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The Great Outdoors

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Spending exponentially more time within the confines of your own home became the norm when a global pandemic rocked the status quo nearly two-and-a-half years ago, and all that extra time lengthened many home improvement to-do lists.

Your spare bedroom became a chic home office. That wallpaper accent wall was finally installed in the den. Your kitchen has shiny new appliances (not to mention a shiny new floor), and that dream bathroom renovation turned into a bathroom reality.

Now, it's time to take things outside.

"We are all home a little bit—or a lot—more these days," says Diane Marrazzo, the outdoor environmental designer at Marrazzo's North River Landscape, Hardscape & Rainwater Harvesting Inc., in Bucks County, Pa. "Spending time in the natural environment your home property offers is pleasant on one's mind, especially if it's well kept."

Backyards have become sanctuaries of sorts since COVID-19 came on the scene (remember the early days of stay-at-home orders?), and whether yours is a blank canvas or just needs some updating, local contractors and designers are here to help.

"During COVID, many clients came to their shore homes, and as they were sheltering in place, they chose to upgrade their systems and services," says Neil Wiessler, president of Shore Sound & Cinema in Northfield, N.J.. "Outdoor living is now a major line item in our proposals. Clients want to enjoy the same quality of life outdoors as they do indoors."

Where to begin
"If it has to do with outdoor living, we're a part of it. That's all we do," says Joe Kalnas, general manager of My Deck. "We're here to serve our clients with the best solutions possible when they're looking for an outdoor space. We research out the best materials for them, show them product and then walk them through the whole process."

My Deck includes clients from the first step to the last, and it all starts at the company's showroom in Flemington, N.J. It makes everything a simple process, Kalnas explains, since clients can actually see, touch and feel materials and make their selections. The design team then creates a 3D rendering which can be adjusted by the click of a button.

"When they leave here they are educated on best building practices, have an idea of what materials they like, and have an idea of what we can do design-wise," says Kalnas.

Of course, plenty of people have the desire to revamp the backyard, but they come up short on ideas. That's no reason to stress—professionals are happy to help clients figure out exactly what they want and what their space needs.

"This is where we shine," Joe Oakes, owner and president of First State Building & Design in Delaware County, Pa., says. "Because we are a full-service design and build company, we help people who know they want a change but can't quite articulate the specifics and we can step in from the start to bring their vision together straight through to completion of their project."

According to Tom Grimes, owner of T E Grimes Construction in Berlin Township, N.J., homeowners sometimes do not realize what's available to upgrade their space. Trying to figure it out on their own can be overwhelming.

"I can pull different elements together as far as the initial layout and design, using what's popular and what's cost effective," Grimes says.

What's on trend
"A lot of people, when they look at their space, they start to look at the borders around the house. They look at the perimeter first and gauge their space, and then they fill it in," Grimes says.

This keeps fencing a popular choice, but the contractor has also seen the popularity of outdoor walls grow in recent years. The walls can be made with different metals, masonry products—the options, Grimes says, are robust.

"There are so many different materials and ways they are assembled. Even if it's just for an architectural detail, maybe something that picks up an element of the house so it looks like it belonged there all the while," Grimes says.

Marrazzo agrees that privacy is on trend for outdoor living spaces, seeing more and more clients who want to incorporate a bit of solitude into their landscape.

"That is definitely because we are home more than we have been," Marrazzo says.
It's nice to unplug in the great outdoors, but when enjoying your own backyard, you don't have to be disconnected from technology. Just ask Wiessler.

"We offer outdoor weatherproof TVs, outdoor audio, outdoor lighting and outdoor Wi-Fi so clients can control everything from a simple-to-use app off their phones," says Wiessler.

For the folks at My Deck, they try to stay on top of trends in the realm of materials, but when it comes to designs, creating something one-of-a-kind goes a long way.

"We're always showing new stuff. We try to keep everything fresh and when you're looking at products and ways of doing things, we're always trying to create something that's unique for a client. It's creating a space that's designed for them," says Kalnas. "We're trying to be cutting edge with materials and doing different things and creating spaces."

As a "bona-fide full-service, premier design and build company" that designs, remodels and builds basic to full-blown outdoor living spaces, trends are in the forefront of what First State Building & Design does.

Lighting, fire features and outdoor heating elements—which are currently very popular, according to Oakes—take outdoor projects "to the next level." Outdoor cooking—incorporating grills, countertops and outdoor kitchens into designs—has also grown in popularity.

"One of the current popular trends' homeowners gravitate toward are building roof overhangs to their deck or patio to add some privacy and protection and extend the seasonal usage of outdoor-living spaces," Oakes adds.

Function first
When it comes to functionality, Kalnas puts it best.

"If it's not functional, then why build it?" he asks. "There are all different ways of designing. We try to look at functionality as almost No. 1."

What's functional is going to look different for every family. For instance, an existing space may have three different levels, but family members may have a tough time walking and navigating stairs.

"To be able to create something on a one-level platform might make sense for them. It's designing something that works for them specifically," Kalnas says.

Wiessler says it's easy to spend someone's money, but the goal at Shore Sound & Cinema is to make things easy to use.

"We want our clients to have fun with our systems. We absolutely love seeing their smiles when we've completed their outdoor wonderland," Wiessler says.

And according to Oakes, beauty and function go hand-in-hand.

"Any space can look 'pretty,' but functionality is what takes it to a whole new level," he says. "To make it a good investment and have true value to the homeowner, it has to not only look good, but it also has to serve the homeowner well in its purpose with regard to functionality."

This functionality also comes into play with a feature Grimes says has grown in popularity in recent years: heating elements in walkways. These can be part of a brand new walkway or patio, or they can be retrofitted to existing structures. Triggered by sensors, it eliminates snow and ice worries during the colder months, which certainly serves a great purpose.

Outdoor paradise
Investing in your outdoor environment is also investing in your future.

"The biggest benefit of this kind of investment in adding comfort and style to an outdoor space is it will boom your house's resale value," Oakes says.

Second, he adds, is the benefit of maximizing the utility of the outdoor space. "Whether you have a large or small outdoor space, ideally you want to get as much out of it as possible, so by adding anything like a deck or patio is just a fantastic way to increase both the utility and value of your home," Oakes says. "Another added benefit is a healthy one in that it helps the homeowners spend more time enjoying their own outdoor area.

"Fresh air and some vitamin D does homeowners good."

Another thing that does a homeowner good? Sanity, which, according to Marrazzo, is the best benefit to outdoor upgrades. Marrazzo's company offers creative landscape and hardscape design for all spaces, including lighting, sound systems, drainage solutions, water features and Amish-made custom pergolas, pavilions and cabanas. Incorporating these elements to create a beautiful space year-round is calming.

"It's driving up to a well-manicured property that has blooming interest in the spring and summer, has fall seasonal change interest, and yet also winter interest when dormancy sets in," she explains.

And whether your soul strives for the simplicity of drinks on a streamlined deck with muted lighting, dancing across a heated patio to music drifting from hidden speakers, or gathering around a fire pit roasting marshmallows with loved ones, it's all just a phone call away.

"Anything that you can pretty much imagine is available now," Kalnas says. "It's just a matter of putting it all together."

First State Building & Design

Chadds Ford, Pa.
(484) 303-4384

Marrazzo's North River
Wycombe, Pa.
(215) 598-1412

My Deck
Flemington, N.J.
(908) 713-1000

Shore Sound & Cinema
Northfield, N.J.
(609) 645-1300

T E Grimes Construction
Berlin Township, N.J.
(609) 513-5628

Published (and copyrighted) in House & Home, Volume 22, Issue 11 (Fall 2022). 
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