs in-house and then the drawings are put into practice. We also run retail stores that sell homewares so some clients just want the shell, while others want everything from the build through to the furniture and the artwork.”

Outhouse does a lot of their work on smaller blocks in inner Sydney, “We have designed a number of gardens recently that are in construction phase that incorporate shelter as well are art/creative materials,” says Warner. “The standard external box that has the TV and BBQ is still being looked at , but we are finding our clients want something different and away from the mass kit home look that has been on trend for the last 10 years. Clients want more connection to the garden and a space that connects with the personality of the family.”


“You can’t beat  a well-designed pergola structure with a flowering scented climber or an ornamental grape,” says Warner. “Every client is different and that’s makes life interesting.” Timber pergolas are usually open-sided and open-roofed, providing a framework for climbing plants rather than protection from the weather. Depending on what plantings you choose, you may enjoy dappled shade under your pergola in summer when the plants are in full bloom. A pergola structure can be a lovely way to frame a view as they are visually quite lightweight and create a sense of enclosure, rather than actual cover. If you do want weather protection from your pergola, you can have automatic or manually operated louvres installed or a retractable shadecloth system. Pergolas attached to the main house are still the most popular structure says Brian Rohan of Outside Concepts, a company that specialises in garden structures, with builders throughout Australia. “The biggest change in the past few years has been that rather than just exposed beams, we now install ceilings in outdoor areas that include downlights and ceiling fans. And people often choose to enclose their pergola or patio with either mesh blinds, that allow airflow but keep the weather out, or sliding glass doors.” Once council approval has been obtained, says Rohan, “building a gazebo or pergola can be built in a week to 10 days.”


A gazebo is generally a roofed, open-sided structure set on a timber platform. They often have balustrades and can be quite traditional in style, making them perfect for an older-style home. Multi-sided gazebos (six, eight or 12-sided) can not only provide an outdoor area, but are also a cunning way to disguise a backyard water tank. Depending on the size of your gazebo, they make an elegant outdoor living or dining area, or a smaller gazebo can provide a quiet, shaded spot from which to enjoy your garden. When considering the style of your gazebo, a good starting point is to select one that has the same roofing as the main house, giving a pleasing sense of visual uniformity and cohesion. Gazebos are often manufactured in a factory to your specifications and then delivered to your home where you can either build it yourself or have it installed by a professional. If you choose to go with a professional installer, expect to pay around 30 per cent of the cost of the structure.

Bali huts

Many of us have come home from a tropical holiday thinking, “we really must spend more time in the backyard,” and Bali huts are the perfect way to get that holiday feeling every day. With their tropical styling and distinctive thatched roof, open-sided Bali huts make excellent pool-side shelters, providing shade as well as being waterproof. A Bali hut is also an excellent jacuzzi shelter – be sure to get one that’s not only large enough to cover your jacuzzi but also provide cover around it as well. To get the most style out of a Bali hut, stick with the tropical theme when you’re selecting furniture, accessories and plants.

Pool houses

A pool house or cabana can be as small as a covered area with an outdoor shower to a large, permanent structure that includes an indoor bathroom, lounge room and kitchenette and may also serve as guest quarters or a teenager’s retreat. When building any sort of garden structure, especially if it’s a larger one, it’s important to consider landscaping as well. “If you’re investing this sort of money into a structure and your landscaping is not up to par, it can look like you’ve just dumped something in the backyard,” says Mogliani. “We work with two landscape architects to make sure the structure is integrated into the landscaping.”  Considering every aspect of the structure will also ensure that you’re adding value to your property. “You’re potentially adding a bedroom to your place,” says Mogliani. “My children are 22, 20 and 17 and our pool house gets used summer and winter. If it’s not friends sleeping over, they’re sitting around the pool using it,  and we use it a lot for entertaining. So long as it’s integrated correctly you’ll be adding value.”

Granny flats

Granny flats have seen a huge increase in popularity recently – as teenger’s retreats, guest accommodation, a place for adult children to live or as a place for parents to stay. In fact, there’s been a three-fold increase in the number of granny flats being built in the past five years. At least part of that increase can be attributed to legislative changes in NSW in 2009 that made it much easier to get approval for granny flat construction – if your development plans fulfil certain criteria, it will be approved in just 10 days.

Laws surrounding granny flats vary from state to state in terms of both building approvals and usage. In NSW, WA, NT, ACT and Tasmania you are allowed to rent out a granny flat on a commercial basis. In Victoria however, only a dependant family member (a teenager or disabled relative) can live in a granny flat and, once they’ve moved out, the structure must be removed. Similar restrictions exist in SA and Queensland – except for the Ipswich local council area which recently relaxed the rules to allow people to rent out a granny flat.

Do I need a DA for that?

Navigating the council approvals process can be difficult and varies not only from state to state but also from council to council and, in some cases, from street to street. Phew! As a rule of thumb, the more significant the structure, the more likely you are to require approval. A freestanding structure less than 10 m2, that’s not close to a boundary will probably not need planning permission. A pergola, patio or deck that’s attached to an existing house will need permission.Granny flats will definitely require approval. In NSW, if your proposed granny flat is 60 sqm or less and your block is 450sqm or more, you should be able to get fast-tracked approval in 10 days. Granny flats can’t be on a separate ownership or title and cannot be sold independently of the main dwelling.

Talk to us or your designer about what approvals might be necessary.

Are you dreaming of a fabulous garden structure at your place?
What type would you like?
Did you really, really want an outdoor shower after your holiday in Bali?

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