Outdoor Living: The State of the Great Escape

Professional Remodeler examines the outdoor living trends in each part of the country

February 28, 2010


Outdoor Living

For the last decade, Americans have been enthusiastically bringing the indoors outside and transforming their patios, decks and parts of their yards into full-fledged — and often lavish — living rooms, dining areas and kitchens.

“Just about any feature that we’ve become accustomed to using inside can now be brought outdoors, from grills, ovens and gourmet appliances to electronics and all-weather furniture that doesn’t look outdoorsy at all,” says Craig Plekkenpol, who heads Plekkenpol builders in Bloomington, Minn.

And up until last year, these features were being brought outside with growing enthusiasm, regardless of locale. “In our climate, we have a shorter outdoor season than most, and that may even drive demand. After such bad weather in the winter, people are anxious to get outdoors and enjoy it when it’s good,” Plekkenpol observes.

Just in time for warm weather, elective projects are beginning to pick up steam and decks are the first outdoor lifestyle feature to make an official comeback. The third quarter report of ServiceMagic.com’s 2009 Home Remodeling and Repair Index found that they are a popularly requested project as the “staycation” trend continues. And the demand for them is pretty even nationally; also in 2009, the NAHB found that decks were the most commonly requested outdoor project in every region of the country (the figures are 70 percent in the Northeast, 70 percent in the south, 66 percent in the Midwest, and 67 percent in the West).

Coupled with good fourth quarter news from ServiceMagic.com that remodeling service requests increased by more than 37 percent over the same period in 2008, things may be looking up outside. Servicemagic.com CEO Craig Smith predicts that as the year progresses, “gains in remodeling will average about 30 percent in every quarter and aspirational projects will make a comeback.”

Cold climate outdoor living

For Plekkenpol, who does 200 to 300 projects a year, outdoor lifestyle projects never went away. “It’s one area that has at least held its own for us, probably because people are traveling less and giving up second homes due to the economy. This is an alternative that is actually a version of scaling back, especially because they can recover some of the costs when they sell if it’s done tastefully,” he says. “But they are being more creative and a little less elaborate.”

Most of that creativity takes the form of mixing it up when it comes to materials for Plekkenpol’s customers. “There is such a proliferation of choices in this area, and they are available at every price point. It gives the customer design freedom and economic freedom,” he notes, pointing out that they use this newfound creative license most frequently on fireplaces and decks, which are the two most important features in this northern locale. The former often incorporate masonry such as brick and stone; metals such as copper and stainless steel; and ceramics in the same project, while for the latter, a combination of low-maintenance stamped concrete or natural stone pavers is popular.

Rich Politowicz of Professional Home Services in Lake Barrington, Ill., outside Chicago finds that features that incorporate fire and decks clad in concrete or stone pavers are also his company’s most popular outdoor project right now. The fire features are getting more elaborate and usually incorporate pit-style or built-in seating areas and gas, because people don’t want to deal with wood.

“They want to walk outside and just turn it on,” he says. And the trend in patios and decks is toward concrete or stone pavers and away from wood. “My clients want the finished product to be nicer and last longer. Pavers don’t rot, bend, warp, twist and are easier to use for interesting designs and shapes, especially the new colored concrete products,” he says.

Features like fireplaces and flatscreen televisions help to bring the “indoors out.”

Outdoor life in temperate weather

In more temperate regions, projects that extend a family’s ability to live outdoors more of the year are holding their own.

In Fort Collins, Colo., where winters are relatively mild and summers are decidedly hot thanks to the dry climate, “people really need covered decks. It’s a big deal here,” says Bryan Soth, co-owner of HighCraft Builders. Fully covered and often sporting a deck on top to mine every inch of outside space and maximize view, they become bona fide rooms that extend the outdoor living season for their owners. “You don’t get scorched from the sun in the summer, and it’s easier to stay warmer in late fall and early spring,” says Soth.

Yet every area also has its nods to local conditions. Here, the sun and the views are salient. Because of the sun’s intensity, “wood doesn’t last so we use a maintenance-free wood and plastic composite or concrete pavers,” Soth says. And thanks to the spectacular views of the mountains in the distance, “we use a lot of wrought iron handrails in interesting but open patterns instead of solid fences. They really open up the views,” he notes.

In the Atlanta metropolitan area, where the outdoor luxury kitchen business is still good for Bernie Smith, owner of MasterWorks Atlanta in Roswell, Ga., two other big boons for business are two-story decks and pervious pavers. Smith has a diverse clientele, and at the high end is a preponderance of athletes. Despite the economic downturn, he completed several lavish kitchen projects last summer, complete with swim-up bars. But the decks have broad appeal because they become “three-season porches here,” and the pavers, which allow water to pass through them so they do not destroy the natural water table of the land by causing erosion, are “desirable because they are green.”

Smith has his own economical take on the outdoor room with a double-story deck he developed by lining its top level with a waterproof membrane, which can be topped in myriad materials but is most effective in a thin natural stone or through body porcelain tile. This creates a water-impervious space below that can be used for an outdoor kitchen, living area or both and is particularly effective when it is raining outside. Pervious tiles come into play on the lower level for homeowners who are restricted by code from building any more hard surface structures on their land.

In Portland, Ore., another moderately mild area where the three-season porch is a useful family-friendly feature, Greg Olson of Olson & Jones Construction says a valuable addition to these outdoor “rooms” are expected, namely kitchens and fireplaces, and they include the unexpected: heaters and speakers.

“People are still doing outdoor projects, but they’re being cautious and thoughtful so they can really get a lot of use out of these spaces,” he observes.

outdoor living
Double-story decks are a popular project for Georgia remodeler MasterWorks Atlanta.

Balmy living

Not surprisingly, in the balmy southern and western reaches of the country where outdoor living is a huge part of life, everybody wants to mine the square footage outside their homes. But tough times have dictated bare-bones projects.

“Lanais have always been a big part of our business, and in the last six or seven years they have been more intricate and involved. We’ve done a number of complete kitchens that open on to pools and decks,” says Daniel Ashline, who heads a namesake design and remodeling firm in St. Petersburg, Fla.

Yet his customers “have felt the pinch, don’t have a lot of disposable income right now and want value. Their sense of urgency has been replaced with a sense of caution, and they’re cutting back,” he says. The result is that lanais are becoming more basic again for most of his customers. “No one wants to over-improve,” he notes.

In Tucson, Ariz., “almost every project we do involves outside space. It may have a patio, or a covered deck, but that doesn’t mean it will get extensive right now,” says Greg Miedema, president of Dakota Builders. Yet people still want to forge their patios into “more of a gathering place, with more than just bare bones,” he adds.

Right now, this translates into simple but effective fixes, such as straightforward built-in bancos surrounding a center island; built-in grills instead of full-blown outdoor ovens; and larger, strategically designed countertops, such an L-shaped one the company just completed that enlarged an island and turned it into a full-fledged outdoor eating area. “Islands with cooking equipment, fridges and sinks are much more common than fireplaces or pits because we just don’t get that cold here,” says Miedema.


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