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Living the Dream

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With more time spent in the backyard  the last few months due to COVID-19, you may be thinking about how you can spruce up your outdoor living space, especially with summer now in full swing. Adding an outdoor kitchen with all the bells and whistles—a grill, refrigerator, bar and a fireplace to complete the space—can change the way your family spends time together and might even make you an expert in the grilling department, after a little practice of course.

House & Home spoke to experts on the different outdoor kitchens available, the hottest trends and why a fire feature is a must in every outdoor living space.

It’s no secret homeowners are paying more attention to their backyards and extending their living space, from creating outdoor living spaces such as outdoor kitchens, for example. According to Keith Frederick, owner of Environmental Landscape  Associates, he finds more homeowners  are educated on outdoor living spaces, with everything from the climate, to the elements and accessories.

“They know it can be done in a Northeastern climate, not just the West Coast or Southern climate,” Frederick says. “Because there’s ways to do things with exhaust hoods and heaters, things like that make outdoor living spaces more desirable, so outdoor cooking spaces are desirable. It goes hand-in-hand.”

Meeting with the homeowner and putting together a design process for patios and decks is the first step when creating the space.

 “A deck needs to be planned intentionally and properly so that the homeowner is able to fully optimize utilization of the space,” says Brian Iwano, owner, Blue Tree Builders, LLC. “In order to accomplish this, the builder needs to be attentive and listen throughout the process. … We want to figure out what problems [the homeowners] are trying to solve and help them arrive at that decision.”

Also a “critical” part of the design process from the beginning, according to Sean McAleer with Deck Remodelers, is figuring out where the furniture will be placed, everything from the couches to tables, chairs and barstools.

 “It’s part of the design right from the beginning,” he says. “We have to start with the end in mind and work our way backwards. We’re not building a deck to sit on the deck, we’re not building it to stand under the roof, we’re building it because that’s your outside living space. It means sitting down, relaxing and socializing, and you’re sitting on the couch. If it doesn’t fit or if it’s facing the wrong way, what good does that do? When I come up with a design, I fully furnish it when I present it to the client.”

One facet of the outdoor living area is the limitless possibilities homeowners have since they are not confined to walls.

 “You can design it to how you want it to be done. You’re not limited like you would be inside of your home. You have more space in the backyard and can utilize it to make it what you want,” says Jenna Guldin, vice president of sales, Salter’s Fireplace Patio Grill.

This starts with the outdoor kitchen. “Being able to cook outdoors, have a pizza oven or gas grill, Kamado-style smoker; putting in a counter height bar area and being able to chat with the person cooking; it’s incredible what you can do,” Guldin says.

McAleer carries three kinds of kitchens—stone, mid-level outdoor cabinet and high-end cabinet. Stone kitchens are stone-framed  kitchens with veneer and granite countertops, whereas mid-level outdoor cabinets are completely sealed.

 “People can leave spare products and everything else there,” McAleer says. “They come in frosted glass doors and backlit doors, and are bear and raccoon proof.”

For high-end cabinets, McAleer carries NatureKast, which manufactures weatherproof cabinets and comes in all different wood options.

 “They have soft-close doors plus drawers, so you can fill it with drinks and ice, and when your get-together is done, you pull the plug and let the water drain out,” he says. “Cabinets have evolved to such a state that I have a full-time, certified kitchen designer who designs the kitchens for us. They work with clients picking out cabinets and countertops, such as quartz and waterfall.”

McAleer says the basics for an outdoor kitchen are a grill, refrigerator, and one thing most people forget—a built-in garbage can.

Steve Cousins of Cousins Garden Design says he’s installing side burners for people cooking on the grill, as well as  outdoor coolers that are built into the countertop to keep drinks cold.

 “After those items, people want top-end grilling products,” McAleer says. “Big Green Egg Smokers is what we’re custom building now, and we’re also installing a lot of flat-top grills.”

Guldin, too, is seeing a spike in requests for smokers. “More people are trying different styles to cook,” she says. “Instead of just throwing hot dogs on the grill, they try to smoke some meat.”

Frederick says most people like the idea of built-in fixtures, which he says are more attractive and tie into the surrounding landscape.

“They like the ability to have a countertop to prepare food or display food,” he says. “Some people do simple trash cans and storage drawers for cooking tools; others are more elaborate with refrigerators and sinks. With bars, it can also function as a cooking area. Quite often you have a cooking area where you’re serving counter-style or sitting at the counter with a bar and it’s all incorporated into one unit.”

Another popular feature incorporated  in outdoor kitchens is fire, whether it’s a fireplace or fire pit, in many different styles. McAleer says almost 100 percent of his clients have some kind of fire feature and more people have multiple fire features, compared to five years ago when only a third of his clients asked for it.

 “There are different kinds of blocks you can use; a veneer fireplace or fire pit for example, comes in round, block or square,” Cousins says. “We do wood burning and also do gas. Gas is a nice feature where we have nice glass beam finishes at the top. We’ll also build sitting walls out of the block around the fire pits. We make a lot of seat benches that have the sitting wall where you can lean up against it.”

 “We can build a formal fireplace just like you’d see inside your house, it can be built exactly the same way,” Frederick says. “If someone is looking to have a fire feature but not spend as much on a fireplace, a fire pit can be raised like a table. A wood-burning one can be something as simple as a sandline pit in the patio with edging stones you burn fire with, or it could be gas burner, where it has a more formal shape.”

One unique feature McAleer installs, which is becoming quite popular, is tables with fire elements in them.

 “It’s called a social grilling table, a table with a grill built in the center so they can grill their own food,” he says. “We take the unit and build a table so people can grill right at the table.”

In addition to building matching sitting walls as Cousins mentioned, there are many options when it comes to furniture and accessories in all kinds of styles, from traditional  and contemporary to modern, which adds texture and a pop of color.

 “We usually help guide the customer to the style of furniture  they want and we may also look at the materials,” Guldin says. “Some furniture can be made out of milk jugs and 100 percent recyclable materials. Most people don’t know what  to do with a beautiful patio set with a blank wall be- hind it. Adding a beautiful colorful piece of artwork adds a nice touch, as well as outdoor rugs which add color and different textures. And one of the nicest accessories is an umbrella, it’s a necessity. We sell umbrellas that have rotating handles and special bases.”

Extending your outdoor living space with an outdoor kitchen is the ultimate way to host large gatherings and create lasting memories with your family and friends. From learning  new tricks on the grill to ending your day with your feet up by the fire, you may never want to leave your home.

 “Adding comfort to the home, inside and out, that’s what we love about it,” says Guldin. “It’s exciting when you can fulfill someone’s needs when doing an outdoor kitchen, putting together a patio set hangout and roasting marshmallows over the fire. It’s pretty neat.”

Blue Tree Builders

Cherry Hill, N.J.
(609) 240-3231

Cousins Garden Design
Berlin, N.J.
(856) 981-3100

Deck Remodelers
Sparta, N.J.
(973) 729-2125

Environmental Landscape Associates
Doylestown, Pa.
(800) 352-9252

Salter’s Fireplace Patio Grill
Eagleville and Hatfield, Pa.
(610) 631-9372

Select photography courtesy of Environmental Landscape Associates, Cousins Garden Design, Deck Remodelers, and Salter’s Fireplace Patio Grill.

Published (and copyrighted) in House & Home, Volume 20, Issue 11 (June 2020). 
For more info on House & Home magazine, click here
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