Luxury Outdoor Living Still in Demand

Outdoor living spaces are one pleasure homeowners are not willing to give up during the economic downturn, and they're turning to home builders and remodelers for the perfect outdoor living space.

April 30, 2009

Outdoor living spaces are one pleasure homeowners are not willing to give up during the economic downturn. If anything, say remodelers and outdoor living design-builders around the country, outdoor amenities have taken on extra importance for their clients.

One reason is that they make good financial sense. While other investments may falter, Americans generally expect their homes to appreciate over the long term. Adding outdoor features boosts the value of the property. And, as Matt Plaskoff of Plaskoff Construction in Woodland Hills, Calif., points out, the economic slump has resulted in discount pricing from some product suppliers and trade contractors. For budget-conscious homeowners, it's advantageous to build and remodel now.

Truly an indoor-outdoor space, this Michigan project by Surpass has a retractable glass wall system that encloses the area in the winter but opens to meld the room with the deck in milder weather. Black-rimmed drop-down screens keep the bugs out.
Photo: Surpass

But there's more to the decision than dollars and cents. In tough times, homeowners place special value on having a place at home where they can retreat, relax, entertain friends and enjoy a taste of luxury. Beautiful outdoor living environments are the perfect answer.

True, clients are taking longer these days to decide on outdoor projects and are carefully evaluating their plans for cost-effectiveness. They may scale back the design, eliminating a feature or two; opt for smaller, less expensive projects; or schedule the work to be completed in phases. But after analyzing and value engineering their outdoor living plans, most homeowners tell their contractor, “Let's do it.”

All the Comforts

Don Gwiz, of Lewis Aquatech, Chantilly, Va., recalls a “buying frenzy” that began two years ago. Any builder or remodeler could jump in and sell projects. But outdoor projects are no longer an impulse buy, he reports, but “that's not a bad thing for a company that understands how to do good work.”

Lewis Aquatech continues to be busy producing elaborate outdoor projects for affluent buyers in the greater Washington, D.C., market. Though the scale on some has come down 15 percent or so compared with two years ago, the projects are big-ticket.

“Our clients still want the luxury lifestyle,” Gwiz explains, “ but not the lavish lifestyle.” They want all the comforts of outdoor living — from outdoor kitchens with fireplaces, plasma televisions and entertainment space to pools, spas, pergolas and trellises. It's important to Gwiz's clients that the outdoor additions complement the architecture of the house and match the contour of the house and property. They choose quality materials, including some that offer a savings, such as high-end pavers that resemble stone. Mosquito-abatement misting systems are popular with Gwiz's clients, as are sophisticated landscape irrigation systems and automated pool cleaning systems. In other words, they like products that make their outdoor area “a place of retreat, not another chore,” Gwiz says.

Classic Remodeling & Construction replaced an old deck with this versatile outdoor structure. It includes a patio with masonry fireplace and a deck that features a covered dining area and built-in grill. The deck incorporates composite flooring that looks like wood; glass balusters; and a thin polycarbonate covering across the overhead trellis.
Photo: Classic Remodeling & Construction

When it comes to outdoor projects these days, Bob Fleming of Classic Remodeling & Construction in Jones Island, S.C., says his clients in the greater Charleston, S.C., region want them “full-blown or not at all.” Full-blown outdoor spaces Charleston style means multi-functional designs featuring screened porches, cooking areas with stainless steel appliances and built-in grills, covered patios, and ground-level terraces. Like Gwiz, Fleming sees outdoor fireplaces and televisions on clients' must-have lists. Water features such as reflecting pools are in demand, says Fleming, and low-level mood lighting along steps, railings, benches and the yard perimeter is very important.

Traditional styling still reigns in the Charleston area, Fleming says. His clients prefer bluestone paving, beaded wood porch ceilings and classic-look columns for their outdoor areas. Mixed into the package, though, are glass pickets that open the view through railings and allow breezes into the porch or patio.

Indoors, Outdoors

Glass and horizontal metal railings that allow clear views are equally popular in Matthew Reinsma's western Michigan market. Reinsma, of Surpass in Grand Rapids, says his full-service company builds outdoor projects designed both to celebrate lakeshore vistas and to withstand Michigan's cold winters. Flooring of stained, colored, or stamped concrete, for example, is a popular choice because it combines the look of stone or brick and has the hardiness of solid concrete. Reinsma's clients warm not only to outdoor fireplaces but also to heated patios; outdoor grilling stations; and rooms that, with foldaway walls and retractable screens, become indoor spaces in winter but open fully to the outdoors in summer.

In southern California, Plaskoff sees indoor-outdoor rooms that go even further. Covered areas accessorized with rugs, curtains, indoor-outdoor furniture, wall-mounted light fixtures and even chandeliers “feel more like living rooms than patios,” he says. Outdoor fireplaces and ceiling-mounted space heaters make the rooms comfortable for year-round use.

Plaskoff says homeowners choose outdoor materials that complement the house, such as flagstone, clay tiles and wood decking. Some high-end clients opt for wood and other natural materials even though they entail more maintenance. Other clients prefer stylish options such as porcelain tiles that look like stone but cost less to buy, install and maintain.

Water features — even small ones — are prized in Plaskoff's market. Homeowners appreciate their beauty and the soothing sound of water. People are staying home more and using their outdoor spaces regularly, says Plaskoff.

Dollars Well-Spent

In Arizona, water features, including pool enhancements such as waterfalls, slides, rock formations and stream extensions, can become the centerpiece of an outdoor living project, says Mike Daniel of Legacy Custom Building & Remodeling in Scottsdale, Ariz. An elaborate outdoor design makes sense in this sunny part of the country. “Outdoor living is important in Arizona,” explains Daniel. People move there for the climate and take full advantage of it with outdoor additions. Daniel's company provides every sort of outdoor feature for its metro Phoenix clients, from patios off the living room, kitchen and master bedroom to amenity-packed outdoor rooms. “Everything that you do to an indoor living area we are doing for outdoor living,” he says.

One of the attractions for homeowners is that outdoor spaces add square footage and more livable space around the home, says Daniel. Legacy replaced a dining room window with a door at one house, for instance, and added a courtyard with a fountain. The project yielded 200 square feet of additional living and entertaining space. Legacy often works on production houses, extending the small patios across the rear. The patios triple in size and function. Put a pool table or Ping-Pong table out there, says Daniel, and “the patio becomes a game room.”

Another attraction for homeowners, especially now, is that by and large it is more economical to create new outdoor living space than indoor living space, says Daniel. An outdoor living area can be pretty luxurious, he says, and improve the homeowners' living environment for less money than most indoor remodeling.

How luxurious? In Phoenix, Legacy clients are installing misting systems that cool the space and, combined with outdoor lighting, create nightscapes. They're adding outdoor living rooms even to modest homes. And they're building outdoor kitchens equipped with dishwasher, refrigerator, grill, bar area — everything including the kitchen sink.

Pleasures of Home

Across the country in the Baltimore/Annapolis/Washington, D.C., region, Mary Quayle of Quayle & Company Design/Build in Severna Park, Md., says outdoor kitchens have been very popular for the past few years. “People are eating at home more,” she says, and they're inviting guests outdoors, too. Quayle equips outdoor kitchens with a full suite of appliances for homeowners who use the space as often as daily for most of the year.

After dinner on chilly evenings, family and friends can gather around large stone outdoor fireplaces. Water features such as urn fountains contribute to the tranquil setting.

Quayle & Company mainly uses natural materials, such as flagstone, Pennsylvania bluestone and natural rock veneer walls on patios. Quayle says the company specifies ipe for most decks because it is durable and the source is sustainable. Retaining walls with native plants and rain recovery gardens add another green element.

Though they may choose similar outdoor materials and products, “people don't want cookie cutter anymore,” Quayle warns. “They want to feel that they have something special. During the design process we listen to clients, learn how they want to use the space and create unique spaces for them.” Once they consider the budget, accept the design and decide to move forward with their outdoor spaces, “they know that they're going to be happy with their decisions.”

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