May 9 2018 11:31 AM

From outdoor pizza ovens to in-ground trampolines, outdoor living spaces are rapidly becoming a bonus area for cooking, gathering and play no matter the climate.

When you hear the phrase, “outdoor living,” what comes to mind? Backpacking in the deep woods? Sleeping on the beach? Being a contestant on “Survivor?” If you’re a landscape contractor, you will likely picture people happily grilling, baking pizzas or watching the game on a big-screen TV, all while being kept warm by outdoor heaters and fire features.

Then you envision a lighting system slowly awakening as dusk approaches, making the backyard glow.

You should be picturing something else, too: a hefty profit margin. No other kind of project brings together every category of what you do.

Building outdoor kitchens and living areas involves laying down pavers and doing masonry work to build grill enclosures; pouring concrete for gaming courts, installing outdoor lighting and sound systems, water features, misters and saunas; and putting in the plantings that will wrap things up in a big, beautiful green bow.

If you’re looking for a new revenue stream, this is a good, deep one to wade into. With the recession mostly in the rear-view mirror, people are spending again. So strong is this market that even at the height of the downturn, some contractors were lucky enough to barely notice it. Casey Laughlin, owner of Texas Outdoor Oasis in Wylie, near Dallas, is one of them.

“It’s funny,” says Laughlin, “I bought this company in 2010, and we came out swinging, turning out huge numbers of projects, and it’s only increased since then. And even though costs have gone up by about 30 or 40 percent, there’s still a high demand.”

Chris Smith is co-owner of FLO Grills, a company with six branches in Florida, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas. “We’re seeing way more people going toward outdoor living, back to where they were before 2009. Now we’re seeing a lot more people in the middle income range go this route. It’s become a necessity for homes at a certain price point.” They’re surprisingly affordable, too. Meg Arnosti, a landscape architect at Southview Design Landscape Contractors in St. Paul, Minnesota, says the median price for their kitchens is around $22,000.

Of course, some backyard oases can run up into the stratosphere. Those kind of projects are the most fun and the biggest moneymakers. Arnosti completed a $450,000 one last year that included new walls; a driveway; a big covered pool cabana with motorized screens; a lighting system, and a completely redesigned landscape.

And it’s not just a Sunbelt phenomenon. These home extensions are wildly popular in our chilliest states. “In Minnesota, we’re always looking for ways to extend the outdoor season into early spring and late fall,” says Arnosti. “We want to maximize our time outside.”

What’s cooking?

Outdoor cooking has come a long way from pushing a few hot dogs around on a little kettle grill. Today, your clients have a wide array of options, from gas grills to smokers, Kamado ovens and more, and some want as many as they can afford.

Smith says there’s a big trend toward multiple cooking options. “People want a gas grill and a Kamado, or a gas grill and a smoker and a pizza oven, so they’re able to do all kinds of things out there, as opposed to having just a one-trick gas grill and that’s it.”

Wood-burning ovens are hot right now. Although often called “pizza ovens,” according to Lou Soto, chief operating officer of Chicago Brick Oven, a company that manufacturers them, that’s not quite accurate. “They’re very versatile,” he says.

“One could solely focus on pizza if he so chooses, but they’re not limited to that — these things can bake anything an indoor oven can, from cakes to roasts.” But, while an indoor oven maxes out at around 500 degrees, a wood-fire unit can achieve temperatures as high as 1,000 degrees, perfect for baking crispy handmade pizzas.

These ovens, according to Soto, can become part of the entertainment. “Wood-fire ovens are the karaoke machines of ovens,” Soto says. “They’re very interactive. People get very involved with making their own pizzas, choosing their toppings and watching the pizzas bake.”

There are even hybrid ovens that give a user a choice of using either wood or gas. “That gives you the best of both worlds,” says Soto. “They’re becoming more popular, especially in places where there are no-burn days.”

One of Arnosti’s current projects has an Argentine grill. It uses a small amount of heat and provides precise temperature control. “Essentially, it’s a flat surface with a grate that goes up and down and a sloped cooking surface that uses wood embers for fuel and creates its own charcoal,” she says. “Once you have this little fire burning off to one side, you rake the coals as they’re forming under the meat.”

Kamodos, ceramic grills that look like big eggs, are catching on because of their sheer versatility. Using natural lump charcoal made from charred hardwoods such hickory, oak or maple, they are known for being able to smoke meats at low temperatures for many hours without cracking, and can also sear steaks at high temperatures. The round shape creates heat convection, so foods cook evenly on all sides.

“They’re set-it-and-forget-it type things,” says Smith, “fairly idiot-proof, and there are no flare-ups. You can even cook pizzas. Anything that you could do with an oven, a grill, a stovetop or a smoker you can do in a Kamado.” They’re also quite affordable, starting around $750.

Gaming areas

Outdoor play areas for family fun such as bocce ball and horseshoe courts are more in demand, too. Joey Delmore, owner of Backyard Dreams in Denver, is a distributor and installer of outdoor in-ground trampolines. These are a safer version of the backyard bouncers, put in at ground level, and, if so desired, concealed behind plantings.

“A lot of homeowner’s associations have started requiring that any trampoline installed on their premises be this type,” he says. “That’s been a big market for me.”

He insists on adding an extra level of safety, a metal-mesh enclosure around the trampoline that can withstand a 295-pound person falling against it.

Laughlin also installs in-ground trampolines. “We’ve been averaging about two or three of those a month.”

Regional favorites

Some amenities are more popular depending on what part of the country you’re in.

In mosquito-prone states, screened-in porches and pergolas are popular. After all, it’s hard to enjoy yourself when you’re constantly swatting at bugs and scratching.

“Outdoor living fits our lifestyle here in the South,” says Smith. “Socially, it’s typical to invite all your friends and family over and stay outside all day. Every Easter my family gets together as do many others, and we have a crawfish boil.” A special high-temperature gas burner, necessary for heating large pots of water, makes it happen. It’s a feature requested by many Texas and Louisiana outdoor kitchen buyers.

“This past year, we sold more outdoor griddles than ever, for people wanting to do stuff like make fajitas or breakfast pancakes,” says Laughlin.

Several latitudes north, saunas are the big thing, which Arnosti attributes to the large number of people in her region who are of Scandinavian descent. “People here love them. Hot tubs, too. We did an outdoor living area last year that had a lap pool with a sauna next to it, and a gas fire feature on the other side.”

She says a typical Minnesota thing to do is get nice and steamy in the sauna, then jump in a freezing lake or roll around in the snow, then get in the hot tub. “Usually, it’s after a day of cross country skiing or if you’re having a party.” These Midwesterners are tough!

Lights, sound and fire

Outdoor living projects provide lots of opportunity for upselling. There’s always something to add or upgrade later on. A good example is lighting. Building an outdoor living area without a low-voltage outdoor lighting system is like baking a cake and forgetting to frost it.

Even if lighting isn’t put in during the initial build, many contractors go ahead and set things up so that a system can easily be added later. It almost always will be.

And people want to hear as well as see.

“Outdoor sound has become a huge deal,” says Arnosti. “We install very high-end speaker systems, with subwoofers to enhance the bass and a control center.”

Fire pits and fire features aren’t region dependent; everyone likes the warmth of fire to extend the day and the season.

“We build several different kinds, quite a few with gas,” Arnosti says. “We also do wood-burning fire pits, because people with kids want to roast marshmallows and hot dogs over the open flame.”

Quality and safety

Smith stresses the need for quality control. “You need to use the better materials, so things don’t rust out and corrode. It’s not like you can just throw out that cheap grill once it rusts, because it’s installed into a granite countertop.”

Outdoor kitchen cabinets have to be built differently than the indoor variety. “An engineering company custom builds our cabinets with all-steel framing and Hardie board, then we finish them out with stone veneer,” says Arnosti.

Quality isn’t cheap; higher-end gas grills start at around $1,600. For that, you get all-stainless-steel construction, sturdier burners and longer warranties. “People are used to buying that $700 grill, which has a lifetime expectancy of five years or so,” says Smith. “Then they throw it away and get another one. When you step up to an outdoor kitchen, you can’t do that.”

“The biggest thing I tell people is to not skimp on the gas grill. That’s the worst thing that you could do,” says Smith. “You really have to spring for better materials, because you can’t just take one out of the hole and throw it away.”

These projects have to be built correctly. “Every grill manufacturer out there says not to build them inside a cabinet made of combustible materials, such as wood,” says Smith. “Yet just in the last six months I’ve replaced at least three outdoor kitchens that burned down. Even if they build the enclosure out of stone, they don’t ventilate it properly, and the grill overheats and burns up.”

He’s started an Outdoor Kitchen Institute to show contractors how it’s done. “We train people how to do a proper layout, to use welded 5051 aluminum framing, stone furnace bricks and where you need to have proper trimming and wind blockage.”

Smith continues, “It’s a great revenue stream for these guys to add on; it’s a real moneymaker and we want to teach them how to do it properly.”

Want to join the party?

Hot elements

The Washington-based American Society of Landscape Architects’ members were asked to rate the expected popularity of outdoor design elements for 2018. Here’s the top three predictions per category.

Outdoor design elements: fire pits/fireplaces; lighting; seating/dining areas

Outdoor recreation amenities: dog-related recreation area; designated area for other outdoor recreation; bocce courts

Multifamily outdoor amenities: flexible use space; mobile device charging stations; bike storage

Outdoor structures: enhanced railing systems; pergola; decks