Heart of the Outdoors

Outdoor living is on the rise and designers are responding by incorporating outdoor kitchens as noteworthy as their indoor counterparts.

Outdoor living has become increasingly important in many people’s lives. As such, designers are creating exterior spaces that can, at times, rival those inside with cooking areas that include built-in appliances, sinks and sometimes even islands and ventilation hoods and seating/lounging areas that include fireplaces and televisions.

“The kitchen tends to be the heart of the home, and more and more people want to bring that concept to the outdoors for entertaining,” says Michelle Tumlin, owner/principal designer, Michelle Tumlin Design in Austin, TX. “People want to take advantage of their outdoor spaces, extending their kitchen to the outside to enjoy the cooking experience and to entertain.”

Shannon Taylor, owner/senior designer, Barrel & Board Design in Roswell, GA, agrees. “I’m seeing the outdoor kitchen trend beginning to pick up,” she says. “I think it seems to flow with the trend of cooking at home.”

Designed by Jeremy McFarland, this custom home features two outdoor cooking areas. The screened porch has a built-in grill with ventilation hood, side burner and stainless steel backsplash, two undercounter refrigerators, a sink, a pull-out trash and plenty of storage and countertop space. All of these sit adjacent to the dining table and seating area with a fireplace and television. Heaters in the ceiling provide warmth on chilly days. The second cooking area, which features a wood-burning pizza oven and fire pit, is an open-air space positioned closer to the lake.

Ellinor Ellefson, owner/principal/lead designer, Elle Interiors, metropolitan Phoenix, AZ, also sees clients picking up the pace in their outdoor spaces. “People want to enjoy the weather and be outside as much as possible,” she says. “In the past few years, they have gone more toward the indoor/outdoor feeling. If I look back maybe eight to 10 years, there was much more separation. When people were outside, they were outside. When they were inside, they were inside. They did more window treatments for privacy. But now the trend is toward open windows, and even doors that open up a whole wall so people can really move from the indoors to the outdoors.”

Linda Sonders, Linda Sonders Design, in Naples, FL, notes that most of her clients want an outdoor kitchen. “Virtually all single-family homes have outdoor kitchens in Florida, given our 12-month-a-year outdoor living possibilities,” she says. “Ironically, it’s the summer months that drive us inside, given the humidity.”

Jeremy McFarland, principal, Brickmoon Design in Houston, TX, agrees. “At all price points, there is a conversation about the outdoor space…about how it will function and how it will flow,” he says. “At a minimum, most people will have a grill, but we’ll see everything from the basic grill to a true outdoor kitchen.”

And outdoor spaces aren’t just for warmer climates, as proven by Amy Mangold, AIA/principal architect/partner, Scott Simpson Builders, in Northbrook, IL. In recent years, she indicates, there hasn’t been a client who hasn’t wanted to focus on some sort of exterior living space, which, in addition to kitchens, can also include terraces, pools and spas.

“We just finished a job where the master suite is on the first floor with French doors that open to a terrace with radiant heat,” she says. “The homeowners can walk across the heated surface to a spa. It’s like resort living. We have found there isn’t a single project that isn’t incorporating some sort of outdoor room or space. For us, the term ‘outdoor kitchen’ is a bit limiting because we are doing so much more.”

This lake home, where Michelle Tumlin collaborated with Geschke Group Architecture and C&A Builders, showcases how an outdoor kitchen can bring the heart of the home outside. Material choices, such as the limestone countertop and stonework, reflect the overall style of the home, while appliance selections add luxury, including a grill with sideburner, multiple smokers, refrigeration, ice maker, warming drawer, sink and stainless steel drawers. Smart home features from Control4 add fun and functional technology.

Essential elements

Like indoor spaces, finances heavily influence the design of any outdoor kitchen.

For McFarland, homeowners with high-end budgets are still including ‘the works,’ such as a recent custom home that actually features two outdoor cooking areas. The screened porch has a built-in grill with ventilation hood, side burner and stainless steel backsplash, two undercounter refrigerators, a sink, a pull-out trash and plenty of storage and countertop space fashioned from granite…all of which sits adjacent to the dining table and seating area with a fireplace and television. Heaters in the ceiling add warmth on chilly days. The second cooking area, which features a wood-burning pizza oven and fire pit, is an open-air space positioned closer to the lake.

However, he also sees some clients pulling back a bit and downsizing their outdoor spaces.

“It depends on which client lens I’m looking through,” he explains. “In mid-range homes, we’re seeing more of a trend toward smaller outdoor kitchens. We often hear people say they had a large space with all of the amenities but they just didn’t use it as much as they thought they would. They still want a grill, an undercounter refrigerator and pull-out trash. But not everyone needs a sink or bar/island since they usually have seating adjacent to the cooking area.”

McFarland also notes that, in general, outdoor, or ‘summer,’ kitchens don’t need to be as spacious as their indoor counterparts because people use them differently.

“People don’t usually congregate in an outdoor kitchen like they do inside,” he says, noting the inclusion of nearby sitting areas keep guests within communication range. “And, there aren’t typically multiple chefs working in the kitchen. Instead, usually one person cooks while others are swimming in the pool, sitting by the fire or watching TV.”

For Sonders, the only real must-haves are a great grill and a sink. But when budgets allow, she’ll add undercounter refrigerators, ice makers and side burners.

The Florida designer also uses more traditional kitchen cabinetry, rather than stainless steel cabinets or a stucco or stone surround, while countertops are often shellstone, ‘Black Vermont’ stone or granite, frequently in Thunder White.

“I think the more organic nature of cabinetry is more fitting so it feels like an extension of the indoor space, which it actually is during the winter months in South Florida,” she says.

Cabinetry, however, must be water- and insect-proof, so she often turns to composite box materials such as Starboard, accented with long-lasting door elements like teak, cedar and cypress. Or, she will also use NatureKast cabinets. “They have wonderful wood-looking doors and panels that look authentic, but are a fully durable composite material,” she notes.

Many of Shannon Taylor’s clients have cooked on simple built-in grills for a while. But now many are looking to up the ante with their outdoor spaces, including this homeowner who wanted an outdoor kitchen, complete with a beverage refrigerator, ice maker and sink. Cooking is handled outside the immediate kitchen area and an adjacent seating area with a fireplace and television gives guests a place to lounge.

Tumlin’s clients often opt for fully functioning outdoor kitchens. ‘Must-haves’ include smokers, stainless steel sinks and faucets, refrigeration, weatherproof storage, plentiful lighting for evening cooking and, of course, grills “that can do just about anything,” she says. Additional elements often include pizza ovens and ice makers, along with comfortable seating. “Let’s not forget combining dining areas, fireplaces/fire pits, music and outdoor TVs to linger a little longer in the outdoors,” she adds.

Many of these elements – such as a grill with side burner, multiple smokers, refrigeration, ice maker, warming drawer, sink and stainless steel storage drawers – were included in a recent outdoor kitchen on Lake Travis where the homeowners wanted their outdoor area to be one cohesive space for entertaining. Material choices, such as the Lueders limestone countertop and stonework, reflect the overall style of the home. An added luxury is smart home features via Control4. From inside the home, or from a smart phone or tablet anywhere in the world, the homeowners can control and manage virtually every aspect of their home, such as lighting, HVAC, security, surveillance and audio/visual, which includes streaming music to the outdoor living space – one of 23 zones throughout the home. A video distribution system utilizes screens up to 85″ in 18 zones, including one in the outdoor kitchen.

Like Tumlin, Ellefson’s clients often look for complete cooking spaces similar to what they might have indoors.

“People have been grilling outdoors for years and they used to be content with a seating area and a grill,” she says. “But now they want to take it the extra step and enjoy the outdoors more. I’m working on a project now where my clients want to do all of their cooking outdoors. One area will host a sink, a grill and a cooktop, which can be used to cook something like a sauce simultaneously with what’s being cooked on the grill. We’re also including an island, similar to an indoor kitchen island, with a refrigerator, prep area and overhang countertop where people can sit and chat with the cook. It’s basically an interior space…without the walls.”

Ellinor Ellefson’s clients often want complete outdoor cooking spaces, such as this kitchen where the designer included a refrigerator, grill, sink and seating at the single-level countertop. They also often trend toward a contemporary design style, where materials such as concrete for countertops, as in this space, are particularly popular.

Many of Ellefson’s outdoor spaces also trend toward a contemporary design style where materials such as concrete for countertops are particularly popular. In fact, poured concrete was the countertop of choice in one recent project where she renovated the exterior space to complement the newly remodeled interior.

“Now the indoor and outdoor spaces really flow together,” she says, noting their shared modern design style.

Some essentials for the space include a refrigerator, grill, sink and seating, which Ellefson included at the single-level countertop. “Previously their countertop was multiple levels,” she explains. “But people don’t really want raised bars anymore…either inside or outside. A flush countertop improves work flow and gives you more work space. Plus, it gives a cleaner design.”

Ellefson complemented the countertop with 24″x48″ concrete-esque porcelain tile that faces the island. “We wanted something more interesting than stucco,” she notes. “We butted the tiles very tightly together to give the effect of semi-polished concrete.”

The designer added some shade, another critical element given her Arizona location, and finished the space with travertine tiles for the floor.

Like Ellefson, Taylor’s clients have cooked on simple built-in grills for a while. But now many are looking to up the ante and the designer has noticed the trend for outdoor kitchens is beginning to catch on, especially with clients who have pool houses and want an outdoor kitchen or kitchenette for entertaining.

When Jeremy McFarland designs a summer kitchen, he is cognizant of how its location and amenities will affect views from inside the home. For this home, he positioned the outdoor kitchen off to one side, thereby allowing the nearby pool to be the focal point as viewed from inside.

“People are looking to branch out and focus on different aspects of cooking,” she comments. “They’re wanting to cook in ways they can’t inside, like with a wood-burning pizza oven.”

Essentials in many of the outdoor cooking spaces Taylor designs include a grill built into a stone surround, much like a fireplace. Cabinets are usually stainless steel and countertops are natural stone. The latter was the material of choice for a recent pool house kitchen where granite serves as a durable countertop work surface. In this case, the designer opted for more traditional cabinetry since it was protected by the roof. And, while the structure is fully open on one side, Taylor designed the space so it could be fully enclosed in the future, if needed.

Appliances include an ice maker – which was a ‘must have’ for these clients – a small beverage refrigerator and a sink. Cooking is handled outside the immediate kitchen area to eliminate any ventilation issues associated with smoke. Within the pool house, Taylor also included an adjacent seating area with a fireplace and television. A ceiling fan overhead keeps air moving and guests comfortable.

Given Mangold’s northern locale, outdoor living spaces often start with a roof. Adding a fireplace and infrared heat in the ceiling further extends enjoyment opportunities so homeowners can use the space from the end of April through Halloween.

“Our outdoor spaces are more like great rooms,” she says. “Within that concept is a cooking element. But there is also an area for dining that includes a table, a high top or a big farm table as well as a lounging space with a fireplace and television so people can watch baseball in the spring and football in the fall. The entire space becomes an extension of a family’s living space that happens to be outside.”

Linda Sonders often uses more traditional kitchen cabinetry, such as in this space designed in collaboration with Arcadia Design and Waterside Builders, rather than stainless steel cabinets or a stucco or stone surround so the space feels like an extension of the indoors.

Other ‘must haves’ often include a giant built-in grill with a rotisserie element and plenty of countertop space – usually crafted from poured concrete, but more often natural stone such as granite or quartzite – to each side of the grill for food prep and serving. Often, Mangold will include a built-in ice cooler as well.

“We create a hole in the countertop and drop in an insulated stainless steel cooler,” she says. “People fill it with ice for beer, wine or soda. A hole in the bottom is connected to a hose so, when the ice melts, the water can drain to daylight. We’ll also include an undercounter refrigerator to keep things cold that don’t go on ice.”

Considering the winter temperatures in Mangold’s climate, sinks aren’t always a given. “About half the time we’ll add a sink and faucet,” she says. “They are expensive to run and winterize, so clients have to be committed.”

Many of these elements were included in a recent great room addition Mangold made to a home she designed a few years ago. Its cooking space includes a built-in grill clad in stone and accented with a ventilation hood to exhaust smoke. A few stainless steel drawers beneath the grill store barbecue utensils. Nearby is a dining table accented with a chandelier…“because we can,” she says. Additionally, a lounging area features a fireplace and television. On each side of the room, expansive 12’x8′ doors with screens complement the ceiling fan for additional ventilation. Bluestone pavers cover the floor and extend beyond the addition to the outdoor terraces, tying everything together.

Design considerations

Outdoor kitchens are, in fact, kitchens, and as such, follow many of the same design principles as their indoor equivalents.

“Good design is basically the same outside as inside,” says Taylor. “Regardless of its location, the space needs to function well. It’s the concept of form follows function. It needs to work well first, then you can make it beautiful.”

Tumlin agrees, citing a few details such as ensuring enough counter space and considering kitchen flow…“just as we do when designing an indoor kitchen.”

Mangold adds, “There are a lot of similarities in how we think about designing indoor and outdoor spaces. However, I do think that outdoor spaces are almost more precious because they are used less frequently. They are really an extension of a client’s home and how they live in it so we want to make sure to get it right.”

While comparisons can be made, designers note a few differences, such as the need to consider providing shade and respite from the elements for their obvious effect on personal comfort when outdoors.

“UV rays also play a large part in making the right selections for countertops, lighting appliances, storage and more,” adds Tumlin.

Additionally, outdoor kitchens typically have an increased emphasis on socialization, notes Taylor. “Sometimes socialization is a component of indoor kitchens where the trend right now is to have a much more open floor plan,” she says, “but it’s always part of an outdoor kitchen. The kitchen will always be the epicenter or the gathering point, so incorporating guests and family in this area is very important.”

Ellefson agrees, adding, “Indoors we would have a kitchen that is open to a great room or family room. The same considerations should be given to the outdoors, since people want to be together.”

Ventilation hoods and abundant storage, both critical components in interior kitchens, are typically less important outdoors. The former are often eliminated entirely, except in more enclosed spaces where the effects of using a grill or smoker may not dissipate entirely on their own. The latter is frequently minimized given the challenges of storing supplies long-term in a place where there is limited control over climate, insects, dirt, etc.

“Summer kitchens are less about storage and more about cooking and serving,” says McFarland. “People won’t typically store a lot outside because it’s hard to keep anything long term other than a grill brush and maybe some towels and trash bags.”

“At the end of the day, it’s outdoors,” adds Mangold. “No one wants to pull out dishes that need to be washed anyway.”

McFarland also indicates that design considerations should address how the outdoor kitchen will be seen from inside the home. “You don’t want to block any views,” he says. “If you’re looking out the windows from a living room, dining room or kitchen, you don’t want to stare at the grill. Instead let nature, the sitting space, pool, landscape, etc. be the focal point. An outdoor kitchen needs to be beautiful and well thought out, and aesthetics are critical, but it isn’t always the focal point. Sometimes, it’s more of a sidebar statement.” ▪

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