When we were rambunctious children, Mom or Dad may have suggested we go outside and play. As adults, we’re thrilled to take that advice. Beyond the back door, Central Valley yards are evolving into happy marriages of home and garden. Today’s decks and patios are flush with all sorts of tantalizing goodies such as outdoor kitchens, fire pits, pizza ovens and secluded dining retreats.
Far removed from the days of picnic table, kettle grill and tire-on-a-rope swing, a well-designed outdoor living environment creates a seamless entry from inside to outside. It’s an extension of the home that adds extra living space.
A simple grill with a foot or two of food prep space can be expanded and upgraded with numerous companion components, including ample stone or concrete counter tops, built-in kegerators, refrigerators, wine storage units, dishwashers and ice makers.
Patio and deck furnishings are no longer defined as plastic and strap chairs and round, glass-topped tables. Outdoor furniture is plush and comfy, with deep-seated sofas and fetching chairs. Dining sets can be pricy tropical hardwoods such as teak and ipe or stylish recycled plastic furniture.
Central Valley weather certainly cooperates, allowing for nearly year-around access to the al fresco lifestyle. Instead of peering out the patio door at half-dead grass, there is the option of plopping down on a cushy outdoor sofa with a watermelon margarita in hand and a ballgame on the flat-screen TV.
“Our climate is ideal for spending time in the backyard,” said Brian Lawrence, store manager and co-owner of Emigh’s Outdoor Living in Sacramento.
He said people began staying home during the Great Recession. Since they were home, they began spending more time and money in backyards.
“With all the additions that have come out in the past few years, there is so much more out there for people to use and enjoy,” Lawrence said. “The outdoor industry has matured. Where the kitchen used to be the center of the home, the outdoor kitchen now is more of the hub.”
Matt Niermeyer, designer and owner of Custom Image Hardscape in Folsom, said outdoor kitchens are his most requested project, followed by pizza ovens.
“We live in California, where the sun shines,” Niermeyer said. “People invest in outdoor living environments because they like to cook and entertain at home. They can go out and enjoy their yards, entertain and have family and business gatherings.”
Outdoor kitchens are favored additions, according to designers, but home builders are less likely to include one this year. A survey released earlier this year by the National Association of Home Builders indicates new homebuyers are shifting attention to more energy-efficient features. However, as a home-improvement upgrade, outdoor kitchens remain popular, especially in regions where weather favors outdoor activities. A very basic kitchen will consist of a built-in grill with a few feet of counter space.
“What most affects cost is the size of the kitchen and the quality of appliances and materials,” Niermeyer said. “A high-end grill is going to cost more.”
Grills begin at a couple of hundred dollars, but a Viking, Luxor, Dacor, DCS or other high-end unit can exceed $5,000.
Estimating the cost of an outdoor kitchen is an inexact science because each kitchen is unique. Custom-built framing is more expensive than buying pre-fabricated framing. Cost factors you may not think about include installation of a natural gas line and plumbing hookups for sinks and dishwashers. Water used in outdoor sinks and dishwashers can be drained right into nearby planting beds to reduce irrigation needs.
Landscape designer Michael Glassman, who has clients statewide, recommends going big if you’re considering adding outdoor living areas.
“The bigger the outdoor entertainment area, the better,” said Glassman, who often works with professionals who have high-stress jobs. “A lot of them can’t just leave town when they want. We create Zen zones. They come home, kick off their shoes and cook dinner outdoors. Rather than a psychiatrist’s couch or vacations, these yards have become their savior.”
The return on investment for an attractive, well-designed backyard with hardscape and plants is sheer enjoyment, although the right buyer and season (spring and summer) can result in a nice return on money. Homebuyers tend to think dollars and hard work when they see an abundance of bare earth and open spaces out back.
The ongoing drought has forced Californians to rethink landscapes that demand the majority of home water use. Removing thirsty lawns and replacing with patios, decks and extended expanses of pavers, tile and stone can greatly reduce water needs. Low-maintenance hardscape surfaces not only don’t require water, but also eliminate mowing, edging and the chemicals used to keep lawns green and growing.
Fire pits popular
So, what backyard features do we most covet? The Residential Landscape Architect Trends Survey annually predicts the public’s most popular outdoor design elements. Regional favorites, however, were not considered. This year the national favorite is fire pits and outdoor fireplaces. Portable fire pits are extremely popular.
“People use them year around,”Lawrence said. “Even on a summer day, when the Delta breeze kicks up, fire pits are nice. They extend the day and are good conversational areas.”
Fire pits are portable or built-in and fueled by gas, propane or wood. Propane and gas fire pits are safer, but more expensive to operate. Wood fuel is less costly, but higher maintenance because of stacking, starting, cleaning and extinguishing fires, plus it generates smoke and can pose a fire hazard. Some folks just prefer the smell and crackle of burning wood.
“Outdoor fireplaces are popular, too, but they don’t put out as much heat as a fire pit,” said landscape designer Nathan Beeck of Clearwater Designs, with offices in Sacramento and the Bay Area. He added that a permit and a gas line may be required, depending on choice of fuel.
$1,500Estimated cost for a decorative pot water feature that includes the pot, basin, pump and profession installation, according to Clearwater Designs.
Fireplaces accommodate fewer people sitting in front of the flames, but they exude a sense of intimacy and romance. Fire pits, basically a home version of the campfire, are more family friendly with seating all around so the warmth can be shared by many. Lifestyle dictates which is more suitable. Of course, you can have both.
Glassman sometimes pairs fire with water, a spectacular combination of flames with the tranquil sound of water. He said fire tables also are popular. With a fire table, the heat source is in the middle of a table and is higher.
He designs whole outdoor environments with whatever the client desires. Along with kitchens, fireplaces and fire pits/tables, Glassman said screened-in patios, shade structures and drought-tolerant plants also are in demand. He said a piece of land “to grow things” is important to his clients and he encourages even townhome and condominium developers to include small courtyard areas in new units.
A piece of privacy
“People want a little piece of private, enclosed outdoor space, so they’re not on display to the neighbors,” he said. “They want to cook and dine without looking at their neighbors. Lots of people want a little area to grow tomatoes and other vegetables. A horse trough made out of galvanized metal can be used to plant their veggies. They want a dwarf citrus for their drinks.”
Townhouses and condominiums aren’t the only privacy-challenged residences. Newer homes often have been built on tiny lots where the view is a fence or the neighbor’s window.
Beeck, of Clearwater Designs, fashions privacy and incorporates a tasteful design element with outdoor water walls. Simply put, water walls are circulating water cascading down a wall. They infuse beauty and privacy and use little water because it is stored underground when not in use.
“With a water wall, you’re not looking at the neighbor’s fence,” he said. “You’re not in your dining room looking at a fence that is 5 feet away. So, we do a decorative wall.”
One of Beeck’s favorite water walls is a sheet of steel that is put through a rusting process so that it resembles copper. His design work has gained national attention and recognition, including multiple TV appearances (he appeared with Glassman on TV’s “Garden Police”) and multiple gold medals for design at the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show.
Beeck’s focus is on water-efficient design elements and plants. His company designs and installs not only water walls, but pondless waterfalls, koi ponds, decorative pot water features and complete landscapes with water-efficient plants. He buries cisterns that will hold 800-1,200 gallons of water collected from rooftops when it rains and sometimes uses a solar pump to circulate the water.
“You can buy a good little solar pump for $150 to $200,” Beeck said.
Pools still popular
The Residential Landscape Architects survey found swimming pools and spas as the No. 1 choice in outdoor recreational amenities. Water feature and swimming pool designers and contractors are extremely conscious of drought conditions and are emphasizing eco-friendly, energy-efficient and water-saving technologies and equipment.
According to the California Pool & Spa Association’s website, “It is well-established that swimming pools use less than half the water of traditional lawn landscaping, and conserve even more water than drought resistant landscaping when a pool cover is applied.”
Mike Geremia of Geremia Pools in Sacramento also is chairman of the board of directors for the CPSA. He said pool construction last year was up from 2013, which also was a year of increased construction. His company not only builds pools and spas from Modesto to Sacramento and beyond, but a variety of other outdoor living amenities, including the popular fire pit.
“We’ve had to really look at how each particular area is impacted by the drought,” he said. “Pools are an addition to your lifestyle. Some people are health conscious and want one for exercise. Some want it for family time. Some just want to sit by a pool and have dinner.”
Geremia said he believes swimming pools will retain their popularity.
“They’re not something that has ever been a fad and especially in this region where we have so much heat in summer time,” he said. “It’s a great product for this market and is part of the California lifestyle.”
More energy-efficient swimming pools are using multi-speed pumps, LED lighting and new pool sweeps that are 30 percent more efficient, Geremia said.
$15,000 to $20,000Estimated cost for a small natural swimming hole, 11-by-6 feet and 3 feet deep, according to Clearwater Designs. Something to splash around in.
“Pools used to be No. 2 in home energy demand, but not anymore,” he said. “The pumps we use probably can save 60 percent to 70 percent when set up the most efficient way.”
Beeck said his “natural swimming hole” pools have become a favorite of clients. The pools resemble an old-fashioned swimming hole and are cleaned by plants rather than chlorine.
“It’s 50 percent plant to swim zone,” he said. “We’re using UV (ultra violet) sterilizers to kill any bacteria in the water. It’s drinking-quality water because of how we’re filtering it. Maintenance is very little. It’s a natural pond.”
Natural, green, energy-efficient, sustainable and eco-friendly are emerging as the next big thing in designed backyards. The Residential Landscape Architect survey’s most popular home landscape projects targeted sustainability with drought-tolerant plants, drip irrigation and permeable paving. Recycling is a process companies such as Poly-Wood Inc. use to manufacture stylish furniture made from discarded, plastic milk and water containers rescued from landfills.
Some composite decking products have utilized recycled plastic bags and sawdust for years.
Materials, products and taste change, but the backyard remains a beloved retreat. Perhaps you’re reading this from one of those comfy, recycled plastic patio chairs?
WHAT’S POPULAR IN OUTDOOR LIVING
Outdoor features and design elements most requested by homeowners in 2015, according to a survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects:
Native/adapted drought tolerant plants – 83 percent
Fire pits/fireplaces – 78 percent
Permeable paving – 77 percent
Drip/water-efficient irrigation – 74 percent
Lighting – 72 percent
Reduced lawn area – 69 percent
Grills – 63 percent
Outdoor furniture – 63 percent
Seating/dining areas – 63 percent
Wireless/internet connectivity – 60 percent
Solar-powered lights – 55 percent
Planters, sculptures, garden accessories – 55 percent
Counter space – 53 percent
Outdoor heaters – 46 percent
Stereo systems – 45 percent
Swimming pools/Spa features – 40 percent
Movie/TV/video theaters – 38 percent
Utility storage – 38 percent
Sinks – 37 percent
Sports courts (tennis, bocce, etc.) – 36 percent
Refrigerators – 35 percent
Outdoor cooling systems (including fans) – 29 percent
Showers/baths – 27 percent
Hammocks – 20 percent
Bedrooms/sleeping spaces – 9 percent