Living the good life... Outdoor Living Spaces

By MARY ELIZABETH WILLIAMS-VILLANO

YOU DON'T HAVE TO LOOK very far to see that outdoor kitchens and living spaces are a very big deal nowadays. They're featured in home decorating magazines, and used as backdrops in print ads for all kinds of products. Frequently, when an elegant home dinner or party scene is depicted on television or in movies, the setting is a chic outdoor dining area.

At the beginning of this year, industry analysts predicted that the outdoor living market as a whole would exceed $5.7 billion. According to one recent study, the demand for outdoor furniture, heaters, grills, and accessories alone is forecast to rise 3.7 percent annually in the U.S. to $9.1 billion by 2019.

Homeowners are spending again, and reading articles in newspapers and magazines telling them how backyard renovations pay off come resale time, as much as revamped kitchens and bathrooms. This also helps fuel the market.

Lucky you—landscape contractors are in the forefront of this smoking-hot home trend. Increasingly, a client won't ask you to build a humble little barbecue pit in the corner of his patio, but rather an entire extra addition to his home's usable square footage. That means lots more enjoyment for him—and lots more profits for you.

Most excitingly, the market isn't confined to only the highest income earners. The accoutrements of out-door living rooms and kitchens come at many different price points, making this lifestyle affordable to almost any homeowner.

What, exactly, will you be installing for these clients? According to the 2016 Residential Landscape Architecture Trends Survey conducted by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), some of the most popular outdoor design elements include fire pits and fire-places, wanted by 75 percent of survey respondents. Outdoor lighting systems were desired by another 67 percent of those asked, followed by wireless/Internet connectivity at 66 percent.

Outdoor kitchens are must-haves for higher-end homebuyers. These are fully-equipped cooking centers that contain—in addition to gas barbecues—built-in smokers, ranges, ovens (including microwaves), refrigerators, wine refrigerators, sinks, icemakers, even dishwashers and trash compactors. It’s now possible for someone to prep and cook an entire meal, including non-grilled side dishes, without ever having to go back into his house.

And that’s not all. Consumers who buy professional-quality appliances for their indoor kitchens want them outdoors as well. Pizza ovens, beer taps, rotisseries and hybrid charcoal/gas grills are said to be among this years’ hottest “wants.”

Other items high on consumer wish lists were pergolas, decks, arbors, sports courts, spa features and swimming pools. More and more, outdoor living spaces complement or incorporate these items.

The newest kids on this block are shock freezers, also called blast chillers. Unlike normal freezers, which reduce food temperatures gradually, these products induce a steep drop in degrees very quickly. (Not quite like the carbon freezing unit that turned Han Solo into a statue in seconds, but close.) The upshot is that food comes out tasting better, with far less damage.

When people entertain in this fashion, they don’t want to have to head back inside once the sun sets; they want to stay outside and play. That’s part of what’s fueling the exploding growth of low-voltage outdoor lighting. Wi-Fi and smartphone control allows a homeowner to alter the mood of his landscape as the season, or the hour, changes.

Nor do they want to be chased inside by flying, biting bugs. Now, they don’t have to be. A far cry from the old “bug zappers,” sophisticated new insect-control devices heat-disperse human and pet-safe chemical repellent. And unlike that big blue zapper thing, these units are small and discreet, camouflaged as outdoor lighting fixtures.

It’s not surprising that outdoor fire pits and fireplaces top the list of most-wanted amenities. They appeal to our inner cavemen and women. Something about sitting around a roaring blaze, sharing appetizers and good conversation seems to make the much-anticipated meal taste even better.

But look out—the fire has spread! Now it’s in the middle of the table as well. No worries—it’s a controlled, intentional line of propane flame, reflected in the table’s glossy surface, the perfect backdrop for sipping drinks on a cool evening.

That “fire table” may be parked right in front of a built-in flat-screen TV, where guests can watch the big game, the Oscars, or a movie while nibbling chips and salsa. Weather-withstanding outdoor TVs have recently dropped significantly in price, making them much more affordable for average homeowners than when they first debuted.

A line of outdoor TVs priced very closely to similarly-sized indoor models was shown this past September at the CEDIA (Custom Electronics Design and Installation Association) Expo in Dallas, Texas. OLED, 4K HD and 4K Ultra HD LED and LCD TV models were also on display. Many of these have ultra-bright displays that won’t wash out in bright sunlight.

If you’re building an outdoor entertainment area or kitchen, chances are you’re not going to be mounting it atop a gray concrete slab. Nope; there’s lots more hardscaping to do, laying down concrete paving stones, bricks, tile, or natural stone.

You’re probably going to build one or more retaining walls, perhaps with built-in seating. If a client doesn’t already have a covered patio, he’ll probably want a pergola to keep the sun off his guests (and that bigscreen TV).

People still want decks, but with new wrinkles. Increasingly, they are opting to have them constructed with low- or no-maintenance recycled, composite materials instead of wood. They also want those decks to be fancier, featuring indoor-type ornamental post caps, and railings with decorative balusters.

This trend is also good news for pond and water-feature builders, because, what’s a backyard oasis without water? Pools, spas and fountains complete the picture of a personal, private resort to be enjoyed with one’s family and friends.

Last, but never least, are the landscape elements that complete the picture. Plants, trees and shrubs provide beauty, shade, and soften the hard edges of hardscaping. Now, they’re expected to do even more.

The growing desire for locally sourced produce, and not just by foodies, has brought the term “edible landscape” into our vocabularies.

Fruit and nut trees, berry bushes and vegetables, grown in raised planter boxes and landscape beds, are being incorporated into these living spaces, very often, close to kitchen areas. What’s more local than a homegrown harvest that’s no more than an arm’s reach away?

These landscape elements are also expected to be sustainable, and the less required maintenance, the better. Homeowners want the green things setting off their backyard entertainment areas to stay that way with less water, so it’s not surprising that rainwater and graywater harvesting scored high on that same ASLA survey.

Following close behind are native or adapted drought-tolerant plants, permeable pavers, rain gardens, drip and other water-efficient irrigation, and reduced lawn areas.

Smart, both indoors and out

According to the 2016 U.S. Houzz Smart Home Trend Study, nearly half of all homeowners undertaking renovation projects are installing smart systems or devices to control all their new goodies. The same study showed that the average upgrading homeowner adds one smart system or device to his home in the course of a renovation.

And, he wants those smart home devices inside the house and out. WiFi connectivity and control is already available for higher-end outdoor lighting systems.

Recently, wireless Bluetooth-enabled sound devices have started to appear, with quality increasing as fast as prices are decreasing. These range from little trapezoids in hot colors that would look nice on a dorm dresser, to large, weatherproof speakers designed to bring a soundtrack to outdoor living.

Some of these things look like pieces of modern art, or, depending on one’s taste, something out of sci-fi. The sound coming out of them is remarkable, especially considering that many are battery-powered.

A few, while large, are still lightweight enough to be picked up and moved to different locations. Many can be networked with several identical units to create a “wall” of sound.

Syncing to a phone, tablet or computer takes a couple of seconds, usually a matter of hovering a smartphone over the top. After that, the system can be programmed and manipulated by a few taps on the phone’s screen.

You may be saying, “Those wireless speakers sound very nice—but those are aftermarket add-ons. Where do I fit into that picture?” High-end clients who commission custom outdoor living areas want professionally installed, remotely controlled, wired-in sound systems incorporated seamlessly into them.

Outdoor lighting contractors are beginning to install these configurations, often as retrofits. These systems cost much more than those one-off wireless speakers, and the margins are quite high.

The outdoor living space market doesn’t show any sign of slowing down. And the demand for them isn’t restricted to the Sunbelt states. People living in northern climates want them so they can extend that short summer season right up to the moment the first snowflake falls.

There’s a lot of money to be made here for the smart design/build contractor. The party’s already started; don’t be late!