March 16 2015 02:19 PM
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Above: A complete outdoor environment with a kitchen island featuring counter-top dining and a seating area warmed by a firepit. A separate screened room keeps the bugs away, a definite plus in some areas of the country.

Dad’s cooking burgers on a kettle grill in the corner of a little concrete patio. Mom’s setting a picnic table, while the kids run through the sprinklers with the dog. In the not-too-distant past, that was what “outdoor living” looked like.

Things have changed—radically. Now, an outdoor-living scenario is likely to feature a group of fashionably dressed adults milling about an elegant L-shaped outdoor bar, a pergola sheltering them from the hot sun. On a large built-in gas grill, chickens and steaks are sizzling, along with assorted other foods.

The grill is just one component of the big outdoor kitchen, which also boasts beautiful cabinets, a refrigerator, sink, and a separate ice machine. Adjacent to this, other guests are seated around a gleaming table, the centerpiece of which is a gas flame.

Next to that, in the outdoor living room, still other guests are seated on the upholstered furniture, watching a movie on a big, flat-screen TV. That’s outdoor living, 2015-style.

And people want it. When homeowners are surveyed about what they’d most like to see in their backyards, outdoor kitchens and living rooms top the list. Now that the economy is gaining steam again, this business is exploding.

“We’re only in our fifth year of business, and we’ve grown exponentially,” said Erik Moden, co-owner of Outdoor Spaces, LLC in Leesburg, Virginia. “People want outdoor living spaces versus just a patio. They really want to take their living outdoors.”

This is a fantastic opportunity for the design/build landscape contractor. It crosses categories, encompassing fire features, water features, pools, spas, landscape lighting, gazebos, retaining walls and all kinds of paving products. Even more exciting is the fact that this trend isn’t confined to the Sunshine States.

Extending the season

Let’s play a game of word association. You say, “Outdoor kitchens and living rooms,” and I’ll say, “Minnesota.” What?

Ross Johnson is sales and marketing manager at The Outdoor Great-Room Company in Eagan, Minnesota, a manufacturer and supplier of outdoor gas fire pits, fire tables, outdoor gas fireplaces, pergolas, custom outdoor kitchen islands, outdoor furniture and electric fireplaces to both the public and contractors all over North America.

Business is good. People coming into their showroom in Eagan like the idea of extending the warm season as long as possible.

“When customers hear that they’ll be able to enjoy spring six weeks earlier and fall six weeks longer, I have yet to see them shake their heads ‘no,’” says Johnson. “Add the two together, you’ve got 12 weeks, or three more months—a substantial amount of additional time they’ll have to continue enjoying the outdoors.”

Evenings in the Upper Midwest during those extended seasons can be in the low ’50s. This makes fire pits, fire tables and outdoor heaters popular, as they make it possible to stay outside and still be comfortable.

Fire isn’t something just the residents in the cold states crave. “Very few projects that we design and create are absent of fire,” said Aaron Wiltshire, owner of Tulsa-based Oklahoma Landscape, Inc. “Everybody who wants an outdoor living space wants fire, in one form or another. And it can come in many forms, shapes, styles, sizes and functions.”

There’s something deep in our DNA about this. “I do seminars at various trade shows around the country,” says Johnson. “One of my slides is an image of cavemen sitting around a fire. Fire is deep in our psyche. Sitting around a fire is just kind of natural. We find it relaxing.”

Not just for millionaires

Outdoor living spaces aren’t the sole province of the rich and famous. People of more modest means can have them, too.

When an outdoor living contractor in the New Orleans, Louisiana area, was asked if someone could get a nice outdoor living space for $10,000, he answered, “Absolutely.”

What could they get for their money? “They could get concrete pavers, a patio or a pergola, if they already had a patio. They could get a small kitchen, with a 36-inch grill, a side burner, a fridge, cabinets with stainless steel doors, and a granite countertop.”

Everything doesn’t have to be done all at once, either. “We’ll get clients who want to start with something small, a patio or landscape,” says Moden. “We’ll go ahead and develop an overall master plan for him that incorporates the entire outdoor living area, to be implemented in phases.”

“It’s a great way for the average middle-class person to be able to afford this, to break it into chunks over several years.”

Of course, the more they spend, the more they’ll get. Sear burners, warming drawers, drop-in ice bins and full-sized refrigerators are just some of the things people can get. “We’ve even put dishwashers in some of my bigger kitchens,” said the New Orleans contractor. “We’ve also done three set-in deep fryers. If you can think of it or dream of it, we can install it.”

Outdoor living fits the culture in New Orleans, a place where social life centers around food. High-pressure burners are often requested.

They provide hotter flames than regular burners for cooking large pots quicker. They’re great for boiling shrimp or cooking a big pot of gumbo or pasta.

From landscape contractor to living-space creator

For Aaron Wiltshire, CEO and owner of Tulsa-based Oklahoma Landscape, Inc., building outdoor living spaces is a natural outgrowth of the business he started as a teenager in the late ’70s, knocking on neighbor’s doors, asking if he could mow their lawns. Over the years, he kept adding services, including all aspects of landscape installation and maintenance, irrigation and, eventually, design/build.

Brett Berry is the CEO and owner of Berry Outdoor Living Construction, Inc., in Kansas City, Missouri.

He also started out with lawn maintenance in the late ’70s. The company morphed into a full-service landscape company, and around 1995, expanded into swimming pools and spas. He started designing outdoor living areas around them.

“The year 2000 was when the outdoor-living craze hit K.C.,” he says. “Everybody suddenly wanted kitchens and living centers outside.”

There’d been an influx of corporate executives from both coasts who were used to having outdoor living spaces. Moving to Kansas City, they got a lot for their dollar; in some cases, selling $2 million homes and finding the equivalent for just $400,000. That left them a lot of extra cash to spend.

Focus

In 2010, Berry made a big decision concerning his business. “Eight or ten years ago, we did it all—lawn care, snow removal, landscaping, deck building, irrigation and outdoor lighting, in addition to all this hardscaping.”

One night, he and his wife, the prime owners of the company, sat down and said, “‘Let’s do what we’re really, really good at—building outdoor living spaces, and get out of these other things.’ We had to pick what we were best at and enjoyed the most, and go with it.”

Berry said that making this decision not only boosted their happiness as a couple, but their company’s profit margin as well.

Focusing enabled Berry to uphold the high standard of quality he wanted his company to be known for. Building these spaces is a complex enterprise requiring a high level of skill.

“An outdoor cooking center, built correctly, will put seven to ten tons of weight on a relatively small area,” he says. “If not engineered properly, things will settle and the whole thing will begin falling apart.”

Berry still does some landscape and lighting work, but only when it’s integral to creating a total outdoor environment.

Wiltshire’s company, by contrast, remains a full-service green industry provider, with a lawn maintenance division. Services include ornamental shrub care, weed control, fertilization and landscape drainage projects, in addition to building outdoor kitchens and living spaces.

“There’s not a lot we don’t do,” he said.

And they’ll continue doing it. In 2007-8, when the economy started to tank, the company found the $200,000-and-up outdoor living jobs drying up. To recover, Wiltshire brought back the company’s service base. He thinks now that a healthy mix for a landscape company is probably 70/30, with the 70 percent consisting of recurring items such as lawn maintenance and sprinkler repair.

“We got caught with our pants down a little bit,” admits Wiltshire, regarding the Great Recession. “But we’ve learned our lesson. Right now, our mix is about 65/35 with the 65 percent being our ‘Disney World’ projects, the outdoor living jobs. We’re trying to flip that, make our service base the 65 or 70 percent, because that’ll make for a much healthier company.”

Should you get into this market?

No question, there’s a lot of money to be made building outdoor living spaces. “It’s got a great profit margin,” says Wiltshire. But he cautions that before you enter this arena, make sure it’s something you really have a burning desire to do, because there’s a lot to learn. “Do the research; make sure you’re qualified,” he adds. “And know how to bid the jobs right.”

Berry says there are a lot of contractors who do well with landscape services and should probably stick with that. However, he acknowledges that it can be difficult to say no when a lawn-care client says he’ll give you $30,000 to build an outdoor kitchen.

“How do you walk away from that, when you’re used to mowing lawns for 50 bucks a pop? But guess what—there’s a price to pay. You can get in over your head in a hurry.”

The New Orleans-based contractor says he’s seen a lot of companies “jumping in, and messing up the market;” for example, installing prefabricated elements that don’t fit the style of a home. He’s also seen framing done with wooden studs, which he says is a no-no in South Louisiana.

“We’re pretty much the termite capital of the world down here,” he says. “So we use aluminum studs, like they do in commercial buildings.”

Wiltshire’s philosophy is, if you can’t do an excellent job, hire someone who can. “We have a small family of subcontractors who follow our jobs around. We’re not stone masons or electricians; we don’t even attempt to do those sorts of things.”

“Be sure you get all the needed permits and follow all the local codes,” adds Wiltshire. Don’t try to “shotgun” something into someone’s backyard, because if you get caught, you’re going to have to pay a fine. It’ll also make you look unprofessional to your customers.”

Wiltshire knows what he’s talking about. He’s often called in to fix other people’s screw-ups. Sometimes, it’s like an episode of “CSI: Outdoor Living.”

“We came in on the back end of a project that involved a segmental block retaining wall,” he recalled. “The contractor had walked away, leaving the job halfway done. We had to piece things together like detectives, figure out where he’d gotten the segmental block from.”

Wiltshire gets these calls a few times a year. Often, it’s the plumbing or electrical that hasn’t been done right. Or, a contractor had a conflict with a customer, sometimes from getting too far ahead on billing.

He avoids this pitfall by billing progressively. He doesn’t take deposits; instead, his company gets paid at the end of each week, only for work completed that week.

Have a plan

Wiltshire says that when contractors get into trouble, it’s often because there’s no discernable plan, just a verbal agreement. For him, a solid plan is essential, and saves a lot of hassles down the road. There’s no argument later on about who said what to whom over the phone, or whether a tree was supposed to be ten feet tall or six. It’s all right there in black and white, to be seen and signed off on.

Wiltshire starts every new project by using a paid version of Google SketchUp to do a preliminary design and produce a rendering, to scale, in 3-D. He can model anything that’s being proposed for the finished space exactly the way it actually will look.

This particular program also includes a “warehouse” with thou- sands of animation elements that others have created and stored, which you can access. Everything’s there—chairs, fire pits, appliances, even people.

The 3-D rendering is a powerful sales tool. “It’s really awesome,” says Wiltshire. “People can visualize exactly what they’re going to get.” He’s even gotten as specific as putting the exact breed of a customer’s dog in the yard and a bottle of his favorite wine on the table.

“If he’s a Sooners fan, we can put an OU guy scoring a touchdown on the TV screen.

We make it personal, so the customer knows we’re going to go above and beyond. It makes a big difference.”

Once all the elements are agreed upon, his landscape architect uses AutoCad to produce a construction drawing set that’s used in the build phase.

The power of suggestion

Tim Huinker, construction specialist at Anchor Wall Systems, Inc., Minnetonka, Minnesota, says that sometimes, contractors miss opportunities for additional sales. “A homeowner may say, ‘I want an outdoor patio,’ and leave the door open for the contractor to be creative, and suggest some ideas. But a lot of them will just go with what they’re already comfortable with, and build him the same old patio they always build.”

“Instead, they should be asking, ‘What if I did this with your grill? What if we did a little pergola over this part of the patio?’ You could do as flanking a grill with columns something as simple and economical made of stacked concrete blocks to give it the look a built-in. Give the customer the opportunity to say ‘yes’ by asking questions.”

Homeowners don’t necessarily realize what their options are, Huinker says. If you bring interesting ideas to them, they’ll often find additional money in their budgets to pay for them. If you’re in an open- ended conversation, take it as far as you can go. Leave it to the customer to say ‘when.’

Point out to customers that building a beautifully-done outdoor living space adds substantially to the re-sale value of their home.

The sound of success

This is an exciting time to be an outdoor living space contractor. New improvements and ideas are coming out all the time. “One area that’s really emerging now is outdoor sound,” says Wiltshire. “We installed the first system last year, and we’ve already done three. These products are designed to be used outdoors. The sound is incredible.”

Wiltshire says that where you used to call an audio/video company to install sound, this segment, too, is starting to slowly migrate to the landscape contractor who does outdoor living. These new systems are easy to install, have a good profit margin, and customers love them.

When you talk to Wiltshire, you can hear the enthusiasm he has for his business. It’s an enthusiasm that you could share. Before you jump in, however, make sure you know all you can about your market, your methods, and what you and your company are truly capable of.