Make the most of small apartments in Discovery Bay, Hong Kong

Get the basics right and even the smallest outdoor area can add sunshine to your life. Jane Drew reports.

Although DBers are adept at making the most of small apartments, we seldom take advantage of the pint-sized balconies and roof terraces at our disposal. And while our interiors may be cutting edge or at the very least super comfortable, we tend to furnish outdoor spaces with much less panache. Yet there is no real reason why a balcony or terrace cannot be approached as creatively as a room within the home.

Initially you will probably be faced with a lot of unsightly concrete cladding and your first task is to set up a strong, carefully considered backdrop.

The blank canvas

Start by bringing the outdoor area into your living room – blurring the boundaries between indoors and out will make both areas look bigger. You may want to install sliding or French doors that open onto the balcony. Floor-length windows fool the eye, turning an outdoor area into an extension of the living space, letting in more light and expanding the view.

The simplest, though not necessarily the cheapest, way to connect outdoor and indoor areas is to link the materials underfoot. Natural or unpolished marble is a good option as is pre-treated wood, though both fade over time. When it comes to withstanding dramatic changes in temperature, most designers agree that tiles are the only way to go. Relatively inexpensive, natural looking and non-slip, both slate and terracotta tiles age well and, as they don’t absorb heat, the surface remains cool long into the afternoon.

Chances are your interior is white-washed, so stick with complementary white paint for the exterior. As with any small room, a fresh coat of white paint stretches the space, and textured, weather-resistant masonry paint introduces an interesting stippled effect, while putting paid to mouldy walls. In a sun-filled space, it’s tempting to let loose with brilliant tropical hues but you run the risk of making it looked cramped. If you are heart-set on a splash of colour, paint the back wall of the balcony – the one that is not visible from the living room.

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You’ll want to create shade in your outdoor space and in many cases a classic umbrella will do the job just fine. Traditional parasols, which blew over at the first hint of a breeze, have been replaced by compact, lightweight models with sturdy, concrete bases. Some umbrellas are now even built into task-specific, al-fresco furniture.

If you’d like something more permanent, however, consider erecting a retractable or folding-arm awning, which can be assembled in minutes and tilted to provide protection even when the sun is at a low angle. Normal canvas will fade and rot surprisingly quickly, so go for something that’s been properly treated like Teflon or colourfast, waterproof woven acrylic. The best awning systems feature sun and wind sensors that extend and retract the shade automatically according to the weather conditions.

On a sheltered balcony or terrace, if you want to keep things really simple, bamboo blinds or lengths of translucent netting will create shade and provide an element of privacy. Alternatively, a well-placed trellis, covered in trailing foliage, or a row of flourishing planters, will ward off nosy neighbours, while filtering the light.

The practicalities

Before you even think about splashing out on outdoor furnishings, consider carefully what you will actually be using the space for. The idea is to set up clearly defined areas for specific activities.

If you want a small terrace to serve as an alternative dining room, do without additional seating and make room for a storage unit in which to keep outdoor tableware. On a narrow balcony, pair two deck chairs with a small, oval table. If all you need is a suntrap, settle for a couple of sun loungers or, better yet, a securely fixed hammock.

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When you furnish outdoors, fold-up seating and collapsible tables help keep a space flexible but there are a host of streamlined (ideally inbuilt) pieces to choose from. Nothing beats plastic in terms of durability and it has come a long way from the cheap, white variety you may remember from your childhood. You need to check out Hularo, a hardwearing, UV-resistant formula that looks exactly like woven wicker.

Wrought-iron and glass is a chic alternative but iron rusts over time and pieces will need to be moved indoors during typhoon season. Likewise, wooden furniture is a classic choice but you have to be prepared for it to ‘weather’. Even high-grade teak wrinkles and bleaches in the sun, which means that it will need to be sanded down and re-oiled every couple of years.

Filling in the details

Having set up a coordinated selection of essential pieces of furniture, it’s time to stamp your personality on the scheme by filling in the details. Where space is at a premium, stick to the bare necessities – lights and lanterns for outdoor use, scented torches to ward off mosquitoes and a couple of wind chimes to usher in health, wealth and prosperity. Anything more elaborate is superfluous and impractical – ethnic wall hangings or scatter cushions rot if they are left outdoors; mirrors and paintings look out of place; stone sculptures gather dust.

Of course no outdoor area is complete without plants and, in a small space, multi-layered displays work particularly well. The linchpin of the scheme might be an old dresser or desk with plants spilling out of the drawers. Hanging baskets or trellises also provide value for money, while encouraging plants to trail and climb. Trellises now come in all shapes and sizes but the standard, rectangular, bamboo variety, with pull-out ledges, remains the most practical.

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Exotic, inexpensive planters look better in clusters rather than in rows, so group them in the corners to save space. If you pair plants of different types and heights, only a few pots will create a year-round splash of green. Ferns, juniper, hibiscus and bougainvillaea do well on most DB balconies, as do herbs of all varieties.

Make it your mission to avoid clutter, and with the right furniture and accessories, even the smallest patch of urban jungle can be made to feel like a five-star resort.

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