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Building industry responding to Outdoor Living

Builders looking to give their homes an edge over the competition are looking outside for inspiration. Specifically, they are looking to give homeowners not just plenty of living space indoors, but room to live outside, too.

Let the Sun Shine In

David Hale, president, Hale Development based in Boise, Idaho, knows outdoor spaces are hot with homebuyers because they top his must-have list. Not any outdoor space will do; it must be functional, Hale said. When he built his home, he wasn't content to settle for a large sliding door in his dining room that opened to the breathtaking view of downtown Boise and the surrounding area. Instead, he decided to install a commercial-grade glass garage door that would allow the entire wall to disappear up into the ceiling, which allowed the outside space to become indoor space. "It opened up a wall to a great big opening, which made it fully functional as indoor/outdoor space," Hale said.

Knowing how much he likes bringing the outside in, he tries to do the same for his clients; however, as an infill builder, Hale is regularly challenged by existing neighborhoods and narrow lots, which doesn't give him a lot of opportunity for creating outdoor spaces, particularly when he is building attached housing. Exterior units of attached homes sell first because they have only one common wall and three exterior walls that bring in a lot of natural light.

To bring more light into interior units, Hale is now building them with interior, open air courtyards that also provide a private outdoor space for the buyer.

"I see it as a very smart solution to the problems I'm facing in trying to satisfy customer needs," said Hale, who is taking his design one step further by working with a landscape architect who is designing four interior courtyard options with permeable paving; some will have water features, some may have an outdoor fireplace.

"These courtyards will be a focal point in these units and offer the 'wow' factor," Hale said. "When a buyer comes into a home, I want them to leave the house with something that is memorable so that they can easily associate a feature with my product."

Windows to the Outside

Homeowners definitely want more windows, agreed Dave Koester, brand manager, Weather Shield Windows & Doors, which is seeing a trend toward more patio doors being specified for rooms throughout the home, including master suites, master bathrooms and guest rooms.

"The draw to the outdoors comes anytime and anywhere, not just when entertaining or sitting by the pool," Koester said.

If a full-blown deck isn't in the budget, builders would do well to add more windows, which helps blend the indoor and outdoor environments and maintain the flow of the home, Koester suggested. To that end, windows can provide an easy solution. "Telescoping and bi-folding patio doors can help builders maintain a home's flow from indoor to outdoor environments. Because they are available in extra-wide dimensions, homeowners are able to blend the inside and outside spaces. They also help facilitate mingling when entertaining big groups."

Others argue that windows help, but builders really must provide more than a simple patio. "If you only provide a patio, you are leaving off a very important room of the house, the outdoor room," said Pam Sessions, president, Hedgewood Properties, Inc. in Cumming, Ga., which emphasizes the quality of outdoor living space more than the quantity of outdoor space.

Function Sells

Similarly, MBK Homes in Irvine, Calif. is incorporating courtyards and decks located off the main living areas into the designs of its larger homes.

"Decks are not necessarily a profit center however they do create a value to the buyer. In today's market buyers expect some kind of outdoor living area," said Julie Tlilayatzi, director of marketing, MBK Homes. She agrees that above all, the space must be functional for the home design and buyer demographic. It must be a "continuation of the indoor living space and complement the interior living space. If you are adding a deck it should be large enough to accommodate — at minimum — a bistro set. If it is not functional space, it will be of no benefit to the buyer."

Kathy Dames, vice president sales and marketing for Kipling Homes in Shorewood, Ill., said that omitting outdoor spaces is no longer possible in high-end custom homes where "buyers expect custom decks, stamped concrete and pergolas."

"Across the board, surveys show that homebuyers and owners want an outdoor living area. That said, there is an outdoor room design/layout for every budget," said Deidra Darsa, public relations and media relations manager for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. An outdoor room can be as simple as a couple of lawn chairs and a grill, or as expansive as a built-in kitchen, fireplace and entertainment center with a patio heater for warmth that extends the outdoor living season.

Builders who don't want to go to the extreme can, at the minimum, make it easy for prospective homebuyers by roughing in lines for gas, electric and plumbing to the outdoor area for future outdoor room construction, Darsa said. She suggests that more and more builders are responding to this trend.

"According to the National Association of Home Builders, porches are present in over half of the homes completed in 2006 in the West, South, and Midwest," Darsa said. "Patios are present in slightly more than half of all units only in the South and West regions."

Profits Hit the Deck

This trend toward outdoor living is good news for makers of outdoor furniture and accessories. "The American Institute of Architects reported a significant rise in the outdoor living space investment homeowners are willing to make and a Propane Education & Research Council survey found that grills, fireplaces and fire pits, as well as patio heaters, are three of the top five most popular outdoor features," Darsa said. She added the AIA 2007 Home Design Trends Survey reports that 63% of architects report seeing an increase in client request for outdoor kitchens, fireplaces, etc.

Tlilayatzi suggests that pre-wiring an outdoor space for media is a hot ticket in Southern California, while in Illinois hot tubs enclosed in small outdoor pergola-type buildings are popular items, Dames said.

Builders aren't as likely to profit from this trend as much as the manufacturers of outdoor fixtures are. However, those who are responsive to the movement are likely to sell more homes and have an advantage over other builders, which can build profits indirectly. The biggest challenge they face? "Cost versus perceived value," Dames said. "You really need a buyer that has extra spending money to allocate to a room that is not necessarily a requirement in a home. Many of these buyers would be the 'boomers' since they have more expendable income."

"Outdoor rooms and gardens are one of the major attractions to our homes and neighborhoods and, therefore, a very important differentiation and reason to buy our home over another home by another builder," Sessions said. The cost can be equal to heated square footage but buyers may not include it as square footage in their cost comparison, so Sessions recommends builders demonstrate the lifestyle benefits and quote the square footage separately but as living space.

In the end, there is no single, all-important detail to creating a winning outdoor room, but there are three key ingredients, Darsa said. "The mainstays of an outdoor room, as we define one, are: 1) an appliance to cook on; 2) a dining table and chairs to sit and eat; and 3) a hearth product to extend the season."

Weather Shield Windows & Doors introduced its telescoping patio door in 2002 for passageways up to 24-feet wide. The company added a bi-fold patio door for widths up to 23 feet in early 2007. Both are beautiful, high quality aluminum-clad wood doors that add to a home's indoor and outdoor design and its functionality.

Architectural features, green walls and trees are the elements Pam Sessions, president, Hedgewood Homes, Cumming, Ga., incorporates into outdoor rooms that she builds to create a sense of privacy.

Bringing the indoors out, MBK Homes' luxury development, Eton, offers a spacious outdoor retreat for relaxing and entertaining.

At the high-end of outdoor rooms are spaces like this one from Cal Spas that include everything from an outdoor kitchen with a cooktop and refrigeration to a living space complete with a flat panel television that resides in a cabinet when not in use.

Chris Fox, marketing manager for Universal Forest Products, suggests that upgrade items such as composite decking with add-on accessories like glass balusters and ornamental post caps and expensive accessories like fireplaces and professional grills add value to outdoor spaces.

Successful outdoor rooms provide privacy and look like an extension of the home, like this outdoor room does as built by Hedgewood Homes.

Outdoor rooms can be simple or extravagant, but most include three basic ingredients: an appliance to cook, a dining table and chairs and a hearth product to extend the season.

Creative water features and plantings of perennials for water conservation, beauty and low maintenance are popular elements in outdoors spaces.

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