Staying home? No problem.

Features - Outdoor Living

A stay-at-home mentality is driving landscape design projects of all kinds.

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March 30, 2020

© hikesterson | istock

An outdoor extension of the home is how people have treated their back yards for some time now.

Landscape design/build firms have been creating al fresco kitchens with dining “rooms,” entertainment spaces complete with flat-screen TVs and enclosed areas that feel like a cozy den with no walls. The demand for outdoor living environments has not slowed – in fact, it’s gaining steam in some ways.

“The projects we’ve seen in the last two to three years have been extremely large in comparison to what I would expect,” says Ed Szczesniak, owner and designer, Georgian Landscape Design in Duluth, Georgia. “People are not blinking at spending $100,000 to $150,000 on a landscape project now. For next year, I’m anticipating we’ll have three projects in the $200,000 range.”

Szczesniak dials back to 2008 when the economy plummeted, seven years after he launched the business. “I was shocked – I was getting phone calls for (larger) $20,000 projects,” he says. “I realized people were thinking, ‘I don’t think this is a good time to invest in the stock market. I don’t believe I can sell my house without taking a loss. So, I’ll invest in what I have and stay put.’”

A similar stay-put-and-spend mode seems to be shaping up as Szczesniak looks toward 2020. His average job used to be $8,700 and now it is in the $45,000-plus range. “Seventy percent of our projects begin with hardscapes,” he adds.

Indeed, hardscapes are dominating the outdoor living space with requests ranging from standard areas for simple furniture to elaborate, multi-level surfaces that include retaining walls. “Typically, the paver patio is the bones,” Szczesniak says.

James Ward says, in general, he’s fielding more inquiries for outdoor living spaces, due in part to his company’s marketing focus on this arena. A few years ago, he changed the name of his Kansas City-based business to Innovative Outdoor Living. “Every year, we are getting more calls,” he says, indicating that there’s no shortage of demand for paver patios, fire pits, landscape lighting and features that add bling to an outdoor kitchen like flat-screen TVs and high-end grills.

Clients are interested in saving on some aspects of a design, such as sticking with a basic fire pit rather than an all-out fireplace or gas-powered unit. Additionally, they’ll spend more on practical features like pavers rather than going for less-expensive concrete.

So, there’s some budgeting give-and-take. The landscape firms we spoke with for the story are seeing shifts but no slow-down in their design/build departments.

“The median household income in our area is about $175,000 per year, and in some areas of town, it’s closer to $250,000 to $300,000,” says Michael Pierro, president, Landscape Design Concepts, Norwood, New Jersey. “It almost seems like the higher-income households are more cost-conscious.” He attributes this to an anticipated recession. Meanwhile, he says commercial clients like luxury retail properties are spending on landscape design. Now, about 90% of his business is with property managers. “They want their exteriors to look pristine because it’s the first thing people see when they pull up,” he says.

What outdoor living features are top priorities for 2020, and which ones are phasing out? Lawn & Landscape talked to firms that shared what people are asking for when they decide to move forward with a landscape design.

Surface area.

Beginning with “the bones” of the outdoor living space, as Szczesniak says, pavers are nothing new on the landscape design scene. However, they’re now viewed as more of a standard for hardscape versus a splurge. Because pavers are more costly than concrete, budget-conscious clients have leaned toward this simpler surface in the past. But Ward says this is not the case anymore.

“When it comes to investing money in an outdoor space, knowing that when concrete cracks they have to jackhammer it up and redo it, people are willing to spend on pavers because they last longer, can be maintained easier and we can easily fix small sections,” Ward says.

Education is the key, Ward says. “Once they see how it is installed and maintained – the value of the investment – they lean toward that instead of just putting down concrete,” he says.

Ward is also selling alternative surfaces like recycled granite tiles that are installed like pavers. The material is salvaged by a local supplier, which repurposes granite countertops that are removed from homes. “They take the scraps and cut them into 3x6 or 4x6 pieces, and then we use those as pavers for people’s patios,” he says.

Some clients like the sustainable aspect of selecting a material that will be given a second life on their properties. Others simply love the way recycled granite looks. “It’s not cookie-cutter,” Ward says.

Pierro says more of his customers are choosing pavers long-lasting color and cost-effectiveness compared to other paver brands. So, he’s sourcing more of this material for paver patio projects and clients like the savings.

Szczesniak is designing patios with curved, free-form shapes with pavers in varying colors to add interest. For example, he might soldier course an edge in a darker paver color. “It really kicks everything up,” he says. Paver patios are married with retaining walls and columns that create a room-like feel. Szczesniak might build four columns along a 150-foot retaining wall and install coach lights to create an attractive visual.

What people are not asking for is paver driveways, Pierro says. In fact, no one has requested this from his company in the last five years. However, 10 years ago, paver driveways were a sizable part of his business. The cost is more than double than concrete, so clients are reserving pavers for outdoor living spaces instead.

Reuseable: Recycled granite tiles used as pavers have become popular.
Photos courtesy of Innovative Outdoor Living

Outdoor Kitchens.

Szczesniak rarely designs an outdoor living space without including a weather-proof flat-screen television. Some clients really go big and integrate surround sound and multiple screens.

Another trend: Giving clients a place to take cover. Rather than pergolas, some are choosing complete roof structures. “We are almost building a whole other room on to the house,” Szczesniak says.

Stone surrounding a grill, smoker, pizza oven and refrigeration unit makes a cooking space feel completely built-in, much like a kitchen inside the home. “You’ve got your standard grills, and some will go outlandish and put in the equivalent of a Viking unit with cooktops and an oven,” Szczesniak says.

On the other hand, Pierro fields more requests for simple outdoor kitchens. “They’re asking for a basic retaining wall for a drop-in barbecue and maybe a sink if they have the plumbing for it,” he says.

Not all clients are willing to spend on a retaining wall with space to drop in a grill. “We did a paver patio and outdoor kitchen for a customer who requested a price for a drop-in barbecue bar area, and it was an extra $3,000,” Pierro says. “He didn’t opt for it.”

But when grills are a priority, clients are interested in what’s new.

Fire and Water.

The majority of Szczesniak’s design/build projects happen in golf course communities and HOAs that offer their own swimming pools to residents. “They are going more toward utilizing their community pools, so we are not doing a lot of pool installs,” he says.

Instead, clients are asking about pondless waterfalls and fountains. “When we do water features, we also incorporate lighting in and around them so if you’re out there in the evening having a glass of wine, you can enjoy it,” he says.

Fire is another attractive outdoor living extra that homeowners are after, and Ward says most of his clients go for the wood-burning fire pit style that’s relatively simple yet delivers the type of enjoyment people expect with cozy seating.

“Some want a nice, table-level gas-burning pit – it comes down to preference,” Ward adds. “For our clients, we are doing more of the smaller wood-burning fire pits because they are more cost-effective.”

Full outdoor fireplaces are a possibility, but not a big seller. In fact, Szczesniak has honest discussions with clients about the expense these structures will add to the budget so clients can determine whether they’ll use it enough to justify the cost. Most will not. “We’ve done about 22 fire pits this year and three outdoor fireplaces,” he says.

Light the Night.

Outdoor lighting is a promising area of growth for Ward. Once clients experience their properties with landscape lighting, they’re usually sold. Ward reports tripling lighting installations last year, and the service shows no sign of slowing down.

He works with a supplier that sets up lighting demos on clients’ properties. “It’s a plug-and-play system where we can put out the lights, illuminate the house, trees and accents like fountains, then we leave the lights there for a weekend,” Ward says. “When we come back to take it away, nine times out of 10, they are like, ‘Have the crew come back and put those lights in.’”

Pierro, on the other hand, has noticed a dip in outdoor lighting sales. He attributes this to the fact that many clients who opted for paver driveways chose to illuminate them, too. Now that he does not build paver driveways, lighting business is down. He counted only two landscape lighting jobs completed during the 2019 season.

Lighting might be considered a luxury by some, but as Ward says, once clients see how landscape lighting enhances their properties, they are much more tempted to integrate this feature into the design. So, when Szczesniak starts an outdoor living space from scratch, his crews lay wiring even if lighting isn’t in the plan. “This way, if they call back in six months and decide they want lighting, the infrastructure is already there,” he says, estimating that about 65% of his projects include lighting.

Updated Plants.

Outdated landscaping is a focus of some projects, especially for residents who have lived in their homes for 10 to 15 years and recognize that their plants are tired, overgrown and simply not “the thing” anymore. “Many had builder plants installed and those are spent,” Szczesniak says.

He is putting in more disease-resistant plants like cryptomeria japonica. What he’s not installing: boxwoods that struggle in his region’s heat and humidity, knockout roses, hollies and Bradford pears. “We are also taking out quite a few cherry trees because their root structures are too ‘surface,’” Szczesniak says.

Practical Moves.

Pierro’s design/build demand is mainly in the commercial arena, with luxury retail properties, shopping malls and strip centers willing to spend on landscape design to create outdoor living spaces that entertain and engage guests. “We do a plethora of malls and they are choosing river rock in landscape beds to replace mulch,” he says. “It keeps away rodents and prevents insect infiltration, and it’s safer – no more mulch fires because of cigarettes.”

River rock costs more at the time of installation but will save them in the long run, Pierro says. Irrigation is also considered an investment that pays off in the landscape. “If you want grass to grow, you need it,” Pierro says, adding that clients are still requesting this feature, even if they might not be asking for lighting packages.

Walls that double as seating are another way clients can maximize the functionality of a structure in their outdoor living spaces. Ward has designed a number of properties that feature a firepit surrounded by a seating wall with pillars. Here, customers do go for lighting. “We integrate nightscaping and lighting under the capstones on retaining walls,” Ward says.

Looking toward 2020, Pierro is optimistic about continued commercial design/build business, and Ward says landscape lighting is a bright spot.

Szczesniak expects more large projects that prove people are interested in creating an oasis at home. He sums it up like this: “Projects are growing exponentially.” L&L