Outdoor Living: Kitchen Design Considerations

Evolving toward more sophisticated styles and more specialized uses, the outdoor kitchen requires as much planning and design expertise as its indoor counterpart.

authors Patrick O'Toole | February 18, 2020

Until the late 1980s, a suburban home came equipped with a rectangular deck or patio. Homeowners would supply a “patio set” and a grill.

Luxury homes had swimming pools, maybe a detached cabana room, as well as the occasional custom-built masonry grill. Due to heavy grates and some cumbersome maintenance, it was less used than the store-bought Weber sitting right next to it. That was outdoor living, and those days are long gone.

Specialty cooking appliances like this Gaucho-style grill in a
Bridgehampton, N.Y. project are increasing in popularity. Pizza ovens, tandoors and other devices are typical of the trend.

As this magazine has covered extensively over the last 20 years, outdoor living is a distinct category of remodeling activity. Outdoor spaces today are rooms with a progression of dining, living and cooking spaces that are dependent on one another. Of these, outdoor kitchens are perhaps the most critical from a design and construction standpoint. They tend to be the center of the action and are, therefore, the lynchpin of a successful program.

That’s a lot of pressure on whomever is charged with the design and construction of an outdoor kitchen. These days architects, design-build remodelers, ASID members, custom home builders, landscape architects and, yes, kitchen designers are often charged with this task, depending on who has the closest relationship with the client.

And there’s a lot to take into consideration, says Russ Faulk, a leading outdoor-kitchen design educator and head of design and product for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet. Proximity to the indoor kitchen, whether the space is under cover or not, which types of cooking will be included, will food be kept outdoors or shuttled from inside, will there be food-prep areas—are just a few of the key decisions to be made. Some designers bring a clear vision of these choices based on client knowledge, while others must play catch up.

“Each respective discipline brings a unique perspective to these projects,” Faulk says. “Whether it’s an architect, a landscape designer, a remodeler or a kitchen designer, they all bring different skillsets and different visual vocabularies to the equation.” Faulk pegs the increasing sophistication of outdoor kitchens to two primary drivers.

One is the growing popularity of celebrity chefs who increasingly tout experiential dining. Another is open kitchens in restaurants where people now commonly experience firsthand the excitement of high-temperature and wood-fired cooking.

Most outdoor kitchens are located directly adjacent to the indoor kitchen. Pools are a reason they might be farther from the house, like this Manitowoc, Wis. project.

“We’re all seeing things that really elevate cooking to an art form, and that trend has been definitely embraced outdoors,” Faulk notes. “As a practical matter, it’s difficult to get restaurant-performance equipment safely installed indoors due to excess heat and because of the smoke.”

Today, Faulk sees a wide array of new specialty devices take their places outdoors, namely pizza ovens, fryers, Gaucho grills, tandoors and smokers side-by-side with the requisite gas-fired grill. Some devices are offered by his employer, while others like the tandoor, the traditional cooking method of the south Asian and Indian regions, are made by others. “The interest in the specialty side of things and the appreciation of performance is really on a roll in outdoor kitchens.”

Cleaner Lines, Contemporary Looks

The custom-built brick or masonry grills of yore—once the apex of backyard barbecues—are certainly the inspiration for many of the wonderful and simple outdoor kitchens that are built today. Stand alone masonry-sided grilling areas may include a sink and a built-in refrigerator.

Today, however, a number of outdoor cabinet companies offer transitional and contemporary looks. Danver (which last month announced a partnership with Trex to bring a line of outdoor kitchens to the deck builder market) has long served the luxury outdoor kitchen market with stainless steel cabinets with a wide range of uses and door styles from traditional to shaker to frameless and contemporary.

Kitchens farther from the house are typically stockable with food and beverage. This avoids extra trips.

Kalamzoo offers its more traditional Signature outdoor cabinets, as well as a newer line of contemporary cabinets in its Arcadia series. Ideal Cabinetry offers a dedicated line of outdoor cabinets under the Weatherstrong brand. Under Weatherstrong, the company offers four contemporary door styles in several colors.

“Today, we’re seeing outdoor kitchens get a lot more modern with cleaner lines. There’s a lot more variety of finishes and materials. It’s gone well beyond masonry being the primary aesthetic statement. We’re seeing a lot of colors. We’re seeing a more modern design language being applied to kitchens of all sizes and sophistication levels,” Faulk explains. “If you go back in time, an outdoor kitchen was often little more than a built-in grill surrounded by some masonry—not a lot of counter space, not a lot of storage. So a lot has changed.”

Countertop space is an important driver, Faulk says. NKBA guidelines suggest a minimum of 158 inches of countertop frontage for an indoor kitchen. Most outdoor kitchens do not reach that amount. But people are seeking more countertop area outside. In turn, this is impacting the configuration of outdoor kitchens. The easiest way to get more countertop space is to arrange everything in a single line or in two single lines, like a galley-style kitchen.

According to Faulk, a single straight line or two parallel lines of cabinets are the most common design configurations. But L-shaped, U-shaped and even Island style outdoor kitchens are becoming more common.

Larger hoods are needed for semi-enclosed spaces like this outdoor kitchen in Coral Gables, Fla. Evacuating smoke is more difficult in an outdoor space. A larger hood does a better job of it.

“The most popular layout is going to be a linear outdoor kitchen or a galley outdoor kitchen with parallel runs. They’re not necessarily as close together as comes to mind when you think of a galley kitchen in a New York apartment, but still two parallel runs,” Faulk says. “We see L-shapes. We see U shapes. And I love seeing the islands outdoors. I particularly like rolling islands outdoors. They give you a little more flexibility. Islands being part of the layout is definitely the least common thing that we’re seeing. It’s also the newest thing that we’re seeing.”


Much of the design consideration for an outdoor kitchen comes from one key decision. How close to the indoor kitchen will the outdoor kitchen be placed? The vast majority of outdoor kitchens are strategically placed near the indoor kitchen. If food will be prepared inside and carried outside and stored only briefly in an outdoor fridge, shorter distances are important.

If, however, an outdoor kitchen is intended to be fully stocked independent of the indoor kitchen and situated across the yard, perhaps on the other side of a pool, then a much more all-inclusive outdoor kitchen must be contemplated, Faulk says.

“The pool tends to detach the outdoor kitchen from the house more often than anything else. The more fully capable your outdoor kitchen is, the more it can be a destination because you’re not as often schlepping back and forth with dirty dishes or food. You come from the grocery store, and you stock the outdoor kitchen. It’s got its own flatware and dinnerware, etc.

The less capable your outdoor kitchen is, the less countertop space you need. Perhaps there is only one fridge for chilling beverages, then you’ll want to make sure it’s really close and conveniently located to the indoor kitchen, ideally right outside the doors from the indoor kitchen, so that going back and forth is easy.”

The U-shaped configuration found in this Orinda, Calif. outdoor kitchen by architects Camp & Camp Associates Inc. is also typical of a galley-style layout with two parallel lines of countertops, cabinets and appliances.

Proximity is also driven by whether a kitchen is open to the elements or not. Most outdoor kitchens today are covered. It’s part of the comfort factor. Those covered spaces come with a lot of design and construction requirements. It’s easier to create coverage as an extension of the main house. Safety is the No. 1 factor. The roof and walls must be either non-combustable, or there must be a strong ventilation system put in place, or both.

“Most outdoor kitchens have a roof. They are an extension of the home. People just want to leverage their investment as much as possible by making it as comfortable a place as possible, and by making it a space that is livable rain or shine. When you have a roof, it’s easier to extend the seasons.”

With a roof structure in place, ventilation options become a major consideration. Inside a house, ventilation requirements can be easily calculated because it is part of a sealed air system. Outside, Faulk says, “It’s almost impossible to ensure that your ventilation system captures all of the smoke. It has to do with the unpredictability of makeup air in outdoor conditions. Ultimately, bigger hoods will need to be installed, not only for protection but also smoke evacuation.” QR

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