The Fine Print: Take It Outside

Back yards are the latest frontier in home improvement as patios get decked out with elaborate kitchen appliances, Zen-friendly water features and cozy fire pits. “Patios are becoming an extension of interior spaces,” says Carter van Dyke, partner of Carter van Dyke Associates, a planning and landscape architectural firm in Doylestown. Van Dyke recommends planning patios to match the square footage of a home’s first floor. “Looking out on a large finished area through French doors, even in the winter, increases the value and size perspective of a house.”

The move to bring indoor amenities outside is highlighted by stunning exterior kitchens boasting granite countertops, flat burners, stainless-steel refrigerators, wet-bar sinks and chilled wine racks. Pat McCrindle, president of McCrindle Paver Systems in Collingswood, calls the new generation of outdoor cooking stations “works of art.” He recently installed such masterpieces in Mt. Laurel and Collingswood, with raised patios with perimeter seat walls, stainless-steel grills that incorporate both gas and charcoal, and 20 square feet of counter space.

To transform patios into 12-month retreats, designers are incorporating fire pits into their plans. The pits can be either raised above or recessed into the floor of a patio, and feature woodburning fires or piped-in gas flames. Either way, fire pits crank out enough heat to warm even the chilliest winter months (see “Fire It Up,” right).

Raised walls surrounding fire pits and the perimeter of patios are essential as retaining barriers, but also add creative spaces for seating. They also eliminate the need for excessive amounts of bulky furniture; a patio’s valuable square footage is instead maximized for a more comfortable flow of foot traffic.

The latest in patio design is not all about accommodating cocktail party hosts and outdoor chefs. Waterfalls trickling over split-level patios, intricate fountains and small built-in ponds are increasingly popular features for embellishing the soothing melodies of nature.

In the unpredictable mid-Atlantic region, however, nature is often anything but tranquil. To combat surface cracking, resulting from the freeze-thaw cycles of the area’s climate, plenty of local builders are constructing patios out of interlocking concrete pavers.

“Pavers are very durable and maintenance-free,” says Marianne Anzaldo, director of marketing for EP Henry of Woodbury. They are a cost-effective alternative to natural stone, and offer homeowners an array of colors, shapes and patterns.

But the recent popularity of concrete pavers is exactly why J. Stewart von Oehsen, owner of Princeton Land Design, often steers people away from installing them in their patios. “Natural stone is more unique and looks so much nicer,” he says. “The old materials are just more visually appealing.”

Another way to eliminate the harmful effects of Mother Nature’s tantrums is to completely enclose a patio. Van Dyke is a proponent of two-story screened-in porches, the latest in permanent backyard construction. The porch’s lower level serves as a casual sitting area; the upper floor, usually connected to the master bedroom, functions as a sleeping porch and an ideal summer night hideaway.

“With the wind rustling through the trees and the moonlight streaming in, it really is a wonderful way to sleep,” says van Dyke, who often sleeps on his home’s two-story porch. “You should definitely be a morning person because the birds start singing early.”

For extra shade, awnings have long been a reliable choice. But unlike bland hand-crank models suited more for storefronts than luxury homes, the newest awnings are motorized and available in custom patterns.

The latest chic development in sun protection, however, is the pergola, a three-sided structure built with a trellised roof covered with attractive vines, flowers or fruits. “I’ll recommend a pergola to anyone who wants an awning,” says von Oehsen. “They’re an aesthetically pleasing option, and a creative way to provide shade and privacy.”

Whether deciding between a porch, patio or pergola, size matters. “Homeowners find it difficult to visualize the finished product,” says McCrindle. Many people forget about the addition of furniture when determining square-footage needs. “The function of the porch or patio is very important to consider. Think about the flow of people and how your space will be utilized. Don’t limit yourself by building something too small.”