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The Great Outdoors: Where the Heart Is

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB


Whenever I’m asked to develop a project renovation budget for a homeowner or a multifamily developer, the question of what’s the biggest bang-for- the-buck comes up. Of course, long term verses short term expenses are big factors. I’ve learned over the years that the best cost/benefit return for a construction investment is outdoor space improvements, including landscaping, living and relaxation areas. While investments in the interior “wet areas” including kitchens and bathrooms, are essential for keeping up with the Jones, they are often the most expensive.  Even in multifamily complexes, balconies are disappearing, and interior square footages are shrinking as the rents escalate. Communal outside living becomes essential.


Outdoor areas go beyond dramatic garden areas with quaint seating areas. Today, homeowners want a place for entertainment and personal enjoyment. Outdoor living is a strong segment of all renovations. 70% of all renovations have included some portion of outdoor living area improvement.


The most common outdoor improvements are covered dining areas and lanais. This includes a broad range of options, including motorized, louvered pergolas, large retractable awnings and simple overhead trellises. Fire pits are popular as a form of conversation creating. Whether it be family, friends, or just a good chat, fire pits and fireplaces remain a focus of outdoor living.


As you would expect with California marches to all electric living, wood-burning fireplaces and pits are becoming extinct and gas fireplaces are becoming unfavorably scrutinized. As I’ve noted previously, electric fireplaces create a lot of the same relaxing ambience as a gas-burning devise. Every municipality jurisdiction has its own interpretations so check before you venture forward.


Three years of pandemic sequestering has seen the outdoor home entertainment industry explode. While covered dining and lanais remain number one, they are now furnished with major electronic gadgets including monster outdoor TVs with first-class Dolby sound systems. The outdoor drive-in movie theater has reinvented itself in 2020.


The barbeque has morphed from the Weber kettle to full kitchens with built-in icemakers, refrigerators, ovens and food storage. To be weather resistant, most everything must be stainless steel. Functional, dimmable decorative lighting is essential for any backyard improvement including pathway lightings for both safety and ambience.  Furnishings and finishes are always personal and including natural fabrics and materials such as stone or real wood brings back the outdoorsman we Americans love so much.


As outdoor yards and spaces shrink, vertical landscape walls have become popular. Bio-walls can improve air quality, reduce outdoor heat-gain and create more intimate environment. Just avoid installing them within one’s home unless you love insects. All kinds will be visiting.


When it comes to design and planning these improvements, one doesn’t need an architect unless one gets into structural or complicated construction requirements. Always be aware of the neighbor’s privacy issues. Blocking someone’s view is a no-no. Ask if you need a building, HOA or planning permit.


Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB loves his irreplaceable 80 year old outdoor wood burning fireplace.

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