Outdoor Flooring Trends - Apr 2016

By Calista Sprague

The average backyard once consisted of open grassy expanses with a simple deck or patio. Enter HGTV, DIY Network and social media, where every day, homeowners’ yards transform from basic green spaces into highly designed multifunctional living, dining and recreation areas. Natural stone, concrete pavers and wood decking currently corner the outdoor flooring market, but manufacturers of porcelain tile and area rugs are shifting focus to this flourishing segment, and designers are taking notice.

Homeowners looking to upgrade their outdoor experience, whether in a backyard, on a rooftop terrace or on a balcony, tend to incorporate similar types of spaces. Although the projects vary in size and scope, almost all include areas for dining, food preparation, gathering and recreation. “People have decided that it’s a wonderful way to extend the size of their home,” says Vicki Payne, designer and host of the syndicated television show, For Your Home. “Rather than adding on, they use the outdoor space as sort of a bonus room that they’re investing money in.”

Alena Capra, of Alena Capra Designs in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has designed outdoor spaces mainly in the South and Southwest, where the outdoor season can last for two thirds of the year or more. “In Florida, the outdoor spaces we’re doing are mostly covered, lots of outdoor bars and kitchens,” she says.

In warmer climates, cooking and eating outside are commonplace. Some outdoor kitchens have become so elaborate as to include built-in grills, stove eyes, a refrigerator, a sink, large prep areas and serving counters, and a fully stocked bar. In the northern tier of the country, where the outdoor season is truncated, however, an outdoor kitchen may sport little more than a grill and small counter. 

Payne, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, says that even in the South some clients are starting to move away from such extravagant outdoor kitchens in consideration of both price and maintenance, opting to allocate the square footage for dining or seating space instead. Outdoor appliances can be expensive, and cleaning a large second kitchen is time consuming. “I find that my clients are paring down,” she explains. “They’re more interested in serving space and a grill than they are with all the bells and whistles.” 

Dining areas range from a petite bistro set on a balcony to a massive farmhouse table under a porch roof, replete with chandelier or ceiling fan. Seating spaces vary widely as well, from a couple of Adirondack chairs on a patio to multiple groupings of cushioned sofas, chairs and occasional tables dividing up a large terrace. 

Fire and water provide common recreation features. Fire pits, chimeneas and even full fireplaces can be found in many outdoor settings, usually flanked by a seating group. Hot tubs and pools are perennial backyard favorites, and for homes where space is at a premium, smaller plunge pools have become all the rage. 

Designers say that individual hobbies and interests may also be incorporated into outdoor design, such as gardening beds and even putting greens. “For one particular project in Palm Beach, we’re going to place a gym outside next to the pool,” says Winston Kong, a principal designer at Champalimaud, which specializes in high-end residential and hospitality projects. “It can be air conditioned but will have glass doors that open up to the pool deck. And we’re also creating viewing platforms, which are really like big gazebos.”

“Really popular right now are outdoor spaces that open up to the house with a smooth transition—whether it’s a family room or a kitchen right onto a patio,” Payne says. “Not everyone can afford these beautiful window walls, but they’re figuring out other ways to do it.” French doors opening onto a patio is one common choice, and the use of similar or the same flooring on both sides of the threshold helps eliminate the transition from indoors to out, making it feel more like an extension of the interior.

Currently, the best selling materials for hardscapes are natural stone and cement pavers, used for everything from patios and walkways to pool surrounds and outdoor kitchens. Wood decks are also extremely popular, and wood may be used for boardwalks and stairs as well. Porcelain tile is often specified to line pools, although it is used much less often for surrounds or patios. And on top of all these hard surfaces, area rugs are being used more often to soften and dress up outdoor living spaces.

Indoor-outdoor area rugs have been around for a long time, but recently, manufacturers have experienced increased sales. Momeni reports that the outdoor rug business has been one of its fastest growing categories over the past few years. Likewise, Jaipur’s sales have doubled year over year for a second year in a row, and the company is allocating additional resources to the segment. And Nourison reports that retailers have received increased demand from consumers, driving up its indoor-outdoor rug sales for the past two seasons as well. 

Due to the increased activity in the segment, many producers are responding with additional indoor-outdoor lines. Mohawk, for example, has plans to expand its outdoor lines this year and will introduce additional fibers to the polypropylene it already offers. Maples, which has not been a major player in the indoor-outdoor market, introduced an indoor-outdoor product called Permatuft at the Atlanta Rug Market this year. The rugs are constructed on a special tufting machine that creates a lock stitch resembling a flatweave. For Kaleen, indoor-outdoor represents 35% of its total rug business, and in July the company will introduce two PET indoor-outdoor broadlooms to coordinate with its rugs.

Outdoor rugs differ substantially from their purely indoor counterparts. They must perform at much higher levels to withstand extreme temperature changes, intense sunlight, extreme moisture, heavy traffic and heavy soiling. They tend not to be as soft as interior rugs, leaning more toward durability instead. Visually, however, they may be indistinguishable, although profiles tend to be lower for outdoor rugs to facilitate cleaning.

Traditionally, sisal and other natural fibers have been used outside, but they don’t hold up well in the weather. While adept at masking dirt and spills, they can grow mildew and mold when exposed to moisture for extended periods, and the fibers break down over time from temperature shifts and heavy traffic. 

In recent years, designers have turned more frequently to rugs made of synthetic fibers, especially polypropylene, for outdoor spaces. Kong uses both polypropylene rugs and natural coir mats. Payne prefers synthetics in general, while Capra specifies polypropylene rugs exclusively. Synthetics designed for outside use tend to be colorfast, mold resistant, antimicrobial and easy to clean, making them better options for the rigors of outdoors. 

Rugs designed for use outside are appropriately termed indoor-outdoor, however, because they are often used inside as well. In fact, manufacturers say that some or even most of the indoor-outdoor rugs end up on interior rather than exterior floors. The same performance attributes that make rugs suitable for the outdoors are attractive to homeowners for interiors. Especially helpful for families with children or pets, the rugs are durable, easy to clean, fade resistant for sunny rooms and resist mold and other contaminants in moist areas like kitchens and baths. Capra recommends outdoor rugs for spaces that lead outside, such as a family room that opens to a pool area or a dining room that leads to deck. “They look beautiful, and you don’t notice that they’re for indoor-outdoor.”

For the interior of a sales gallery at a multi-family project in Miami, Kong installed a sisal rug, but the gallery is subject to a lot of traffic from the comings and goings of staff and visitors, allowing in enough humidity to absorb into the natural fibers. “The client complained that it smelled like a wet dog,” he remembers. “So we found a rug that imitated a sisal but was actually manmade, so it wouldn’t collect the humidity.” 

Even though synthetic rugs perform well outside, they won’t last for years on end. “A lot of them will say UV safe, but we all know, just like in fabrics or anything else, they’re only rated for so many hours,” explains Payne. “So I always say, invest in a rug for a couple of seasons and then you’re not disappointed.” For this reason, some designers are less likely to order custom rugs for outdoor spaces, although they routinely order custom for interiors.

Synthetic fibers have also opened the door to a greater variety of colors and styles for outdoor areas, adding to the feeling of authentic living spaces. Capra regularly specifies outdoor area rugs to inject color. “Most of the flooring is pretty plain, but the rugs give you the option to add pops of color. That’s why I love them. People may not want to commit to their pool tile being colorful, but they can add in color for their outdoor furnishings with the rug and the pillows and the upholstery.” 

Outdoor rugs can be found in practically any color combination, but Capra says that blues are particularly popular, “from cobalt to aquas to light blues.” She says that blues are a natural choice, especially in homes with pools. “We’re always picking up on shades of blue, which are trending a lot in tile, too, so it all comes together.” In addition to blues, the combination of black and white is a popular classic, as are neutrals.

Along with color, rugs can also bring pattern to outdoor living areas. Patterns range from classic awning stripes to oriental motifs to modern abstracts. Payne says that people tend to stick to solids for outdoor seating pieces and rely on rugs and other accessories for pattern. “Most of us are a little bit leery, when we’re spending a lot of money on outdoor furniture, which can be just as pricy as indoor furniture. A rug is a great way to introduce pattern.” She also suggests mixing rather than matching prints between a rug and throw pillows on a couch for additional interest.

Outdoor rugs serve similar functions to indoor rugs. They anchor seating groups and help define spaces within a large open area, while tying into an overall color scheme and general design aesthetic. Because they are so often used in conjunction with seating groups, the sizes tend toward a standard 8’x10’ or 12’x14’, but can be smaller or larger depending on the size of the space.

Payne points out that rugs can also be used to dress up unattractive surfaces, such as a bare concrete slab or aging deck. Homeowners, who for financial or other reasons decide to do projects in stages, can have a slab poured and temporarily cover it with a rug until they are ready to install tile or stone, for example.

Its inherent performance attributes make porcelain a strong choice for outdoor living spaces. It is already commonly used for pools and occasionally for pool surrounds and patios, but it occupies only a small fraction of the outdoor flooring market compared to natural stone, concrete and wood decking. 

In addition to porcelain, quarry tiles and other non-porcelain tiles can be rated for exterior use as well, and the Tile Council of North America (TCNA) recommends consulting the manufacturer’s labels when choosing any tile product for installation outside. Before labeling a product for outdoor use, tile producers routinely test for frost resistance, crazing—which refers to the appearance of fine lines or cracks in the glaze—and water absorption.

By definition, porcelain is practically impervious to water, so most porcelain products can withstand hot, humid conditions down south and freezing temperatures up north. Unlike stone, concrete and wood, its low porosity helps it resist stains and clean far more easily. In warmer climates, it won’t fade in direct sunlight, and in lighter colors, it reflects the sun, keeping the tile cooler when the mercury rises. 

Porcelain is also very hard, resisting scratches and chips. For high-abuse situations, designers often recommend color-body porcelain. Rather than a red or white body showing through in the event of a chip, color-body tiles have color throughout to help camouflage damage. For areas that might be driven on, true through-body porcelain, also called technical tile, can be used. In through-body tiles, the design on the face of the tile continues throughout the entire tile body. The tiles are rated for heavy commercial use, like in car dealerships, for example. 

Because outdoor conditions tend to be tougher on flooring materials, Kong says that he prefers ASTM abrasion ratings of five or greater for better wear. He also recommends color-body tile. “If it’s going to be used outdoors, and it could be scratched, you really want a tile with color through and through.”

The only chink in tile’s armor can occur during installation. If the tiles are not grouted properly with an exterior grout completely filling the joints, water can seep between tiles and freeze, causing cracks and breaks. Thinset or mortar should be rated for exterior use as well. Any voids left in the setting bed can also fill with water and freeze, causing even greater damage, so TCNA calls for 95% or better mortar contact between the tile and the substrate. Also, proper expansion joints must be created to allow for movement from wide temperature fluctuations and water exposure. 

Glaze can be both a help and a hindrance to outdoor tile. Glaze can fill tiny holes that might be present in unglazed tile, protecting it from freeze issues. But unglazed tiles offer better slip resistance. Just like tile for indoor kitchens and bathrooms, outdoor tile will likely be walked on when wet, so it should reach a DCOF slip resistance rating of at least 0.42 to avoid slips and falls. 

In an effort to tap into the burgeoning outdoor market, tile manufacturers have introduced a new tile product. A few years ago, 2cm thick porcelain pavers hit the European market, first developed in Italy. Much like concrete pavers, they can be dry laid on grass or set in sand or gravel without a mortar bed or grout. The porcelain pavers can also be installed on a raised support system, which allows for a level floor to float above uneven ground without grading. 

Designers in Europe have already embraced the thick tiles, but they are just beginning to find traction in the U.S. market. The first pavers were available mainly in stone looks in 24”x24” squares, but are now produced in a variety of styles and formats. Designed for outdoors, they are frost resistant, slip resistant, easy to clean and capable of handling loads of up to 2,000 pounds. 

Del Conca and Florim were the first manufacturers to begin producing 2cm pavers in their U.S. facilities this past summer, with plans to be at the forefront when the product gains acceptance here in the States. This spring will be the first outdoor selling season for the U.S. produced thick tiles, so it will take some time for the product to gain awareness with designers. 

Payne has already specified Florim’s 2cm pavers, and thinks they will help spark homeowners’ imaginations. “If everything is the same as it’s always been, you don’t get people excited about remodeling. But once they see the new materials that are out there, that’s exciting.”

Designers who specify tile outdoors prefer it for its durability, cleanability, and especially its flexibility with regard to style. Digital printing allows tile to look like any other surface, so 2cm pavers that look like wood can be dry laid on a pathway for a boardwalk that will never rot or need sealing. A terrace or pool surround can be installed with porcelain tiles that are virtually indistinguishable from travertine, or just about any other natural stone, but at a lower price point and with no worry of staining. 

Payne often recommends tiles for dressing up drab concrete. “It’s really easy to turn a plain cement slab into a much more sophisticated space by putting a great ceramic tile over it. The patterns and designs are great, and there is a lot to choose from.” As long as the existing slab drains properly and shows no signs of movement, it is likely a good candidate for a tile makeover. 

For most homes, the designers recommend conservative colors for the hardscapes that, once laid, will remain intact for years, possibly decades. “I hesitate to introduce a lot of color in a large surface because it dictates what you can do in the future,” Payne points out. Whereas area rugs are easy to change when colors come in and out of vogue, a tiled terrace, for example, is not. Also, designers note that the color of the house should be considered when choosing tile. Porcelain in a color that coordinates with the main color of the house will generally tend to be more timeless than tile in this season’s hottest color.

The style of the house also offers cues for tile choice. “If you have a French style house, I love some of the porcelain tiles that look like they came out of an old chateau,” explains Payne. “If you’re working with a house that is more stone and cedar shakes, I would recommend tiles that look like natural stone. Your patio surface should just be another extension of the materials that your house is made from.”


Designer Vicki Payne recently specified 2cm porcelain pavers for a residential project in Charlotte, North Carolina, where she added a pool and hot tub to a backyard with an existing terrace. 

The terrace was covered in grey porcelain tiles, so Payne specified porcelain for the pool surround as well. The 2cm pavers from Florim were laid around the pool, and also used to create the coping edge, which she says made for a seamless transition from the terrace to the pool. She chose white for the tiles, which tie into the house’s trim color and better reflect the sun’s rays, keeping the tiles cooler to the touch on hot days. 

A walkway leads from a gate to the pool, so the 2cm pavers were dry laid in gravel along the path. As a surprise design feature, the walkway continues right across one end of the pool, with paver topped pillars protruding out of the water and leading visitors directly to the terrace, rather than around the pool.

Light blue glass tiles from Daltile were used to line the inside of the pool, giving the water an aqua cast. And darker subway tiles accent a hot tub at one corner, creating a focal point against the lighter colored pool surround and terrace.  

Copyright 2016 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Florim USA, Kaleen Rugs & Broadloom, Mohawk Industries, Daltile