Outdoor Improvements to Your Home and Your Life

Expand your square footage by moving outside.

By Jennifer Shapira


fire pit
Enjoy cozy gatherings with family and friends under the open sky with a handcrafted fire pit from Merrifield Garden Center. (Courtesy of Merrifield Garden Center)

These days, people are staying in their homes and enhancing their four walls rather than moving. But whether you plan to sell or not, outdoor spaces are desirable. A sunny stone patio is pretty and functional. A leafy, shaded portico provides shelter from the sun. A screened-in porch protects from all the elements. A tricked-out outdoor kitchen makes for an entertaining hot spot.

These are places where families gather, where parties are in full swing, where you seek solace in an early morning cuppa’. Why not enjoy spring’s first daffodils, summer’s bounty or the dazzling fall color of sugar maples from your perfect outdoor perch?

In fact, experts say, these spots are a must for any suburban home—big or small—because people want to feel connected to the outside. There’s no shortage in the interest of creating new and improving old outdoor spaces, especially in today’s economy.

Fortunately, these spaces are scalable, says interior designer June Shea. You don’t have to go big to enjoy a slice of the outdoors. But depending on your home, you certainly can.

With a little expert insight, you can have a customized, private surrounding that bursts with visual interest.

Hit the Deck
Rick Matus, senior vice president, director of design and sales at Case Design/Remodeling, says one important change he has seen in outdoor spaces is a move away from decks. More homeowners are interested in putting in screened-in porches, which is a dramatic shift from five or 10 years ago, he says.

Often, that involves adding a structure to an already-existing deck, says Matus, “so that clients can actually enjoy the outdoors,” he says, “not just a couple weeks in the spring, but actually through the spring, summer and the fall.”

The biggest concern with adding a screened-in porch to a deck is the preservation of natural light. No one wants to sacrifice the morning sun of a breakfast room for an outdoor space. That’s where smart, creative solutions come into play, says Matus.

“We’ll suggest putting skylights into the screened-in porch and have it be positioned strategically so that it allows sunlight to filter through into the house itself. A lot of times, the skylights that we put in screened-in porches are not because we want to make the screened-in porch even brighter; it’s really because we want to help bring natural light into the house.”

“Part of what we want to do is educate the client,” he says. “We talk to them about where the sun is at different points in time because if all the sun is in the early morning and you’re going to use the screened porch in the afternoon and evenings, you need to think about how to deal with the light.”

In terms of materials, Matus says, higher-end finishes are more popular among the requests his firm is hearing. That is, use of maintenance-free materials like PVC instead of wood trim, elegant beadboard ceilings and composite decking for the flooring, which, he says, is “expensive, but it looks great, and it’ll last forever.”

Screened-in porch with skylights that lets plenty of natural light into the house (Courtesy of Case Design/Remodeling Inc.)

Decks vs. Patios
How do you know which option is right for you and your home? Matus offers up his solution.

“When someone says, ‘We want to have a deck outside because that’s what all our neighbors have,’ we want to look and assess the conditions of the site to see if a deck is appropriate, or if a patio is appropriate.”

Another important consideration: “We’ve also found that if somebody has to walk down a flight of stairs to get to their outdoor living space, they tend to not use it as much.”

A fix may be what’s called a tiered deck, or a more gentle transition: a couple of steps down from the main living space to a grilling area, then a few more steps down to the main patio.

The most common locally used stones for patios are flagstone and slate. Flagstone is a great option for the homeowner who is interested in shades of gray; slate offers more of a color palette with its grays, greens, blues, pinks and purples.

Other options include interlocking pavers, which are becoming more acceptable, says Renatta Holt, landscape designer at Merrifield Garden Center. People used to be adamant about using traditional patio materials, she says, but in the past few years, “the products have been greatly improved. They’re very strong and durable and they’re equal to, and in some cases, less expensive, than natural stone.”

One green option that Holt is particularly proud of: A homeowner in Springfield built his own brick patio some 30 years ago. His grown children had been after him in recent years to redo it because it had begun to settle and the steps were uneven. Holt stepped in and “redesigned the patio in more or less the same footprint that he had.” She used pavers to build the steps into landings so they would be easier to maneuver. The finishing touch: She breathed new life into the existing 30-year-old brick. It certainly doesn’t happen in all cases, but sometimes existing materials can be part of a new solution that makes everyone happy, says Holt.

Outdoor Kitchens: Cooking and Dining Al Fresco
Also popular, says Matus, is the outdoor kitchen. Traditionally, the requests for these spaces are from homeowners who are already maximizing their outdoor living areas and do a lot of entertaining; this is just another extension of homes with large backyards. Other requests both Holt and Matus have seen on the increase include the more personality-driven hearth-like fire pits and rustic pizza ovens.

When you entertain outside frequently, it’s important to have all the necessities close at hand. You don’t want to have to go back into the house for a beer, says Matus. But that’s true of the food preparation and storage; even special outdoor-only silverware and glassware can be stored in drawers and under counters outside for convenience. Top-of-the-line grills are built into a stone structure for a much more finished look than that of a regular, free-standing grill out on the deck. With the proper wiring and plumbing, it can be a home’s second high-end kitchen, complete with refrigerator, sink, dishwasher and warming drawers.

When it comes to cabinetry, “A lot of times we’ll use some kind of wood that will withstand the outdoor elements,” says Matus, “so a lot of times it’s teak that would be stained and sealed. We do heavy stone or even concrete countertops. Granite can be used, but what we find is, it tends to become very dull when left outside throughout the seasons. So, something like a stone is rustic-looking, but it looks great even after five years.”

Overall, the design of the outdoor kitchen generally leans toward conservative and thoughtful of the surroundings, says Matus.

“We don’t want to have an outdoor kitchen be so large that it overtakes the use of that space outside. So even though it’s going to be an eye-catching piece, we don’t want to overwhelm the patio with a lot of heavy structures from the kitchen. We also don’t want to compete with the landscaping.”

Backyard Green Thumbs
Outdoor spaces are not one size fits all. They should be tailored to the homeowner’s needs, says Holt.

Today’s customers are much savvier and more educated. They know what they want, thanks to HGTV and magazines, says Holt. They are often prepared with their own portfolios of plant and hardscape ideas.

When it comes to landscapes, there are a couple of caveats, she says. First: Native plants do not necessarily mean low-maintenance. And second: No plant is no-maintenance.

Even if you Google native plants and buy them at your local garden center, Holt says, it is still important to consult a professional about the amount of care and sunlight required to keep them thriving outside your home.

But in general, people are seeking year-round color: That is, a little bit of interest with each season like whites and yellows in spring, jeweled tones in summer, crisp hues in fall and evergreens in winter.

Some of Holt’s suggestions: witch hazel, sweetbay magnolia, Fothergilla, serviceberry.

In addition, in more recent years, Holt has noticed an increase in the number of requests for incorporating edibles into landscapes, like blueberries and raspberries. Asian-inspired gardens, which often include water features, are popular because they can fit into compact spaces. “The plants are typically small and slow-growing so the maintenance on them is very, very low, yet you can get a very elegant, finished, clean and serene look,” says Holt.

When you’re looking to landscape outdoor kitchens and gathering spaces, Holt says the most important consideration is to assess the area and find plants that will fit. In addition to looking for year-round interest, add plants that flower, and those that have colorful stems or berries or nice fall color. Think about the plants’ bloom time “because you don’t want something blooming around your patio that’s going to attract a lot of bees or insects during the prime time that everyone’s going to be out there,” says Holt.

Shut the Front Door
Even if you have a spectacular backyard, you don’t want to neglect the front of the house. Think curb appeal.

“It’s important to remember that the front of your home, even though it’s your home, is a semi-public place,” says Holt. “That’s where guests come, so you want the front of your yard and your garden to look neat and tidy as much of the year as possible.”

Evergreens are always a good idea out front, says Holt, “then you can play with the natives and deciduous things in the back where you can enjoy them as they come and go through the seasons, but the front always looks good.”

There are a number of other improvements you can make to add some pop to the front of your home.

For example, paint the front door, says Bob Bell, specialist in contractor services at Home Depot in Reston. “That’s a change you can make without replacing the front door,” he says, suggesting a non-streak, high-gloss paint for added drama. “It kind of makes
it sparkle a little bit, and for just another couple dollars, you can put in a new door knocker or a new door knob,” he says.

Replace or repaint the handrail and fix a decrepit stoop. Add interestingly shaped pots as accents in varying heights with plant choices. Stick with low-maintenance plants if that’s your skill level; swap them out with blooming varieties if that’s your strength.

“Container gardening is growing by leaps and bounds,” says Holt, who has seen a surge in interest in the use of tropicals, “like hibiscus trees, gardenias or jasmine that you can enjoy outside all summer long and then bring indoors in the winter.”

If more than the front door needs some cheering up, add or paint shutters in a color that will provide some pizzazz, says Shea. Or give the whole house a facelift in a warm new tone. Shea recalls a makeover of a plain brick house that she repainted a pale yellow. She added dormers, set off the windows with red shutters and painted the door a deep blue, “so the house went from looking kind of boring to almost like a little storybook cottage,” she says.

Now that’s what you call a breath of fresh air.



Top Outdoor Home Improvements

No one wants to be the owner of the neighborhood eyesore. From front to back, follow these expert tips and tricks to increase your home’s curb appeal and enhance those private outdoor spaces in your backyard. A little thought and maintenance can prolong the beauty and livability on a daily basis. And in the future, should you decide to sell, the time and effort you put into your home’s outdoor improvements will speak for themselves.

It sounds basic, but if your home doesn’t have a dedicated outdoor space, consider adding a little green. If you don’t have the greenest thumb, you may want to start small. Invest in a couple of beautiful pots and plant container gardens of summery tomatoes or a favorite herb. Thinking about a putting in a patio? You can locate your favorite spot in the sun or shade before consulting an expert. If you’re not ready to go permanent, set up a movable, makeshift bistro set. And add some colorful cushions for pop and comfort.

Here are some other ideas:
To preserve flower pots, at the end of the season when it starts to freeze, you really need to make sure you turn those pots upside down, so they don’t fill with water, because if they fill with water, the pots will expand and contract. That’s how they break. Another option, bring them inside. June Shea, interior designer

Improve your home’s entryway. Replace an aging handrail. Clean up the pathway that leads to your front door. Fix any broken steps and add a new light fixture. Bob Bell, Specialist, contractor services, Home Depot

If you think you might want to have an outdoor kitchen, think ahead and get that part of the home wired in advance. –June Shea, interior designer

Bring in your cushions and/or outdoor furniture to prolong their lives as well; keep them safe from bad weather and wildlife. Darla McCrary, owner, The Final Yard

To enhance the front walkway, remember: You’re building a walkway so someone will say, “This is a beautiful home.” So you want the stoop, the walkway, whatever you do, to be an accessory to your home; you don’t want it to be the main show. Renatta Holt, landscape designer, Merrifield Garden Center

Add some brightly colored, interesting pots and set them on your front stoop. If your skill set allows, change out the plants by season. Bob Bell, Specialist, contractor services, Home Depot

Look for year-round interest in your home’s landscaping. Renatta Holt, landscape designer, Merrifield Garden Center



Q&A with Rick Matus
Senior Vice President, Director of Design and Sales, Case Design/Remodeling Inc.

Besides screened-in porches and patios, what are some creative solutions for improving outdoor spaces?
A great solution is to do a pergola or a trellis, which basically means it’s got a couple of artificial columns, and it’s got the rafters flat with the little curlicue cutouts at the ends. It breaks up the intense sunlight and creates some shade. That’s a nice detail to add to a house in the back.

What are some changes that people can make to the front of their homes, to boost their curb appeal?
We’ll come to a home, and it will have a nice front door and the trim, but there’s no definition of where the entry is. So we’ll suggest doing a front portico to create more definition and to make it eye-catching when you drive down the street. We can also do a lot of cosmetic upgrades that don’t have to cost a lot. Things like not only painting the home but adding wood shutters, adding dormers to bungalows, to add some interest to the house.

Why are homeowners attracted to the idea of outdoor kitchens?
Typically they’re larger homes, which means that they have large backyards. And most of the time they already have an established outdoor living space of some kind. A patio, maybe a screened-in porch, and the outdoor kitchen is a result of doing a lot of entertaining outside and not wanting to go back into the house to get a beer, or they want to be able to grill on something that looks very nice. So we build the high-end grills into a structure that doesn’t move, and it really gives it a much more elegant look than just having a regular grill. We can incorporate things like a bar area to sit at, so that when somebody’s grilling on one side, somebody can be sitting on a stool outdoors enjoying a drink.

What sorts of requests are you getting for outdoor kitchens?
This isn’t driven by us telling our clients what they should have; it’s the clients saying, ‘This is the look I want.’ It typically involves stone for the foundation of the outdoor kitchen, cabinetry—a lot of times we’ll use some kind of wood that will withstand the outdoor elements, so a lot of times it’s teak that would be stained and sealed. We do heavy stone or concrete countertops. We don’t want to have an outdoor kitchen be so large that it overtakes the use of that space outside. We also don’t want to compete with the [surrounding] landscaping.

Is there an interesting idea for an outdoor space that you haven’t done for client yet, but would like to?
What I want to do is have a TV that you can have on the inside part of the house and have it be such that you can push it and turn it around so that it’s in the house in the winter. Then you can spin it around and use it in the summer. So have it be on an insulated panel so that you can just turn it around. That way you’re not taking the TV off the wall. If it sits out in all seasons, the electronics of the TV will get damaged. I want try it soon, maybe in my own house.



List of Vendors

Annapolis Lighting
10362 Fairfax Blvd., Fairfax; 888-847-7295; annapolislighting.com

Armor Fence Company
703-361-1141; armorfenceco.com

Backyard Shed and Deck Company
11425 Mercury Drive, Manassas; 703-396-7299; backyardshed-deck.com

Berriz Design Build Group
5765-F Burke Center Parkway, Burke; 703-552-7565; berrizdesign.com

Bowers Design Build
6715 Whittier Ave., Suite 200, McLean; 703-506-0845; bowersdesignbuild.com

Case Design/Remodeling Inc.
701 Park Ave., Falls Church; 703-241-2980; casedesign.com

Merrifield Garden Center
Merrifield, Fair Oaks, Gainesville; merrifieldgardencenter.com

Northern Virginia Design Center
111 Rowell Court, Falls Church; By appointment only. 703-803-2273; 703-289-5703 (VA office)

Pyne Studios
6448 Elmdale Road, Alexandria; 703-462-3405; pynestudios.com

The Final Yard
33 East Gerrard St., Winchester; 540-678-0085; thefinalyard.com

The Levine Group Architects and Builders
2323 B Stewart Ave., Silver Spring, MD; 703-525-4646; thelevinegroup.com

Shea Studio Interiors Inc
7721 Fullerton Road, Suite A-2, Springfield; 703-891-1570; sheastudio.com

Sun Design Remodeling Specialists Inc.
5795-B Burke Centre Parkway, Burke; 703-425-5588, Ext. 101; sundesigninc.com

Surrounds Landscaping
21635 Cascades Parkway, Sterling; 703-430-6001; surroundslandscaping.com

Winn Design and Remodeling
100 W. Jefferson St., Falls Church; 703-876-9696; winndesign.com


(May 2012)