Lavish outdoor living

Clients are increasingly willing to open up their wallets for outdoor spaces with all of the amenities.

It’s often said that the landscape business follows the stock market: When things are good, people are willing to spend. That’s certainly been true recently, with many firms already booked for outdoor living projects for summer 2019.

“People are spending more money every year,” says Barry Schneider, president of Surrounds Landscape Architecture and Construction, based in the greater Washington, D.C., area. “They’re trying to make their backyards into a resort. They want to go out their back doors to places that are welcoming extensions of their homes.”

Here’s what’s in demand in outdoor living:

Customers want the allure of water features without the maintenance issues that come with koi ponds and streams, so landscapers are offering other options.

Outdoor kitchens.

Without question, design firms say the No. 1 requested item is an outdoor kitchen. “Everyone wants one,” Schneider says. “Ten years ago, it was basically a built-in grill. Now it’s a full-blown kitchen with high-end stainless appliances, including a natural gas grill, gas or wood pizza oven, wet sink, fridge and smoker.”

What’s causing the increase in demand? “I think with the uncertainties in the world these days, people are spending more time at home, less time traveling, and they want to be outside,” says Chris Vedrani, owner of Planted Earth Landscaping. “We’ve put in more kitchens in the last two years than the last eight years altogether.”

Besides cooking and food preparation areas, design elements for outdoor kitchens often include a bar and seating areas, placed strategically so people can interact with the cook. Basically, the outdoor living movement blurs the line between indoors and out. Spaces are being created that mimic the indoor environment down to the lighting and seating areas.

All photos courtesy of Surrounds Landscape Architecture and Construction

As a result, lighting has become an element installed on every single project, Schneider says. LEDs have improved the ease of installation, maintenance and versatility. One of the latest requested features is lighting that changes for mood or season: oranges and purples for Halloween, reds and greens for Christmas and so on. Lighting is installed not only for walkways and seating and bar areas but also as accents to highlight specimen plants or to add a moonlighting effect on trees.

In addition, pavilions and pool houses that include a bathroom and storage cabinets are growing in popularity. It’s a simple way to increase useable living space and create additional privacy. Pergolas are requested less frequently because, although they have a pleasing aesthetic, many clients prefer covered structures for protection from the elements.

Another element that’s gaining in popularity is outdoor sound systems. “It’s become very sophisticated,” Schneider says. “We’re hooking up high-quality subwoofers, speakers, the works.” High-end outdoor furniture, typically with a modern design consciousness, is also in demand. “We’ve seen clients willing to spend $3,000 to $4,000 on an outdoor sofa, which is an indication of how much people love being outdoors,” Schneider says.

Obviously, the more complex the project, the higher the price tag. But Vedrani says a minimum $25,000 to $50,000 is common for basic outdoor kitchens, with most higher-end projects in the $300,000 and up range for full-blown kitchens with deluxe appliances, according to Schneider.

Fire features.

Firepits with seating in the round and fireplaces, which make spaces feel more like interior living rooms, are common requests. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) 2018 trends survey revealed that nearly 70 percent of projects were expected to include an outdoor fire pit or fireplace. These design elements add an additional layer of coziness and extend the season for sitting outdoors. Because fireplaces require plumbing and gas lines, they typically cost about $10,000 alone, while fire pits have a $4,000 to $5,000 price tag, Vedrani says.

“People are spending more money every year. They’re trying to turn their backyards into a resort.” Barry Schneider, Surrounds Landscape


Flagstone, bluestone, limestone and travertine, which works well for pool decks because it doesn’t get hot on the feet, are extremely popular choices because people like the appearance of natural stone. However, many manufactured stone companies are creating products that look more and more like the real thing, Schneider says. In addition, they’re easier for most contractors to install.

The trend with decks is the use of more exotic materials, such as ipe wood. Ipe is a type of tropical hardwood that’s noted for its durability and rich, warm brown color (it softens to grey unless you seal it). “It’s essentially zero maintenance, so we have a lot of clients doing a sort of accent deck that’s maybe a foot off the ground with no railing away necessary,” Vedrani says. They’re sometimes located as a focal point a distance from the house.

When it comes to preferred railing, one of the most commonly requested products nowadays is stainless cable railing. “It’s the number one choice,” Vedrani says.

The disadvantage is that it’s expensive (at least twice what typical railing costs) and it needs tightened every few years. The advantage is that virtually no other maintenance is required.

Water features.

Many designers say that client requests for water features have tapered off. Water features such as streams and koi ponds are not as popular as they once were, in part because of the maintenance issues such as algae and potential leaks. “People still want water, but we’re doing more projects such as an urn that spills water into a gravel bed,” Schneider says. “You still get the sense and sounds of water with this kind of feature, but with fewer maintenance challenges.”

Plant palette.

According to the most recent ASLA trends survey, about 80 percent of projects are expected to include low-maintenance plantings, per client request. Low-maintenance gardens always have been popular, but there’s a distinct movement toward a more relaxed feel to the landscape. “We’re selling a lot more sweeping beds of grasses, even in traditional gardens,” Schneider says. “They’re more natural in appearance and you get three-seasons of interest. They’re often placed alongside a meandering gravel path and a mixed border of perennials.”

“Almost every project has at least six to 12 pots and they’re planted with 90 percent annuals for color.” Chris Vedrani, Planted Earth Landscaping

The other benefit is that grasses fill in quickly. You can plant hundreds of them in April and within three months, you’ve got a nearly full-grown plant. “They don’t cost as much as boxwoods or evergreens,” Schneider says.

Another growing design development is the use of pots grouped throughout the property. “Almost every project has at least six to 12 pots and they’re planted with 90 percent annuals for color,” Vedrani says. Limestone or concrete urns or large (3’x 3’) metal planters, set on the front porch or on and around the pool deck, are most popular. They’re usually filled annuals that are swapped out for three turns (spring, summer and fall) including seasonal options such as pansies or mums.

One of the challenges for designers in recent years has been plant materials at reasonable cost. “For example, boxwoods are three times what they used to be and you need to find the blight-free varieties,” Vedrani says. “There’s a real shortage because many growers folded after the 2008 recession.” The result has been fewer growers and fewer mature plants. Vedrani says one of their solutions is to substitute other lesser-known plants that are as attractive but resist blight, such as blue hollies or an inkberry holly, such as Gem Box.

The author is a freelance writer based in the Northeast.

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