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What’s Hot in Outdoor Living

The pandemic has resulted in homeowners not only examining their home’s interiors but also their exteriors, with the desire for exceptional amenities spreading to the outdoor space.

authors Jamie Gold   | May 10, 2021

With apologies to the Gershwins; summertime, and the living is easy. Fish are grilling and the clients are nigh. What’s happening this season with your outdoor projects?

What, you’re not taking any on? That’s a missed opportunity, as interest in outdoor kitchens, living areas, even showers, has grown tremendously. Clients are taking vacation dollars they didn’t spend during a year they remained mostly at home and turning their yards, decks, patios and balconies into staycation-worthy spaces. Best of all, you already have many of the skill sets and resources needed to tackle these projects.

Let’s look at outdoor living trends with five industry pros:

  • Ferguson’s Senior Director of Category Management Kate Bailey;
  • Chicago Roof Deck’s Design Studio Director Jake Gazlay;
  • Lenette Hewitt, marketing director for California-based boutique home builder Davidson Communities;
  • Greenville, South Carolina-based Kustom Home Design firm Owner Kimberly Kerl;
  • NKBA research head Tricia Zach.

Low-maintenance surfaces and high functionality are hallmarks of outdoor cabinetry today.
Photo: Courtesy of Kimberly Kerl, Kustom Home Design

The Pandemic Effect

“The seismic shift Americans have experienced over the past year has made homeowners keenly aware of their outdoor spaces, resulting in increased demand,” observes Bailey. “Homeowners see the outdoors as an active extension of their homes, and the possibilities are plenty.” Those possibilities include improving or adding porches, patios, outdoor kitchens and living spaces, she observes.

The result is ample new opportunities across the spectrum, including for kitchen and bathroom professionals. “Our members are absolutely seeing an increased volume of outdoor living spaces compared to pre-COVID!” Zach declares. “In fact, 65 percent of designers have cited that their current or planned 2021 volume of projects for residential outdoor living areas will be up.” This category has become so popular that the association has added an outdoor section to its annual trend report, she shares.

Kerl says almost a fifth of her projects from last year were specifically for dedicated outdoor spaces, and half of the remaining design-build projects her firm took on included an outdoor element. “While many of my projects include a secondary outdoor element, I received at least twice as many new inquiries and actual jobs for projects whose primary focus was an outdoor living space,” she shares.

Homebuilder Davidson is including multiple outdoor living spaces in all its new Delta Coves coastal community residences in the San Francisco Bay Area, Hewitt says. “Each of the 42 homes has its own private dock, wrap-around decks, expanded decks over the water and upper decks with sleeping porches.’”

Outdoor showers and bathrooms add a spa feel and convenience to a home.
Photo: Courtesy of Hansgrohe, available through Ferguson Bath, Kitchen & Lighting Gallery

Space Planning

Gazlay’s Chicago Roof Deck projects are all outdoor based. “Outdoor kitchens and lounge areas are the most popular spaces,” he comments. The same is true for Kerl’s South Carolina clientele, with large-scale, very well-equipped kitchens being the most requested.

Zach agrees: “The top outdoor spaces homeowners are upgrading or creating include outdoor kitchens, patios/decks and screened-in porches/three-season rooms.” Those results included both improving existing areas and creating brand new spaces, Zach reports.

Bailey notes that the definition and scope of outdoor kitchens have expanded beyond the basic grill station, a trend definitely worth noting: “As homeowners are looking to create outdoor cooking and dining oases, they seek to upgrade existing spaces for more functionality and better aesthetics.” This has meant adding quality lighting, outdoor fireplaces, decorative furniture and decorative elements, she points out.

Just as they do indoors, Gazlay’s clients want to hang out in the outdoor kitchen, too, he notes. Given the sometimes harsh weather of his Chicago area, “There is a major focus to extend the use of the space into cooler seasons and inclement weather. Shade structures, heaters, fire pits and lighting are all great design solutions to encourage extended use,” he notes.   

Pizza ovens, side burners and other sophisticated cooking appliances are supplementing grills for well-equipped outdoor cooking centers.
Photo: Courtesy of Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet and Wellness by Design (Tiller Press, 2020) © J. Gold

Appliances and Fixtures

These new and improved outdoor spaces go far beyond what comprised an outdoor kitchen in past decades, all agree. “Years ago, the focus was a built-in grilling station that has now morphed into multiple cooking sources such as pizza ovens, teppanyaki-style griddles, multi-burner grills, power burners for tall stock pots and various types of smokers,” Kerl shares.

Fixtures and appliances have gotten more sophisticated too, the designer says: “Outdoor sinks are beginning to reflect the same multipurpose designs that we see in indoor kitchens, and can be used for prep, cleaning and serving of chilled items. Refrigeration and ice makers are commonly added outdoors.” Since so many outdoor kitchens are now under cover, ventilation is important too, she comments.

Ferguson is also seeing strong sales in these products, as well as in outdoor wine coolers. “Homeowners enjoy pairing their pizza with their favorite vintage, especially when enjoyed at the ideal temperature thanks to an outdoor wine cooler with an adjustable climate feature,” Bailey says.

She’s also witnessing a trend toward technology-enhanced offerings. “Homeowners are investing in smart outdoor appliances, with smart grills being the most popular. Some grills offer voice-activation technology and mobile apps, allowing you to choose a recipe and send it straight to your grill. Smart smokers that let you check on food via an app while the food is cooking takes a close second place.”

Bailey also sees the interest in antimicrobial capability that is trending indoors showing up outside, too. “Fixtures in living finishes of copper, brass and bronze are in high demand. They are proven to have inherent properties that aid in the destruction of a range of microorganisms,” she comments. Low maintenance stainless steel also remains popular, she adds.

Cabinetry and Countertops

“Materials for outdoor kitchens have greatly expanded beyond the typical stone or brick base,” Kerl points out. “Today we design with wood-look PVC cabinets, stainless steel cabinets and even less conventional materials like porcelain and concrete.” She uses stone, concrete and Dekton for tops.

In his Chicago market, Gazlay says, “The hottest cabinetry trend is ‘custom-built’ pieces clad in a material that is carried throughout the space, such as ipe, porcelain tile, concrete board or stone. Building in a kitchen or piece of cabinetry that shares detailing to the larger project is always impressive.” He uses Dekton, porcelain slab and outdoor-rated quartz for his tops. One detail he points out is clients’ desire for low-maintenance finishes outdoors. “Costly refinishing and maintenance work is no longer the expectation,” he states.

“Stainless steel is hot,” Hewitt notes about what the California builder is seeing in Davidson’s outdoor cabinetry choices. “For us, being right on the water, concrete countertops are durable and weather resistant. For our new Waters Edge homes, we’ll be using weatherproof cabinetry.”

Overall, NKBA’s Zach notes, “Built-in cabinetry with stainless steel/metal or wood doors are most prevalent in outdoor kitchens. Cabinet door and drawer styles vary, but colors are usually gray/silver or beige, tan or brown. Cabinets are used mostly for storing non-food items.” Natural stone and quartz countertops are the most popular for outdoor kitchens, she says.

Comfort features like heaters, overhead coverings and fans make outdoor spaces livable year-round.
Photo: Courtesy of Reisa Pollard of Beyond Beige Interior Design
Photo: Amanda Oster & Stephen Li

Outdoor Enhancements

Comfort, lighting and entertainment features are all popular for outdoor living areas, the experts agree. “As noted in the NKBA Design Trends, 48 percent of homeowners are looking for integrated entertainment in their outdoor living spaces. The inclusion of televisions, centralized controls for sound systems and lighting, and smart-home technologies are highly desired,” Zach shares.

Kerl says her clients are optimizing comfort: “Most homes I design have an outdoor living space that is designed with a fireplace or fire pit and/or ceiling-mounted radiant heaters. Retractable screens are also popular, as are glass and other panels to enclose the space during colder months.”

These are in demand with Gazlay’s Chicago area clients, too, he shares. “Televisions, fire pits, spas and other amenities that you might find at the interior are now standard for the outdoor space.” Those TVs have come a long way, he notes, with outdoor performance improved and prices reduced. “More than anything, we find all projects benefit from a sound system at some level. Wireless technology has allowed for outdoor A/V to be far more easily installed and operated,” he states.

Water Features

“Smaller-scale wading or lap pools have gained in popularity, often paired with a built-in hot tub,” Kerl shares.

Another area where water features are trending is off the primary bedroom suite. “Many homeowners are looking to create an intimate outdoor space to bring the hotel or spa experience home,” Ferguson’s Bailey observes, particularly in moderate climates. “Outdoor shower panels offer body jets and hand sprays with integrated shelving and come in various styles to complement both the home and outdoor space. Natural materials like treated bamboo, neutral color finishes like white and black powder and stainless steel are popular for both looks and durability.”

Davidson is offering outdoor bathroom features in the company’s Northern California communities, Hewitt says, in the form of outdoor showers for the main bathrooms and half baths accessible from the private docks. “If you’re in the boat, you can jump off to use the restroom and not go through the whole house. The new Waters Edge models will have an outdoor bathtub in one of the backyards,” Hewitt notes.

“Most of my lake and beach house designs include an outdoor shower,” Kerl says. These tend to be functional setups to allow guests to rinse off before entering the home, but even those are getting more design attention, with benches and decorative floors, she shares. “The design tends to reflect the setting with incorporation of natural materials.” The designer sees this trend growing with the increased popularity and competition for vacation rental business.

Last Words

While the pandemic won’t last forever, the realization it brought to millions of American homeowners of the importance and value of their outdoor spaces will likely endure for decades. This trend was already growing before 2020 and can bring added health to your clients and healthy profits to your business. ▪

Jamie Gold, CKD, CAPS, MCCWC is an author, wellness design consultant and industry speaker. Her third book, Wellness by Design (Simon & Schuster), published September 2020. You can learn more about her Wellness Market presentations, books and consulting services at jamiegold.net.

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