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Cinde W. Ingram

What's in store for outdoor living? Spaces designed to fit activities, furnished for comfort

The outdoors were in even before steep energy prices drew homeowners' attention to exterior areas that only require extra heating or cooling when used.

More manufacturers, architects and landscape designers are catching onto outdoor living trends by helping homeowners extend living spaces beyond their walls.

To take the guesswork out of choosing appropriate pieces for an increasing number of outdoor spaces at homes, restaurants and resorts, firms like Garden Architects in Annapolis, Md., work in consultative partnerships with other professionals whose jobs are to create inviting and comfortable outdoor spaces. Garden Architects co-owners Robbie Fitzgerald and Susan Larson feature designer and contract quality outdoor furniture, umbrellas, original sculptures and an outdoor kitchen line from eco-friendly manufacturers in their to-the-trade showroom.

"Over the last four years, we have seen a huge transition from small outdoor decor to less desire for that and real usage of the space as outdoor living space — whether it's cooking, pool, reading or lounging space," Fitzgerald said. "It's not about the lamps, the rugs and the smaller garden trinkets any longer; it's really about the usability of the space."

Customers are buying modular deep seating units and pavilions so they can configure outdoor areas to suit their activities, Larson said. "The environments outside are specifically designed for the space," she said. "When you have vast, large pool areas, they are designed according to flow. It hasn't been carved out other than through the use of pavilions. What I'm seeing this spring is the demand for comfort has finally reached manufacturers, who have actually changed their cushion to reflect more of an interior than an exterior comfort. It's like night and day from last year."

Bringing the larger scale and comfort of indoor furniture outdoors has opened up opportunities for outdoor rooms, Tropitone Furniture CEO Mike Echolds said.

"With the cost of housing having inflated so much over the last 10 or 20 years, people are discovering they actually have this great space outdoors," Echolds said. "For instance if they have a 3,000-sq.-ft. home, they can have another 3,000 square feet outdoors. It is a little of a where-you-live issue. If you're in the Sunbelt you can use the product more months of the year and people are building elaborate multiple space areas, intimate spaces where they can relax, enjoy and socialize. Further north, they still want to have the elements of the outdoor room but they may not have quite as many of those areas; they may have just a chat set with an outdoor fireplace. They still want elements of the socializing but their investment may not be as large because it's fewer days and hours of use."

Outdoor spaces, furnished with modular furniture that can be easily moved for day and nighttime applications, also are making profit margins for hotels. "It really is the same outdoor room environment they are creating in resorts, but they're selling it night by night and bottle by bottle," Echolds said.

Going Green

In addition to the desire for more comfort and flexibility, the industry is reacting to demands for low maintenance and for furniture made from sustainable sources in eco-friendly ways. For example, the select manufacturers Garden Architects carries are making progress toward environmentally sound practices.

"I love the fact there are companies thinking about ecology," Fitzgerald said. "Our way of dealing with that is buying products that are not disposable. In the case of teak, Gloster does a really good job of plantation-growing their trees and they're very cautious about how they choose to extract and harvest There is overall a growing interest that will get more concrete and the industry needs to step up to the plate."

Smith & Hawken Director of Business Development Frances Atherton agreed the green movement is a growing trend, and said sustainability is a substantial part of her company's roots dating back 25 years to its founders' philosophies.

"One of the things we believe in very strongly is that we are responsible global partners," Atherton said. "I'm in the factories, I audit them and I know exactly who's building our furniture and exactly where our timber comes from. Our teak comes from central Java. It's all government-owned plantations, originally established by the Dutch or Indonesian people. For every tree that is cut down another one is planted. It's maintained by the government for the economic growth of the community."

Little maintenance, big size

Consumer demand for low maintenance is another design trend, Atherton said, but not everyone embraces the gray patina of teak as it ages naturally. "So one of the things we're looking to develop is more and more product that is low maintenance," she said. Smith & Hawken's all-weather wicker is recyclable "so we don't add to the landfill," she said.

New for this year, Smith & Hawken introduced Royal Hall, a teak collection showing South Beach influence and including an outdoor daybed, half-lounging dining chair and square dining table for eight. Both hotels and residents need flexible furniture they can move easily to suit their needs, whether it's a teen-age pool party or a dinner gathering of older adults.

Larson also spoke of the trend toward larger-sized loungers and two-seater chairs. "Brown Jordan did it many years ago but we're seeing it within almost all of our product lines now, where together you can lay next to each other be it yin-yang, that is feet-to-head or head-to-head, without having to push two units together."

Increased demand for pavilions is also prevalent, Larson said. "They are providing the walls that previously the landscaping had only provided to make more of a room setting," Larson said.

Atherton agreed the demand for pavilions has been huge for Smith & Hawken. They are used as a room structure as well as for shade, she said. "We will go into sun shade in a big way in 2008," Atherton said.

Umbrellas have evolved from center of table to side-mount cantilever and now clusters of shade products, Fitzgerald said. In addition, "we're finding outdoor kitchens are becoming much more sophisticated and truly an extension of the home," she said. "If you're going to invest and you want an extension of your home, the cooking space is really the thing. We're seeing people wanting drawers that keep out water and spiders and leaves." Serving carts have been used since Colonial times, Larson added, but now they are more functional for prolonged outdoor use, have extendable tabletops and can be used as an extra buffet.

Forty percent of those who participated in the National Association of Home Builders' "Home of the Future" study 2007 said they expected changes in homes to be more significant in the next decade than in the past 10 years. Respondents also predicted the upscale home in 2015 will include a front porch, rear porch, patio and deck; an outdoor kitchen with grill, sinks, refrigerator and cooking island, and/or an outdoor fireplace, pool/spa with audio/TV equipment and lighting.

Cal Spas is one manufacturer who has responded to such trend forecasts by introducing the Ultimate Outdoor Entertainment Room to transform a backyard space into an outdoor media room. The entertainment center's main attraction is a marine-grade, 42- or 63-inch, pop-up HD plasma television and a multimedia center for optional iPod, DVD/CD, HD, HDMI, computer, Internet and home gaming system. For comfort seating, three weatherproof, reclining theater chairs are part of the package. A fire pit provides an inviting glow and an overhead cabana complete the al fresco retreat.

Garden Architects worked with a landscaper to create a peaceful poolside area, shown here and below.

A perfect cinematic retreat, the Cal Spas U8100 Ultimate Outdoor Entertainment Room transforms a backyard space into an inviting outdoor media room and lounging area.

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