Oct. 1 2006 12:00 AM

Everyone dreams of having a bigger house. For years, people have turned to television to give them glimpses of what it would be like to live in one. Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous was popular in the 1980s; now, people are watching the likes of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

While the fantasies of the average homeowner used to stop when the show ended and he clicked off his television, these days homeowners really do want to make their dreams come true. And they’re turning to landscape contractors to help them.

Homeowners all over the nation are literally increasing the square footage of their homes by enhancing their yards. The backyard isn’t just an area to visit or to admire from a window. It’s becoming a living area, another den or great room. This new backyard is called an outdoor room.

You can attribute the trend to anything from the price of gas to fear of terrorist attacks, but it’s undeniable that, “homeowners are staying home. They’re making more out of their backyards rather than drive anywhere,” says Joe Tuttle, landscape designer with Borst Landscape and Design, Allendale, New Jersey.

“They don’t just want a pool,” Tuttle continues. “They want a full kitchen, a pergola—all the amenities.” Even outdoor plasma-screen TVs are becoming a common request.

This trend isn’t growing only among the extremely affluent. An outdoor room can be sized to fit almost any backyard, in the area typically occupied by a deck or patio. Tuttle cites the average cost as being as low as $5,000 to $8,500 on the low end or $50-60,000 on the high end.

This means that the market for these outdoor rooms is huge. Some patio and barbeque shops that have begun selling outdoor rooms have reported doubling their gross sales compared to last year. A landscape contractor who can give homeowners these kinds of amenities stands to do very well.

There are many elements to the outdoor room that are growing trends in and of themselves. Outdoor rooms often necessitate landscape lighting, or include a pond or other water feature to admire.

However, there are three specific elements of the outdoor room that you might not be as familiar with. Containers full of color are enhancing hardscapes, while misting systems cool the summer air for outdoor comfort. When the weather starts to chill, outdoor fireplaces make things downright cozy. These are all easy add-on services for landscape contractors, and if you’re not already selling them, you should probably consider it. They make for distinctive touches to the outdoor room, and really elevate it above the ordinary. And what better way to attract business than to give homeowners landscapes that look truly extraordinary? Let customers know you’re not just selling a landscape—you’re selling a lifestyle.

Photo courtesy: McHale Landscape Design, Inc.

Putting fire in its place
Fire has created a traditional gathering place for people ever since the days of the caveman. Thousands of years later, it’s still a popular element of backyard landscapes, from fire pits to barbeques. It’s also an integral part of an outdoor room. Better still, if you already install any kind of hardscaping, you might find it quite easy to install a fireplace.

The outdoor fireplace is the updated fire pit. Most outdoor rooms have a fireplace; they’ve been called the “anchors” of the outdoor room. In truth, a large stone fireplace is an attractive way to define the boundaries of the room and direct the flow of traffic through it.

Landscape lighting helps make it possible for customers to continue entertaining guests in the yard after sundown—why should a get-together have to move indoors just because the sun sets? Similarly, a fireplace can help keep guests warm and allow them to enjoy a landscape even longer, even making it cozy in chilly fall or winter.

Outdoor fireplaces can be gas or woodburning. Tuttle says a growing trend in outdoor kitchens is to use a combination of gas and charcoal. “You turn the gas on, and the gas ignites the charcoal,” he explains. Outdoor fireplaces come in a variety of sizes, and can be scaled to fit any outdoor room.

A fireplace, like any outdoor room component, can either be built up from masonry or pre-fab parts. Masonry is more expensive for the homeowner, and slightly more involved to construct. Pre-fab, on the other hand, is less expensive and easier to install. Some companies make fireplace “kits” that can be picked up on a pallet and installed in less than a day by two men, thanks to the ease of the special interlocking components.

A few wholesalers and distributors will not only sell you outdoor kitchen and fireplace products, but will also offer training seminars on how to install and maintain them. This kind of education is invaluable in the construction of outdoor rooms. While this work will probably be easier for those with hardscaping backgrounds, training like this makes it possible for any contractor to get involved.

Mist not only cools a patio, but it also beautifies a landscape or pool. Photo courtesy: Mr. Mister

Adding misters
The installation of misting systems is a huge growing trend for outdoor rooms. In fact, a misting system is basically an outdoor version of air conditioning—but only if it’s professionally installed.

There’s a huge difference between a professionally-installed system and a system you buy at a big box store: if you buy a system from a box store, your customers will end up soaked. A professional misting system, on the other hand, won’t get anyone wet. Instead, it will simply cool the air.

“What you’re looking for is more of a fog than a mist,” says Scott Kopplinger, owner of the misting system installation company Mr. Mister, as well as the landscape firm Ironwood Landscape and Design, Broomfield, Colorado. “Professional misting systems operate at 1,000psi. That breaks the water molecules up, so they evaporate almost immediately when they hit the air.”

It’s that flash evaporation that cools an area down—by as much as 30 degrees. Misting systems sold at box stores, however, usually only operate around 100psi. The water molecules don’t evaporate as readily, and in a matter of minutes, you’ll be soaking wet instead of cool and comfortable. In fact, to get that flash evaporation effect, a system has to be running at 800psi or above.

Misting systems have been used for years on patios in places like Phoenix, Arizona, where skyrocketing summer temperatures mean that some kind of outdoor cooling mechanism is the only way to enjoy a backyard landscape. But that’s not a misting system’s only application.

“I’ve found that mist-scaping is actually the largest growing market in the misting industry,” Kopplinger says. “Mist can be used to create fantastic theatrical effects around landscape features, such as ponds.”

Don Thompson, Rocky Mountain Mist, Brighton, Colorado, agrees. “Imagine a property with a beautiful, large tree outside. It’s evening. The landscape lighting comes on, grazing the tree with light, and then the misting system comes on, cloaking the trunk in a blast of fog. It’s breathtaking.”

They are also effective non-chemical bug repellants. Flies and mosquitoes just won’t fly through a veil of fog.

These other uses for misting systems mean that you can still sell them, despite not living in a place like Arizona. “Homeowners are really embracing these systems,” Thompson says. “Installing them is a huge opportunity for anyone with a water background.”

If you’re familiar with installing irrigation systems, it won’t be much of a stretch at all to begin installing misting systems. You still have to deal with elements like flow, except instead of 60psi, you’ll be working with 1,000psi. “It’s simple. Simple to install,” Kopplinger emphasizes. “As an add-on sale, it’s a must. Every landscape contractor should have it, install it, and offer it.”

You also don’t need to worry about a misting system wasting water. A system running at high pressure uses only around fifteen gallons of water per hour. By comparison, the average home shower uses six gallons per minute. Thompson’s company offers a misting system controller that can further conserve water.

“Our controller can turn the system on for twenty seconds and off for thirty seconds,” he explains. “You save 40 percent of the water other misting systems use, and there’s no noticeable change in temperature.” Better still, it’s less expensive than other systems, so a wider variety of homeowners can afford it.

Color can be used effectively to border walkways. Photo courtesy: Borst Landscape & Design

Colorful Containers
“Backyards are typically very leveled,” says Borst’s Gail Tunis, garden designer. “You often have a layout like a deck that goes down to a patio that goes down to a pool. There are no flower beds until you get down to the lowest level.”

This can make for a pretty boring design, or in this case, a pretty boring outdoor room. Where would you rather spend your time—in an antiseptic room with white walls, or in a room adorned with carefully chosen colors, be they brights or pastels? The same goes for the landscape. Why should decks and patios, where people spend so much of their time, feel so colorless?

The bottom line is that they shouldn’t. Plants are usually the main source of color in a landscape, and you can bring them up to the deck or patio—and into the outdoor room—by planting them in containers. Tunis says she’s constantly on the lookout for interesting containers to bring to her customers’ yards, buying them not only from designers, but also sources like antique shops.

She prides herself on getting to know her clients, and placing colors in their landscapes that are appropriate for their individual needs and tastes. “People who lead hectic lives often want a more tranquil space. They want colors and textures to help them relax. I fill their properties with cooler shades —whites, blues, and greens,” she says.

“For younger clients who love to party or have kids, I’ll plant riots of color and use a lot of brighter shades, like reds and oranges,” she continues. “Other clients request plants to give their outdoor room a look reminiscent of what they’ve seen in their travels.”

A common request is for an outdoor room to have a Mediterranean look. Tunis says this isn’t about picking specific plants that can only be found in the Mediterranean. It’s about choosing colors that give the landscape a Mediterranean feel. She would use sunset tones and tropical plants to create this look, and choose containers that would continue the theme.

Photo courtesy: McHale Landscape Design, Inc.

Tunis says that the biggest overall trend she’s noticed in container and color planting has been that people are getting more sophisticated in their requests. Perhaps due to an increasing number of home and garden television shows and magazines aimed at consumers, people are more knowledgeable about what’s available. They want unique plants with unique textures and colors.

“People don’t want a container filled with just geraniums. They want something different, more unique. Unusual plants were hard to find years ago, but now that they’re popular, the market is flooded with them. It’s not difficult to give a client something they haven’t seen before,” she says, then laughs. “People weren’t conscious of these plants until recently. Now that they are, we designers need to step it up!”

That’s not to say you can’t still use geraniums and other garden staples. The point now is to combine them in a container with other, more unique plants to give them all a fresh, new look. A great idea—and growing trend—is to combine flowering plants with foliage plants in the same container.

“Colorful foliage plants like coleus or iresine are getting popular,” Tunis says. “They’ve become an important way to add color to a landscape instead of only through flowering plants.” That’s right—foliage doesn’t have to be just green any more. It’s a good tip to remember to make your landscapes really stand out and look different.

If you haven’t done a lot of container planting and are nervous about bringing brightly colored flowers onto a deck or patio, combining a warm color with a cool color is always a good bet. “If you combine a bright orange with a cool purple, it tones the hot color down. People have an easier time relating to hot colors this way,” advises Tunis. Container planting and color planting may not technically seem like new “add-on” services for your business. However, it can be wise to treat them like one. Advertising yourself as a “color specialist” or “container planting specialist” can help set you apart from your competition.

And setting yourself apart is exactly what you want to do. The market for outdoor rooms is growing everyday, and not enough contractors are taking advantage of it.

“A few years back, people really concentrated on giving their homes curb appeal in the front yard,” Tuttle says. “That’s changing. Now, it’s all about staying at home and entertaining. People want to intensify their use of space in the back yard.” There’s no better way to do it than with an outdoor room.