If you believe the trend watchers, outdoor living is still hot, though a sluggish economy is scaling back the demand ever so slightly. Landscaping treatments and garden elements are popular as ever, but home buyers and homeowners are building more modest outdoor kitchens and dining areas for their entertainment needs.

“Overall, 94.4 percent of residential landscape architects rate outdoor living spaces like kitchens or entertaining space as somewhat or very popular for 2010,” according to a March survey released by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). “Among kitchen features, the most popular include the classic outdoor grill (94.4 percent) and counter space (73.5 percent). More elaborate kitchen elements like outdoor refrigerators (52.8 percent) and sinks (50 percent) were much less popular.”

This shift to thrift is expected in tough economic conditions, but it doesn’t mean that people no longer want to entertain outside. It simply means that builders need to be more strategic in the type and scale of features they put in their homes. Instead of offering an elaborate outdoor kitchen with double dishwashers, sink, multiple cooking areas, and large countertops, think simpler and smaller. When it comes to outdoor living areas, less is certainly more.

“Homeowners want to create a sense of place for their family, friends, and neighbors to enjoy outside, but an uncertain economy means many will dial back some of the extra features we’ve seen in past years,” says ASLA executive vice president and CEO Nancy Somerville.

Outdoor kitchens and cooking areas have enjoyed continued popularity in good times and bad. Over the last decade, home buyers have indicated their willingness to pay for outdoor entertainment space at home—whether in a big way during the boom, or as an at-home substitute for vacations during the bust. And manufacturers believe that this desire will endure, which is why so many are entering the outdoor kitchen category.

So what exactly should builders think about now when they want to create an outdoor living space that offers both interest and usefulness? They should be thinking about simple outdoor grills, fireplaces, seating, cool outdoor lighting, and storage.

Whether the budget is big or small, it’s important to pick the right products. And any good outdoor eating area design should start with the cabinets. A handful of companies, including Viking Range Corp.; Atlantis Outdoor Kitchens, a division of Custom Wood Products in Roanoke, Va.; and Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet in Chicago, offer stylish, high-quality products.

“The job description for a kitchen cabinet is simple—store items when they are not in use while keeping them at the ready,” says Russ Faulk, vice president of product development for Kalamazoo. “Outdoors, however, there is a wrinkle. To keep things at the ready, they must be clean and dry, and this is not so easy outdoors.” Faulk recommends that builders look for weather-tight cabinets made from durable and hygienic materials.

Faulk also advises that builders and home buyers get the best grill they can afford. “It is the heart of the outdoor kitchen,” he says. “Cut corners in other areas if necessary.” Today, any appliance company worth its salt offers a wide range of outdoor cooking products and accessories. This list includes Viking, Kalamazoo, and Lynx Professional Grills in Commerce, Calif. Benton Harbor, Mich.–based Whirlpool Corp. also offers an entire line of outdoor cooking products in its KitchenAid brand, and the same goes for DCS by Fisher & Paykel in Huntington Beach, Calif. For its part, Louisville, Ky.–based GE Appliances is ratcheting up its outdoor cooking with a new line of Monogram brand grills.

Other kitchen components are also important. According to ASLA’s findings, at least 53 percent of landscape architects believe that the use of outdoor refrigerators will be somewhat or very popular and 50 percent believe sinks will assume a similar position.

For now, home buyers want these items to be inexpensive, ASLA finds. “The most popular outdoor entertainment features eschewed more expensive, elaborate items in favor of the essentials,” the group says. So expect continued interest in seating/dining areas (95.6 percent) using installed seating such as benches and seatwalls (90.6 percent) or weatherized outdoor furniture (77.1 percent), and fire pits and fireplaces (94 percent).

“An outdoor kitchen project can be a big investment,” Faulk explains. “Make sure you clearly establish your priorities for the space. Define the types of outdoor cooking and entertaining you wish to do, and identify the equipment and space necessary for these activities.”

Have a Seat: An outdoor space needs lighting, and it needs seating. You can get both in a single product, Sit-Up. Made from plastic and stainless steel, each piece features lighting as well as seating, and multiple units can be configured to create illuminated benches. Each piece measures 43 3/4 inches long, 21 3/4 wide, and 17 5/8 inches high. The line uses 23-watt compact fluorescent bulbs. Itre USA. 732-225-0010. www.itreusa.com.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Roanoke, VA.
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