Outdoor Kitchen Blends Trend, Tradition

Bob Oster and his team stared out over a crowd of 300 smiling faces.

Oster, the director of design and sales for GreenSource LLC, a landscape design/build firm in Mentor, Ohio, had spent the past several weeks overseeing the construction of a residential outdoor kitchen in Pepper Pike, a picturesque suburb on Cleveland’s eastside.

After developing a meaningful professional relationship with the client, Oster and his staff had been invited to the homeowner’s housewarming party for close friends and family. He had hired GreenSource to perform the exterior landscape development of his new home construction. It was very much a celebratory event, as caterers greeted guests with helpings of savory party foods and bartenders popped tops and concocted drinks.

“The best thing was standing atop the deck, looking down on the outdoor kitchen we built,” Oster says, reflecting back on that moment in 2010. “People were using this thing exactly the way it was designed for. That was the most impact I’ve ever had and felt with a project. You’re designing something and making sure it’s going to work out, but then seeing it come to life like that was an incredible feeling. I was proud to see it and in that moment, we knew we did a good job.”

Fast forward to August 2012, and Oster, along with thousands of others in the landscape-architecture industry, has spent the summer months creating spaces that don’t need four walls to be called a home--outdoor kitchens are an extension of the home, constantly growing in demand and design. Whether it’s a simple built-in grill, a pizza oven featuring a grand chimney, or a 30-foot half-circle, hand-chiseled, briar-hill sandstone bar like the masterpiece GreenSource crafted for the family in Pepper Pike, landscape architects are constructing spaces not only to charbroil a steak or to pour a glass of pinot grigio, but to toast the joy and comfort of the backyard as a place of retreat and peace of mind.

Jerry Scott of RH Peterson Co., a grilling manufacturer inCity of Industry,Calif., sums it up perfectly.

“Many folks are deciding to simply stay home,” Scott says. “They are cocooning. They want to stay home and make their home as nice as possible. With extended patios, outdoor fireplaces, or fire pits, it’s about extending your ability to stay outdoors and after dark, preparing your meals. The exterior becomes a social gathering place.”

Many industry leaders attribute this retreat-to-the-backyard mentality to the national economy, which continues to find its footing.

“Anytime there is a recession, there is an attitude of wanting to reinvest in an asset you already have,” says Mark Rhodus, president of Two Brothers Brick Paving with locations in Dayton, Cincinnati, and Columbus, Ohio.

Rather than purchasing a new home, many people are instead looking towards updating their current residence. The backyard, with its humble patch of grass, unassuming portable grill, diminutive patio, and overlooked mulch beds, is often the first place homeowners look to.

The Perfect Recipe…

When meeting with a client for the first time, the most obvious place to start is in the backyard (whether figuratively or literally), asking questions about both the property as a living entity and of the individuals who will make the reconstructed land their own.

No. 1--What Do You Envision For This Space?

It is time to review the project and understand how the area will be utilized. Will it be used mostly for grilling and dad’s culinary creations? Or does this young professional frequently entertain an upscale crowd? Maybe the retired set desires a renovated place to drink morning coffee and later welcome the grandchildren to play. It is crucial to design a place that will fuse perfectly with the client’s lifestyle--whether seeking a natural, organic outdoor space or a more classical, man-made appearance.

Rett Rasmussen, vice president of Rasmussen Gas Logs and Grills inWhittier,Calif., notes the importance of setting up the outdoor kitchen ergonomically so it plays well with its orientation to the backyard. Don’t disregard the day-to-day direction of the sun or the force of a blowing wind. Constant sun glare on an installed outdoor television or sudden grill smoke to the face can quickly ruin an otherwise beautifully orchestrated space.  Matching the features and products completes the look--a grill with an accompanying side-component, a stainless-steel refrigerator, sleek drawers, well-placed cabinets, space to perform food prep, a clear-cut eating area, and possible outdoor heating units (if applicable) make this space more of an extension of the home.

“The outdoor room trend is finding itself in every space of the country,” Rasmussen says. “The downturn in the housing market has led people to upgrade their backyards, go outside, and take advantage of the fresh air. It is about melding together product design and customer desires.”

No. 2--Who Are These People?

Just like the outdoor kitchen being created, clients have individual personalities. Consider asking clients the following questions:

Are there children living here? If so, what are their ages? Are the kids’ friends over a lot playing outside? A house full of teenagers is much different than a home with a toddler or new baby. Alternatively, does this couple intend to start a family? Will a family grow into this space?

How about the outdoor kitchen’s proximity to the house? Will it be a cozy nook or an expansive layout with links and passageways to other backyard features?

How often will this space be used? Maybe the client is a weekend warrior or a full-blown weekday chef who needs all the amenities in order to prepare complex meals. Some homeowners simply want a bar, and others treat their outdoor kitchen very functionally. The shapes and patterns of building materials are practically endless, and quickly set the tone and vibe of this space.

Is there a lot of freeze-thaw action? Or is the region year-round fun in the sun? Is shelter necessary?

How much money is this client able (or willing) to spend? Always be budget-minded. Steve McLaughlin of Big John Grills & Rotisseries in Pleasant Gap, Pa., notes that with the economic climate and trend in home-nesting, clients care very much about spending their money on a tangible investment that increases the value of their home.

No. 3 – What Belongs Here?

Now it’s time for the “We’d like to have” and “I was thinking” conversations. Clients will freely express visions and desires for this new site, perhaps without understanding limitations and design considerations. The basic components of an outdoor kitchen will mirror those of its indoor little brother--countertops, storage space, appliances, furniture, lighting, and perhaps the addition of a modest plug-in radio or small flatscreen TV. But this is an outdoor kitchen, the cool older brother of the landscape architecture world, and a naïve four-walls-mentality can be knocked down and broken out. Amenities such as fire pits, water features, natural stone pavers, and other unique building materials can be introduced outside with little restraint.

Oftentimes, clients are expecting the outdoor kitchen to only complement, not counteract, the original indoor kitchen. They understand they’ll spend ample time going inside to retrieve ingredients, utensils, or a beverage. The prepared meal may not be eaten outdoors, but rather at the kitchen table inside. From a design perspective, RH Peterson Co.’s Jerry Scott recommends combining function and aesthetics. “This is really an investment in the value of the home,” Scott says. “It is part of the exterior landscaping, and can match the home’s brick or the tile around the pool. Once you know the functionality, then you can style things.”

Photos Courtesy of (in order they appear): GreenSource LLC, Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet

Sara Macho is the editor of Landscape Architect Business (LAB) magazine. Contact her at (866) 444-4216, Ext. 225, or at sara@northstarpubs.com.