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Outdoor Entertainment Center

From modest grilling stations to lavish outdoor kitchens, from cozy fire pits to beautifully detailed masonry fireplaces, adding outdoor living space has become a priority when it comes to the home improvement project consumers most eagerly consider when they want to boost the livability of their home.

April 30, 2008
Hot Outdoor Features

The outdoors is becoming the new living room as homeowners look to capture more space.  
Photo courtesy of Phil Kean Designs

From modest grilling stations to lavish outdoor kitchens, from cozy fire pits to beautifully detailed masonry fireplaces, adding outdoor living space has become a priority when it comes to the home improvement project consumers most eagerly consider when they want to boost the livability of their home.

For Eric Kent, president of Archadeck of Charlotte, it’s all about homeowners looking for a sense of “vacation” in their own back yards, he says. “There are a big number of people not taking trips these days. Instead, they’re putting their money back into their homes in something that they can enjoy and feel good about as a long-term investment.”

Tune into any home program on TV and you’ll find outdoor living areas featured. That brings consumer awareness that takes their requests for outdoor amenities to new levels.

Don Gwiz, principal with Lewis Aquatech, a premier outdoor living environment specialist headquartered in Chantilly, Va., notes that the market segment has evolved into its own lifestyle product. “Our clients come to us looking for outdoor space that will improve the quality of their lives.

“Magazines, home improvement centers and design-oriented television programming, have all raised the bar on awareness and expectation on the part of our clients when it comes to outdoor space. Homeowners are more knowledgeable and sophisticated than ever before about everything ‘high end’ for their homes. When it comes to their outdoor living space our clients want everything that they have indoors outside, including plasma TVs, full-function kitchens, surround sound systems, and warm and inviting fireplaces,” Gwiz says.

Porches are making their way into homes so much so that builder Jim Sasko, president of Teakwood Builders in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., refers to 2007 as the “year of the porch” for his company. “We built all kinds of screened porches and sun porches for our clients who were also into incorporating two-way fireplaces in their outdoor living areas in a big way.”

Indoor spaces that flow into the outdoors allow homeowners to take advantage of more space without adding on.  Photo by Eric Figge

Making the most of decks

Many homeowners still look to their decks as a gathering point, says John Burns, president of American Deck of Winchester in Winchester, Va.

The difference, he says, is that his clients now come to him with much more of a plan in mind. “It is very similar to the way they plan the living space inside their homes,” he says.

Along with the changes in the way homeowners use their decks, sizes have grown as well. “The size of our typical deck has increased by about 40 percent over the past five years,” says Kent.

Decks are also taking on all kinds of unique shapes these days, according to Burns. “Curves add flair and interest while bump outs provide definition for the spaces reserved for cooking and seating.”

“About one-quarter of my clients have flipped through magazines and have some idea about what they want in their outdoor living space,” says Burns. However, the design really comes to life as the result of an intensive interview process, he says.

Designing an outdoor space to satisfy the lifestyle your homeowners want is all about asking the right questions, say the experts.

These include:

  • How do you intend to use your outdoor space?
  • How often will you use it?
  • Will it be used for large gatherings?
  • Do you want a particular amount of exposure to the sun? Do you need shade?
  • Will you need sound or outdoor lighting for evening entertaining?
  • What are your maintenance requirements?

“My goal is to bring these things together for the client,” says George Drummond, owner of Casa Deck in Virginia Beach, Va. “The most important thing, however, is to build the deck so that the client will want to use it. It should have that ‘wow’ factor but also be functional at the same time.”

Kitchens are the most popular high-end outdoor feature. 
Photo courtesy of Magee Construction.

The right accessories

The patio or deck is just the beginning, though. It’s the finishing touches that set one outdoor living space apart from another.

“There are so many options on the market today for outdoor living spaces for such things as railings, lighting and decking,” says Drummond. “This can really change the character and appearance of the deck.”

Beyond that, it’s accessories like fireplaces, grilling stations and water features that take an outdoor space from simple to luxury.

Fire features are probably the most requested outdoor amenity these days and they can be installed anywhere from a patio to a screen porch or even on a deck, Kent says.

For wood deck applications, Dave Tibbetts of Atlanta Decking and Fence recommends using a modular assembly that can be trimmed out to look like a full masonry fireplace at significantly lower cost and weight.

More than 80 percent of designers and contractors expect to see an increase in luxury outdoor livin projects, according to a recent NAHB survey.  Photo courtesy of Dino Tonn Photography

“Using an off-the-shelf firebox provides you with the opportunity to give people the look they want at an economical price. Many stock fire pits can also be built into a deck because the heating element is actually raised up off the deck surface,” he says.

Tibbetts also recommends opting for gas versions of outdoor fire pits and fireplaces because they require minimal clean up and eliminate the danger of popping cinders.

“Outdoor kitchens, on the other hand, are projects that you have to throw some money at,” says Tibbetts. “To do them well you have to have the right mix of client, space and money.”

A nice alternative to fireplaces, Tibbetts notes, is to create a dedicated grilling station with its own counter. “This is something that most people can afford.” He recommends an area that has at least 5 by 9 feet of space, that the cooking area is partially covered and that you choose an all-weather material such as quarry tile or natural stone for the countertop.

Water features including pools, hot tubs and ponds continue to be desirable features for outdoor living areas, says Tibbetts. However, homeowners tend to want these to be tastefully done so the features provide privacy and blend into the landscape.


Water features are a popular addition to outdoor spaces.  Photo by Brian Vanden Brink

Hot Outdoor Features

Here’s what leading contractors identify as some of the most popular features in outdoor living projects:

  • Outdoor kitchens, grilling stations and pizza ovens
  • Ice makers
  • Gas fire pits and fireplaces
  • Alfresco living spaces with a protective ceiling and open sides
  • Finished, rather than beamed, ceilings in covered areas
  • Mixing materials and colors: for example, wood, composite or PVC decking and powder-coated aluminum, glass or copper balusters
  • Weather-resistant furniture and fabrics
  • Heated towel racks for pool and hot tub decks
  • Radiant heated pool decks

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