Appetite for construction

Appetite for construction

Customers want more than your standard firepit when it comes to outdoor kitchens.

April 30, 2015

It's a warm summer night and your best friends crowd around a flat-screen television mounted above a granite-topped outdoor bar. On the grill, steaks and chicken sizzle. You grab a beer from the mini-fridge mounted under the counter and hand them out to the guys in celebration. Nearby, your wife and her friends sip wine around an open fire.

Sounds like one of the best ways you could spend a Friday night, right?

Now imagine you’ve provided an experience like this for your clients because you’ve designed and built an outdoor kitchen and firepit for them.

No, take that back.

You’ve not just installed a design/build project. You’ve made their lives better because they now can have this experience every weekend. That’s what you’re selling when you create outdoor kitchens and firepits – not concrete, gas lines and mortar. You’re selling a lifestyle.

Feeding the flame.

In Atlanta, Thomas Boyce designs and builds 50 to 100 outdoor projects annually at Boyce Design & Contracting. About 75 percent of those projects have firepits.

Another 40 to 50 percent include some kind of outdoor kitchen, from a simple grill and countertop to a completely equipped kitchen with a full appliance package. Space planning, Boyce says, is the key to a successful project.

“Don’t put a fire feature right on top of where the kitchen is going to be. Create outdoor rooms,” he says. “Make sure you have designated seating around the fire feature, and a good work space and seating for eating around the kitchen, either bar seating or a dining table. It’s basic space planning, but a lot of contractors neglect that in an exterior space. Lay out a room the same as you would do it inside when you take it outside.”

Boyce allows 150 to 200 square feet to create a room around a fire feature. Outdoor kitchens vary depending on the size and scale of what you want to do.” he says.

In the space planning phase, Boyce draws in furniture placements, and takes sight lines into consideration to make sure the outdoor rooms flow together.

In Pleasant Grove, Utah, Rick Meinzer, founder and president of Platinum Landscape, says fire features generally start at $5,000 and outdoor kitchen features start at $9,000.

“Outdoor kitchens can be simple or grand. Most of our clients keep their outdoor kitchens simple – a built-in BBQ with counter space for serving food,” Meinzer says. “We find that granite countertops work great in our setting.

“We are also doing a lot of outdoor kitchens with raised bars so that people can sit on bar stools rather than having a bunch of tables on the patio.”

Firepits, or what Meinzer prefers to call “fire features,” are common.

“Anyone who spends time outside, especially in our environment and weather, loves the heat and ambiance created by a fire. Our clients are looking for living spaces that will allow them to gather with friends and family,” Meinzer says. “Fire is magical and a huge draw. Most of our high-end resorts have fire features. Unless it is 100 degrees outside, you can expect to see guests gathered around, enjoying the dancing flames and warm glow.”

Pretty and practical.

What’s not common, however, is the way Meinzer designs them. More than just a hole in the ground with fire, Meinzer takes both safety and aesthetics into consideration.

Cut out the middle man

One way to expand your offerings is to become a resource for related purchases outside of your standard hardscape sales. At Boyce Design & Contracting in Atlanta, Thomas Boyce is in the process of creating a website that will offer clients a one-stop-shop for all of their outdoor needs.

Appliances: Boyce signed dealership relationships with several appliance lines. Clients select everything from dishwashers to refrigerators to grills from Boyce’s catalogs (and soon the online website) and order from his company directly, cutting out the middle man. Markup ranges from 25 to 50 percent.

Audio/Video: Boyce encourages clients to select their own audio/video components but he wires and installs them for a fee.

Furniture: Boyce specifies outdoor furniture during the space planning stage, and subcontracts with an interior designer to help guide clients through outdoor furniture color and style selection. Once his e-commerce website is up, clients will be able to do much of their shopping online.

“We really push gas versus wood because of simplicity and safety,” Meinzer says. “Wood is nice because of the fragrance and the sounds created as wood spits and hisses, but there are lots of safety concerns with embers that can blow into nearby hills.

Plus, wood leaves ashes, which need to be cleaned out. Most of our owners want the simplicity of turning a valve and immediately having an adjustable flame. When they are done, they turn it off and go inside, not worrying about extinguishing the hot ashes.”

Rather than just digging a hole to hold a firepit, Meinzer raises the fire feature for both safety and beauty.

“We prefer to have our fire features raised so that people can’t accidentally step into them and get hurt,” he says. “We generally raise them about 18 inches, which is seat height. This way people can gather around and look directly into the fire and directly enjoy the heat. When a fire feature is raised, it also becomes a more prominent focal point.”

In Victor, Idaho, Dan Sanders, owner of Enhance Designscapes, says 25 percent of the projects his company works on include a firepit. Most of the features are custom-built and framed with heat-resistant concrete block.

He frequently uses a thin veneer stone product as an accent on the exterior and flagstone capstones. He is partial to the veneer stone because, “We prefer that real look and don’t want the appearance of a cultured fakeness,” he says.

The biggest challenge Sanders faces is the cold and wet Idaho weather. “When it gets around freezing, I start to worry about things curing up,” he says.

But if a client doesn’t want to hold off on a job until the weather improves, Sanders has a strategy to deal with the elements.

“We’ll create a little warm bubble, use plastic tarp and fill it with hot air; it’s common out here,” Sanders says. “We’ll build a mini-enclosure to work in and have heat in that space. At freezing, you have trouble with (cement and mortar) curing, and will have trouble with it cracking. Your cure times slow down dramatically.”

Sanders, Meinzer and Boyce say that good planning and communication with subcontractors is key to avoiding hiccups, fixing mistakes early and delivering a successful project. Communication is critically important, Boyce says, especially when dealing with contractors who run gas lines and other utilities to a site. “Thinking through the utilities, the gas and electrical, access to the utilities and getting it wherever you need them is very important,” Boyce says.

“The stone fireplace and kitchen is set in stone. You need to make sure you have enough electrical and gas, and put some forethought into that before you start building.”

Although his company doesn’t do many outdoor kitchens, which he attributes to Idaho’s “rugged winters,” before he and his brother Martin started Enhance Designscapes five years ago, Sanders was a designer and estimator for a design/build firm in Denver. At that company, Sanders says, outdoor kitchens were fairly common and they included such elements as sound speakers hidden in “faux” rocks placed outside.

In Atlanta, outdoor televisions and audio have been a trend, Boyce says. “Our clients pick out their own components and we install them.”

Creativity may be the greatest asset to a contractor working to design and build firepits and outdoor kitchens. “With all of the cool products available, the sky is the limit,” Meinzer says. “Our clients want unique. They want something no one else has. This requires constant experimentation.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Mount Vernon, Wash.