The great outdoors blend with the great room in one of landscaping’s hottest trends: outdoor living spaces. Today’s patios feature amenities that were once exclusively indoors, such as entertainment systems, comfortable, high-end furnishings, fireplaces and much more. The sky’s the limit, and many homeowners want all the bells and whistles. In fact, a survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) found that features like fire pits, lighting, grills and outdoor furniture were among the most popular requests for patios.

Such upgrades appeal to homeowners for two reasons, says Nancy C. Somerville, executive vice president and CEO of ASLA. “Homeowners know that designed landscapes add value to their lives as well as their properties,” she says. “They’re interested in livable, open spaces that are both stylish and earth-friendly.”

The outdoor living area trend, while not new, has strengthened, adds Mark DelPrato, landscape designer with Young’s Landscape Management Inc. in Lumberton, New Jersey. “There was a time when homeowners had a nice patio but never really used it,” he says. “Things have really changed. Nowadays people want true entertaining—and they want spaces that can actually be utilized.”

Outside living

A30511_1_fullWhat constitutes an outdoor living area can run the gamut from a furnished patio to a full-blown kitchen. In fact, many contractors say outdoor kitchens are high on their clients’ wish lists.

“Outdoor kitchens are still king,” says John Peterson, design and sales manager for Exscape Designs in Chesterland, Ohio. “There has always been a handful of people spending a large amount of money on an elaborate outdoor space, but we are seeing a trickle-down effect where more and more clients want to incorporate even a small grilling area. As we talk with our clients, it seems more people are really getting into grilling and cooking.”

Steve Compton Jr., general manager of CKC Landscaping in West Chester, Pennsylvania, agrees that outdoor kitchens are a must-have. And so are fire features. “We’re doing a lot more designs that incorporate fireplaces,” he says. “That really extends the amount of time you can use the space—not only extending the use into the evening but also extending the entire season.”

Peterson adds that fire pits seem to be just as popular as outdoor kitchens. He says Exscape Designs has created everything from natural wood-burning features built from barn stone to more contemporary features with crushed glass and gas burners. With so many options, a homeowner’s individual tastes easily can be included.

Ryan Novak, lead landscape designer for Culver’s Lawn and Landscape in Marion, Iowa, says the company has seen gas fireplaces emerge as the big trend.

“I wouldn’t go as far as saying that wood-burning fireplaces are on their way out, as there will always be an interest there,” Novak says. “But the number of gas fire features we’ve installed this year definitely surpasses the wood-burning installations. That’s simply because of the benefits gas offers—it’s clean-burning and provides more opportunity for customization.”

Fire features ranked as one of the most desired enhancements on the ASLA survey.

Though not ranked as high as fire pits and fireplaces, water features also made the list. Smaller-scale features have fallen into favor with Peterson’s clients. “More people are trying to incorporate small, pondless water features using an urn or a fountain,” he says.

Photo: iStock

Light it up

While a fire pit or fireplace can illuminate an outdoor living space, there is nothing like proper outdoor lighting to create a beautiful and functional area. Most landscape contractors install LED lighting, which is more efficient than other types.

“The right lighting is very important,” Compton says. “If homeowners are investing in an outdoor living space, they want to get the maximum amount of enjoyment out of it. Lighting is another way to extend the use of their space.”

Photos: Young’s Landscape Management

Outdoor lighting allows a space to be enjoyed well into the evening hours. In addition, Compton points out that good outdoor lighting adds an important element of safety and security. Not only can it help prevent falls or trip hazards by lighting up walkways, but it also can be an excellent theft deterrent. Burglars tend not to target a well-lit home.

Under cover

Structures such as pergolas often serve as the foundation of a design. “We’re definitely seeing a lot more structural work these days,” says Chris Bianciella, co-owner of K&C Land Design and Construction in Vauxhall, New Jersey. “Whether it’s a pergola or even a full roof, we’re seeing more homeowners want some sort of structure that makes the space not only feel more like a room but provide some sort of shade and protection from the elements.”

Shaun Callaway, landscape architect with Earthworks in Alvarado, Texas, agrees that structures are increasingly popular. “We’ve actually done several cedar pergolas, which are nice both for aesthetics and functional purposes,” he says. “They really add to the landscape and help tie everything together. But they also provide a nice shaded area to the space.”

Adding a structure overhead goes along with the trend of merging the indoors with the outdoors, Bianciella says. “The comforts of home are being seen more and more on the outside,” he says. “Homeowners want running water, refrigeration and even televisions in their outdoor living space. Basically, they don’t want to be running in and out of their house. They want everything right there.”

Novak recently designed an extravagant outdoor living space that included a TV. “I think people are looking for ways to make their space unique,” he says. “We’ve done some very elaborate spaces that have included pizza ovens, and we’ve even installed two kegerators.”

DelPrato also has seen clients push the limits. An outdoor space is apt to include refrigeration, icemakers, countertops, built-in grills and audio-visual capabilities, among others.

“Outdoor living has evolved to a larger scale,” he says. “People are calling with ideas that are bigger and better than what we might have seen five years ago. It’s not just a—it’s a full kitchen, similar to what you might see inside. And even the grill is bigger and better. These days it might even include a rotisserie or other special features. Basically, homeowners just keep stepping it up.”

Icing on the cake

As people spend more and more time in their outdoor space, furnishings have become more important, Novak says. Culver’s, which includes a retail space and carries some furniture, may expand its inventory to meet surging demand.

“Furnishings really do go hand in hand with completing the full outdoor living space,” Novak says. “A certain portion of our clientele wants us to handle everything, to the point where we actually play general contractor. We work with the audio-visual guys, the pool company and the gas company to hook up the fireplace. If we’re doing all that, it only makes sense that we also assist with selecting the furnishings for the space. When we’ve pulled everything together, why would we leave off the frosting on the cake? The furnishings complete the space.”

Compton adds that many of his clients like the idea that he can handle a project from start to finish.

“Homeowners often want someone who can oversee the entire project—someone who can work with the pool company on your pool and the carpenter on your deck,” he explains. “There’s an increasing demand for the landscape contractor to take charge of the entire project and make the homeowner’s job easier. Everyone is busy these days, and homeowners see a lot of value in that one-stop-shop concept.”

Home sweet home

A national trend of homeowners staying put has only built demand for outdoor living spaces. Instead of selling, they’re investing in their homes. And instead of splurging on travel, they are taking “staycations,” or vacations at home.

“Homeowners want a space that they can share with family and friends,” Compton says. “They also like the idea of keeping their kids at home. By adding amenities to the outdoor living space, it really does create that vacation-like feel.”

Novak agrees. “The money that people were once allocating for vacation is getting used for the staycation concept,” he says. “People see a lot of value in investing in their homes and having amenities available in their own backyards.”A30511_6_fullIt may have a lot to do with the fact that people are busier than ever.

“Our clients tell us that their family time is incredibly precious to them, but it can be hard to come by,” Novak adds. “If that means they can go in the backyard and enjoy an hour and a half of family time a few evenings a week, then it’s well worth it to them.”

Peterson says if he had to sum up the outdoor living trend these days, it would simply be that people want to spend more time at home. As a result, they want their homes to be as enjoyable as possible—both inside and out.