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What Is a Lanai—and How Is It Different From a Porch or Patio?

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What Is a Lanai—and How Is It Different From a Porch or Patio?

When you hear the word “lanai,” it can refer to the Hawaiian island of Lanai—or the covered outdoor space that originated in the state. Now popular in other warm-weather regions, Hawaii’s earliest architectural usage of the term referred to a covered shelter with a thatched roof supported by wooden posts. Given Hawaii’s mild, temperate climate, it’s unsurprising that the structure eventually morphed into an outdoor room attached to the home. We spoke with experts to fully explain what a lanai is, its architectural history, plus some of the differences between a lanai and other outdoor spaces like a porch and patio.

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What Is a Lanai?

“The lanai is an architectural feature of Hawaiian heritage. It even shares the name of one of the Hawaiian Islands,” says Andrew Pharis, architect and interior design expert at Vertical Arts Architecture.

It is an outdoor room at the back of a house that is generally enclosed with screens or windows. In larger homes, the lanai can also include a pool. The walls allow for an outdoor experience without the nuisance of bugs like mosquitoes. “To put it simply, a lanai is an open-air, roofed space attached to a home that functions as an outdoor living area, typically found on the ground level,” Pharis says.

Lanais are a common amenity in homes of warm-weather states, from Florida to Texas to California, and in hotels, resorts, spas, and restaurants, as well.

The Architectural Evolution of the Lanai

While lanais began as simple thatched-roof shelters, they have become fully furnished rooms that are now considered a must-have in many homes in warmer climates.

“The more modern idea of a lanai is an enclosed patio space that serves as a transition from the interior to the exterior outdoor space,” says Cate Singleton, director of design at Tilly, a landscape design company.

The rooms are particularly prominent in Florida architecture, thanks to the modernist movement. After Marion Sims Wyeth, an architect from Palm Springs, Florida, traveled to Hawaii to design the famous Shangri La estate for Doris Duke, a socialite and tobacco heiress, he brought the feature to his Florida residential designs. Then, postwar modernist architects reinterpreted the lanai in their homes of the 1950s, and a Florida architectural fixture was established.

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Key Characteristics of a Lanai

Before the advent of air conditioning, a lanai would have been the place in a home to relax and enjoy a cross breeze and also the place to entertain and offer hospitality to guests. The rooms may now be partially or even fully enclosed, but certain elements are common:

  • Location and placement: A lanai provides a graceful transition to a backyard, a water feature, or a water view. “Most often lanais are located in the back of the home to take advantage of the most square footage, but this is not a requirement,” says Singleton.
  • Design and structure: Depending on a home’s location and how it is situated in its environment, a lanai can be in the back or on the side of a home. They will be designed to allow home dwellers to enjoy the outdoors in comfort. “Most are enclosed with screen walls,” says Singleton. “This allows for homeowners to relax in the shade, while still enjoying the breeze in an insect-free environment.”
  • Roofing and flooring options: A roof was the first prerequisite of the early lanai, providing shelter from the tropical rains. “They are completely covered with a roof,” says Singleton. “Flooring can vary, but is typically a hard surface like concrete, pavers, or tile.”

Differences Between a Lanai, Patio, and Porch

If a lanai is starting to sound like a distant cousin to a patio or a porch or a veranda, it’s because they are all related, functionally speaking.

“The difference between a lanai, patio, and porch is vague at best,” says Pharis. “They all originate from different regions to accomplish the same thing, so there is a lot of overlap. A patio can be covered but is almost always uncovered, while a lanai is always fully covered. A porch is typically in the front of a home, while a lanai is typically in the back of a home, but that isn’t always the case.”

As a room, a lanai will be planned in the design and build of a home and notated in the blueprints. In these cases, it’s considered part of the “interior space,” included in the home’s square footage. “These are spaces that can be enjoyed for longer periods throughout the year,” says Singleton.