Life in the Great 'Outdoors'

For consumers are looking for an outdoor space that has the creature comforts of indoor rooms, here are some of the issues they should consider on this kind of home project.

May 1, 2011

Decks, pergolas, and outdoor kitchens all enhance a home owner’s enjoyment of a yard and improve the resale value of the home. But at the top of the wish list for many consumers nowadays is an “outdoor room,” which resembles an indoor space for its creature comforts and sense of enclosure, but also gives home owners additional living space in good weather — and sometimes in bad weather if some kind of covering is included.

“Because home owners are staying put longer, we find many are interested in building an outdoor room, which can be more cost-effective than adding interior space,” says Brian Brunhofer, president of builder Meritus Homes in Deerfield, Ill. Brunhofer advises home owners to live in their house for a year before they build an outdoor room to ensure they know what they want.

For home owners to gain maximum use of outdoor rooms depends on factors including its size, location, amenities, and furnishings, says architect Mark R. LePage, owner of Fivecat Studio in Pleasantville, N.Y.

As a real estate pro, you can help home owners understand the importance of other key decisions, such as:

1. Whom will they hire?

The decision should hinge on what functions it will serve and what elements it will include. If it’s just a deck with seating and maybe a pergola, a contractor may do the job well. But if it’s also going to include some kind of water element or a living green wall, they may be better off hiring a landscape designer or architect. Help them find the right professional by checking the Web sites of the American Society of Landscape Architects and American Association of Professional Landscape Designers.

2. How many will use it, and for what purpose?

The number of people who will use the room regularly and the primary purpose of the space should greatly influence its size and layout, says landscape architect Jeff Plusen, owner of Plusen Designs in Catonsville, Md. For some, it may be a place to sit in the morning and sip coffee, while others may want the room to feature a large al fresco dining table, buffet, and outdoor kitchen for a crowd.

In recent years, outdoor rooms have taken on other uses, ranging from TV nooks — with screens that can weather the elements — to chef-style kitchens for an entire meal rather than just the main course, says landscape architect Steve Chepurny of Beechwood Landscape Architecture and Construction in Southampton, N.J.

Caveats: Any room should relate proportionally to the site and home, Chepurny says. And those who have generous acreage may desire a series of rooms with different purposes linked by paths or gates, says landscape architect Jeff Allen in Winston-Salem, N.C.

3. Where should the outdoor room be located?

The location should be based on these considerations:

  • Distance from the house: How close or far and how to access to the room are all key decisions. “Home owners may not want visitors to cut through their house to reach a room out back but prefer them to use an outside walk,” says Norwood, Conn.-based landscape designer Donna Christensen. Functionality should also affect choice. An outdoor room with an eating area might be located near the back kitchen for ease. Yet, one arranged at a distance and with proper amenities can offer a sense of adventure, Plusen says.
  • Topography: A sloped or rocky spot may be more difficult to build on and require steps, thereby spurring the choice of a more level site, LePage says. Both natural and manmade drainage are essential for the room to avoid being flooded, adds designer Paige Rien, host of HGTV’s show “Hidden Potential.”
  • Natural vistas: Picture-postcard views of woods, mountains, water, or other scenery should be considered as backdrops, if other factors are right, Brunhofer says.
  • Sun, shade, or a combination: The amount of sun and shade can make a big difference in enjoyment, though it also necessitates certain additions. A very sunny spot may require a shaded canopy, whereas a heavily wooded area might be screened to avoid annoying mosquitoes.
  • Unusual locations: Not all outdoor rooms are located at ground level or a few feet above. Many residents of high-rise condos are lucky to have a terrace that they can transform into an outdoor room. The height, climate, and proximity of other buildings should be factored in. Additionally, strong winds may require low-growing materials rather than trees and furniture that’s bolted down, say Denise LeFrak Calicchio and Roberta Model Amon, coauthors of Rooftop Gardens: The Terraces, Conservatories, and Balconies of New York (Rizzoli, 2011).

4. What else helps transform a terrace into a room?

Here are some essential features:

  • Walls: Christensen prefers to plant materials on a trellis and keep it relatively open to allow in light. But a stone wall can work, and if low enough, function as extra seating. Plusen suggests two layers — one to enclose the room for privacy and a second to accent it with texture and color.
  • Flooring: The choice of flooring should be selected according to its use, climate, and aesthetics. Honed stones are easier to walk on, last a long time, and can create an elegant old-world feeling, while a lawn will be softer for bare feet and suggest a more rustic look. Allen likes to mix materials such as brick pavers bordered by stone to connote an area rug.
  • Furnishings: New materials can withstand inclement weather so home owners can leave furnishings outdoors year-round. Some mimic natural reeds and grasses.
  • Lighting: Illuminating a room with lamps in trees to highlight branches or on the ground to provide a clear pathway will make the room more user-friendly at night as well as provide pleasant views from inside out. Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, provide the most long-lasting, efficient illumination. Christensen advises incorporating white flowers since they’re most visible in the dark.
  • Music: Take your pick — an iPod and docking station, wireless speakers, or even trickling water add more sensory delights and block neighbors’ distracting noises or street traffic.

5. What’s the total budget?

Because an outdoor room can mean anything from a kitchen with simple barbecue to an elaborate set-up with a fancy grill, refrigerator, sink, warming drawer, dishwasher, beer tap, and pizza oven, home owners should fine-tune their wish list. The various components plus labor add up quickly — and vary based on materials and the home owner’s location. A fire pit handcrafted from locally quarried masonry generally runs between $5,000 and $7,000, while a fireplace may cost double or triple that, says contractor Dean Marsico, cohost with Derek Stearns of DIY’s “Indoors Out.”

Before home owners proceed with a new outdoor room, make sure they know that it doesn’t have to be finished so quickly that they shortchange choices. It’s better for them to get exactly what they want for maximum enjoyment, and, if necessary, spread phases of the project over several years rather than in a few months to get their desired results.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).


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