Over the last two decades, the way Americans live has evolved. It is distinctly more outdoor-oriented. But the pace of change has been gradual, requiring remodeling contractors to be nimble and on the lookout for the newest ideas. Today’s obscure client request can be tomorrow’s next big trend.

Beginning 20 years ago, the complexity of outdoor spaces began to grow from simple decks and patios to much more robustly designed spaces. Smart remodelers have been building their outdoor expertise for many years, while others are new to the niche. Today, outdoor living remains a full-blown national trend that is on the rise.

Like remodeling in general, there are local and regional nuances. What sells in suburban Philadelphia may not be recieved as well in Cincinnati or Northern California. In addition, construction details also vary dramatically with regional topography, soil conditions and local vegetation.

That is why, for the second time in recent years, Qualified Remodeler conducted reader surveys around the country to discern these regional differences and similarities. [That research accompanies this article.]

Among the similarities? Profit. Remodelers are reporting more outdoor living leads and more profitable jobs. Expertise in outdoor living is helping remodelers stand out, differentiate and succeed like never before.

Differences in Design

Neal Hendy, owner of Neal’s Remodeling in suburban Cincinnati, is bullish on outdoor living. His design/build remodeling company does its share of room additions, whole-house remodels, and kitchens and baths, but over the last 10 to 12 years—since before the recession—large-scale outdoor living projects have been an important part of the business.

Hendy sees a lot of outdoor business coming from previous clients; in particular, empty-nester homeowners who suddenly find their extended families are bursting their home’s capacity. Their children are married. Grandchildren are part of the mix. And though their four- and five-bedroom homes are comfortable, space  for entertaining is at a premium. Existing porches, decks and patios simply do not have the space or the allure to hold such gatherings. According to Hendy, they are now building pools with large decks and hardscaped areas. They want grilling areas and beverage stations. And they want covered spaces—all with televisions.

“Let’s say it’s a home that might have a nice outdoor porch,” Hendy explains. “But the porch is not big enough to accomplish the goals of a growing family of grandkids. It might have worked fine when the kids were younger. But now that the kids are having kids, and they want to bring home more people, it is a way of making the weekends more fun. That is where these swimming pools and concepts like this are coming about.”

And the projects span a wide range of neighborhoods—from houses with average values of $400,000 on up to houses with values over $1 million. There is no real way to tell whom the next customer will be, Hendy says. The common thread is they are people who have been successful in their careers and want to entertain in their homes.

For Ryan Bonner, owner of Bonner Contracting in Exton, Pennsylvania, the design process is less about a list of outdoor features a client wants in their backyard, and more about the motivations for changing and upgrading a space. Bonner likes to sit with both decision-makers and talk about their vision for the space. Like the main floor of a house, he plans distinct spaces—formal and informal zones. Formal spaces tend to be planned around the size of the main table and the number of people they seek to host for meals al fresco. Informal spaces are those feet-up spaces, circling a fire pit. During an initial consultation, he is careful to notice the personal tastes of the clients.

“In that meeting, I am looking around their home to discover their instinctive style,” Bonner says. “Is their dining room table rectangle or square? Is it round? Do they have any pictures, fixtures, frames that have curve to them? Is it both straights and curves? That way, when I go to design their space and I put a finished product in front of them, whether they know it or not, it is already to their style. They may not know why they like it, but it fits right into the rest of their scheme.”

In one recent project, Bonner had a blank slate—a flat, brand-new backyard. In it he designed several distinct hardscape spaces: a grill area; a sitting area covered by an arbor; a formal dining space complete with a long, sleek fire element; and finally, it steps down into a casual hangout space around a large masonry fireplace. The area even has an outdoor shower.

Out in San Mateo, California, located on the peninsula between San Francisco and San Jose, kitchen designer Cynthia Collins has been experiencing “heavy demand” for highly designed and multifunctional outdoor kitchens. Collins, who is a designer with Gilmans Kitchen and Bath, says she’s been designing several such outdoor kitchens each of the past five years, using a stainless steel cabinetry in partnership with Danver, an outdoor kitchen company.

These full kitchens tend to use multiple appliances—ice makers, kegerators, outdoor grills, smokers, tappenyaki grills, refrigerators—along with sinks and faucets. The difference between designing for outdoor spaces versus indoors revolves around finish. Appliances do not need to be flush with the cabinets and so forth. But the appliances, sinks, faucets and surfaces do have to be durable.

There is a lot of fog and moisture, she notes, so everything must be air-tight and hold up well to water. The company likes to specify Dekton by Cosentino ultra-compact sintered surfaces because they hold up better than natural stone. They do not fade. They also tend to specify 16-gauge steel sinks. They operate just like indoor kitchens, but the finishes are sturdier and tougher.

“Designing an outside kitchen is a very similar process to designing an inside kitchen,” Collins explains. “They must select everything from the appliances that they wish to use out there—whether it is a pizza oven that is going to get built in, [an] ice maker, or obviously grills and things like that. So it’s about finding out about the appliances and the items that the client needs and desires, and then working the cabinets around to make storage in the space that is left over.”

Construction Considerations

It goes without saying that outdoor construction offers a different set of challenges. Trees, shrubs and topography play a major role in the timing and phasing of an outdoor construction project, Hendy says. His clients expect the Neal’s Remodeling team to smooth out all of these natural challenges as well as manage the wide variety of trade contractors—from plumbers and electricians to landscapers and pool contractors.

“We are a process-oriented company,” Hendy says. “So therefore, we have clients who are looking for somebody who is going to ride herd over those kinds of folks. So they are looking for a pool person they can trust.

“What I am seeing is a bunch of landscapers who do a nice job and know that aspect of it. But when it comes to building a trellis, they are in trouble,” he continues. “You can say the same thing about a pool guy. When the pool guy gets his pool in, it has got to have the hardscape around it. These guys don’t want to do the hardscape. But they need to have the pool at the right level. And all of a sudden they are not capable of making sure all of these things are thought about. They are just thinking about their pool and moving on. That’s what we do.”

The same is true for Collins and her outdoor kitchen work. Inside kitchens tend to have level floors to start with. Outside, they must work hard to create a level surface.

“Outside you are dealing with uneven surfaces,”  Collins notes. “Oftentimes it needs to be made into an even surface. The cabinets have leveling legs, which is helpful because the boxes are built like an European frameless box—it has leveling legs, but we still need to start with a fairly level area and proceed from there.”

And because outdoor cabinets tend to be stainless steel, the measurements need to be more precise. “They cannot be cut,” says Collins, chuckling.

In suburban Philadelphia, hillsides become opportunities for progressions in formal and informal spaces, but it has to be coordinated and staged accurately, Bonner says.

A Profitable Luxury Niche

The commonality for all regions of the country are the clients. Most are successful in their careers. Budget tends not to be an issue. They seek to add entertaining space just like they would buying a second home. This is discretionary money they can spend as they wish.

“These projects are more than profitable,” Hendy says. “And from that standpoint of where we were doing a lot of room additions 20 years ago, now I am doing more outdoor living areas than I am doing room additions. It was not by design; it was just a different focus. A lot of our clients have a family room or a four-bedroom house. Now it’s a question of giving them something that they are really desiring.” |QR

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