Outdoor living is becoming the 'in' thing

Carmen Musick • Jun 27, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Americans are falling in love with the great outdoors — and they aren’t having to travel very far to do it. Outdoor living, as it was first dubbed, has surpassed the trend stage and become a lifestyle as more and more Americans opt to create their own destinations — right in their own back yards.

“While Better Homes and Gardens did not conduct another ‘staycation’ survey this year, we do still see a clear trend in Americans spending more time at home.

“Families are feeling the pinch at the gas pumps and the grocery stores and are reshaping their summer plans accordingly,” said Rebecca Wisdom, senior publicist for Meredith Corp.

The 2008 Better Homes and Gardens’ Summertime Study found that 49 percent of Americans are spending less on travel and vacations, and instead focusing instead on how to turn their homes and outdoor spaces into an entertainment destination for family and friends.

Once considered a “lottery” dream by many, creating a backyard oasis has hit the mainstream with products ranging from simple furnishings and grills available at most any home and garden store to elaborate custom-built barbecue islands and fully functional kitchens.

“There are many affordable luxuries that can be integrated into the back yard to create the dream setting,” said Anamaria Bearden, public relations manager for Cal Spas.

“It’s all about picking several focal elements and building your back yard around those elements.”

For some, that central element is a pool or spa — which themselves have evolved tremendously and now range from a self-contained portable hot tub to a luxurious spa with a 42-inch auto-rising outdoor television.

For others, whose budgets, space or personal tastes rule out a pool or spa, two other items are becoming wildly popular as a focal point in outdoor spaces: fire pits and barbecue islands.

“Each one of these items can be used to transform an area of the back yard. Simply by outfitting the hot tub with a surround package that includes bar seating, the spa can be used for entertaining guests in the water and outside of the water.

“Similarly, the fire pit can be utilized as a cocktail area and for socializing. And the barbecue island can be ordered with a bar so that it can serve as a third social area for guest seating in addition to food preparation,” Bearden said.

The cost, she said, can start at less than $10,000 total for all three, depending on the items selected — which sounds like a lot, but is proving for many families to be a better value, based on usage, than a yearly family vacation.

In fact, according to the Better Homes and Gardens Magazine survey, such outdoor enhancements now form the second most popular category of home improvement projects in America.

The idea of outdoor living, or bringing the indoors outdoors, has become so popular that both the National Hardware Show and National Association of Home Builders Show each include areas for vendors to showcase the latest developments and trends.

Among the top trends, say the various experts, are:

• Bringing the indoors outdoors with all-season furnishings, top-of-the-line grills, fireplaces, decorative pillows and rugs, and accessories such as artwork.

• Specialty landscaping.

• New-and-improved decks and patios, including a wider selection of natural products such as tumbled stone and brick.

• Exterior lightscapes, hard-wired lighting that illuminates the garden, trees and house.

• Water features, including fountains, ponds, streams and other water elements to enhance the sights and sounds, and offer peace and relaxation.

• Outdoor fireplaces, ranging from simple portable fire pits to custom-built structures.

• Garden pavilions and gazebos.

The key, all of the experts agree, is to transform whatever space a homeowner has into a destination in and of itself. Think of it as taking a “staycation” — the trend of spending more time at or near home — to a whole new level on a daily basis.

A backyard oasis

When Kim Fales moved into her Watauga Street home, it came with an extra lot that until that time had remained vacant — used primarily for neighborhood football and baseball games.

And while Fales had no aversion to either of those things, she wanted to find a way to utilize the property for something she truly loved: being outdoors.

Her vision was a place where her family and neighbors could gather to enjoy good food, good company and warm summer nights — an oasis of sorts in her own back yard.

“I started out just trying to figure out ‘How could we use this space?’” Fales said, “and it just kind of evolved from that.”

For Fales, there were two things that were non-negotiable.

First, this modern outdoor living space had to preserve and respect the history and architecture of the house, affectionately known as the ski slope house because of its steeply pitched roof.

“I took the garden shed and made it into a pool house, put a pool in and landscaped it. [In the pool house], there’s a sink and a dishwasher and a refrigerator and a bathroom. Then, upstairs, I made a little loft area where you can go up and read,” Fales said.

It turned out beautifully — except for one thing: It was indoors and Fales wanted to be outdoors — but not in the sun.

Her solution came in the form a large screened-in porch, built by a contractor friend to blend in with the rest of the architecture.

“It mimics our garage and mimics the pool house so it looks like it’s been here all along,” Fales said.

The second essential, as far as Fales was concerned was that her backyard oasis had to be something her family would use on a regular basis.

“Because of the distance between my house and the pool area, it’s almost like going into someone else’s yard. My feeling was it’s got to be totally usable and sustainable so that we’re not just running back and forth, which just defeats the whole purpose of having it,” Fales said.

The result was an outdoor living space that, on any given day, could be used for grilling, dining outdoors, watching some television or entertaining friends.

“We eat outdoors almost every night. I love to cook and, boy do we love to eat,” Fales said.

“When we grill out, on any given night, we can have 10 people out there. I have a teenager and we use it a lot, and a lot of our neighbors use it. I have some of the nicest neighbors, and we all pitch in and bring various things. It’s economical and it’s fun.”

And while Fales realizes not everyone will be able to incorporate an outdoor living space on the same scale that she did, she recommends families take advantage of the space they have.

“I was fortunate enough to have the space, but even if you just have a corner somewhere, use and enjoy it,” she said.

A backyard playground

When Henry “Sparky” and Gail Dyson want to relax, they can retreat to their back yard for a swim in the pool or a soak in the hot tub. That is, of course, if it isn’t swarming with children, friends and neighbors enjoying Henry’s unique backyard playground and the couple’s gracious hospitality.

“The kids from our church call it Sparky World,” Gail said of her husband’s creation.

“My husband is a child at heart so he has lot of different areas for kids to play. He has a climbing pyramid, a see saw, a trampoline and extended slide that we say goes into Virginia,” she said.

There are grown-up attractions, too, including a lot of decking, the swimming pool and hot tub, and a pig pit for times when the couple wants to simply relax or entertain guests.

“We do about three pig roasts a year — one for the Ulster Project, which is coming up July 4; one for our family and usually at least one more for some other group during the year,” Gail said.

The Dyson’s backyard playground, which offers both a relaxing outdoor living space and whimsical fun, didn’t grow out of the latest trend. In fact, you might say they were ahead of their time.

“We’ve lived here for 32 years and it’s just kind of grown with us,” Gail said.

“Originally, my husband wanted a fun place for the children to play. Then, when our children grew up, we continued to have a lot of other children come to our back yard and now it’s grandchildren,” she said.

Through the years, the Dyson’s back yard has been everyone’s favorite — providing a safe refuge and summertime retreat for everyone from their own children and their high school and college friends to the church youth.

“When our children were in high school and college, they definitely enjoyed bringing friends home,” Gail said.

Henry, known to his friends as Sparky, does most of the work himself thus earning the backyard playground its affectionate title. And everyone’s gratitude.

“The main thing is to let your own kid at heart come out and play like a kid,” Gail said.

“It requires a lot of maintenance, and he does a lot of work on it. He’s always doing something,” she said, “but he loves it.”

And that, experts say, is really what outdoor living is all about: Transforming a back yard, patio or other outdoor space into a favorite destination — be it a quiet, cozy retreat or an entertainment mecca for friends and family.

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