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Double Your Living Space by Transforming the Back Yard With Decks, Patios and Outdoor Kitchens
By Barbara Canetti

We spend so much time cooped up in cars commuting and logging hours at school or the office that cabin fever can soon set in. There’s something special about getting back to nature, hearing the birds sing and smelling fresh flowers while entertaining guests or just relaxing with the family. For those who have embarked on a back yard redo by adding decks, patios and outdoor kitchens, the rewards can be tremendous.

When entertaining at home guests tend to congregate in the kitchen. So why not make use of Houston’s moderate climate (well, most of the year) and take the crowd outside and into an outdoor kitchen?

Creating a stylish and functional outdoor living space makes entertaining more casual while letting nature handle the decorating with plants, rocks and trees. In the evenings a lovely sunset as the background for a dinner party makes for a memorable occasion.

Outdoor living spaces – particularly kitchens – have been growing in popularity. Gone are the days when a barbecue grill and picnic table served as the outdoor kitchen. Now, gas or wood-burning grills, sinks, refrigerators and ice makers, side burners and lots of counter space are all included in newly built or rearranged yards. Comfortable all-weather furniture is a must with some high-end furnishings rivaling those found indoors.

“Remember, an outdoor kitchen is a project you only want to do once at this house, so do it right the first time so you do not have to do it over,” says Brent Gary of Cunningham Gas Products. “You want to try and make sure that when you build an outdoor kitchen that it is in an area where the weather does not dictate when you can use it.”

Gary suggests making sure there is some shade or roof covering the kitchen — even a patio umbrella can make it more pleasant in the summer. Position gas grills so they are not facing prevailing winds, which can cause the control panel to overheat and possibly melt some of the wiring. He also cautions that not all stainless steel is high quality stainless. “In our high humidity climate, some grades of stainless steel will rust out. That is why it is called ‘stainless’ steel and not ‘stain proof.’”

He says homeowners can never have too much counter space or too many electrical outlets. Soft lighting adds to the ambience and he suggests installing rope lighting in the raised backsplash and under the countertop or bar extension for a very nice look at night. “Some people incorporate glass blocks on the island and then install some backlighting inside the island to illuminate the glass blocks.”

Designers of outdoor spaces also are moving towards materials with a more rustic look. “Using repurposed barn wood makes a great looking outdoor kitchen island, [plus there is] the benefit of using recycled materials,” says Gary.

Most outdoor kitchens are usually built as a straight island, an L-shaped island or as a U-shaped island. “In all my years of working with outdoor kitchen clients I have never had a client tell me that they wished they had built a smaller island. I’ve had plenty tell me they wished they had built a larger island,” Gary says.

Mike Logan of Texas Pit Crafters says homeowners need as little as 48 inches to create an outdoor kitchen space, although bigger is better. He says that even having a ten-foot space is enough to accommodate both a grill (for direct cooking over coals or gas burners) and a smoker (for indirect cooking with heat and smoke).

“We are seeing an increasing interest in South American grilling. This is done directly over the wood coals and often with a grill surface that holds the food being raised or lowered. We call these gaucho grills,” says Logan. “Also, more folks are installing wood-fired pizza ovens.”

“Lots of folks like being outdoors and cooking out is part of their lifestyle,” says Logan. “Our outdoor kitchens are becoming more elaborate every year. Ice makers, dishwashers and deep fryers are all being included as standard items.”

Brian McQuin, owner of Texas Decks, says he has noticed his clients’ first priority for their decks is quality of workmanship and materials.

“My clients will scale back the size of their project in order to get the best product available for their dollar. That could be upgrading from an entry level composite deck to a slightly smaller higher end, more beautiful composite decking product or a slightly smaller outdoor kitchen with higher end equipment,” McQuin says. He notes there is a shift away from natural wood decks to manufactured products, even though the initial cost may be higher.

“That cost difference will soon be negated by the lower maintenance costs and the longevity these products offer over a natural product,” he says, pointing to Trex® composite decking or AZEK® PVC decking, which fare better than natural pine in the sun and rain.

Russell Budnick with Creative Contours Landscape Co. says wood is recommended for pergolas and arbors, as well as for the cabinets in outdoor kitchens. He prefers granite and tastefully done concrete countertops.

McQuin says homeowners should take the time to thoughtfully design their outdoor space and integrate it into their backyard usage, for now and in the future.

“The number one requirement in a space — be it a composite deck or a complete outdoor kitchen with a shingled roof overhead — is that it flows well and blends in with the house,” he says. “Because if the space doesn’t have a good flow between the different areas: seating, cooking and traffic, then the space that was created for that client will not be used to its fullest capabilities. Nor will it be as comfortable to use.”
The design should also take advantage of Houston’s climate for almost year round use, and it’s important that the kitchen or deck be built in the shaded areas of the yard.

“I would say shade, shade and more shade with either a pergola or patio cover,” says McQuin, who also suggests adding ventilation with ceiling fans. “[They] at least make outdoor entertaining bearable during our summers.”

Major Back Yard Projects Are Best Left to the Professionals
By Susie Tommaney

For major backyard renovations with lots of moving features and elements, it’s difficult to work with multiple contractors and get everything just right. A perfectly designed space is like a puzzle with each piece affecting the next.

We checked in with Rob Douglass, managing partner and project developer at Texas Custom Patios, a company that has more than 1,500 projects under its belt. He says they’ve been doing this for so long that they write quotes instead of estimates.

“That’s one of the unique things about our company. We’re hard bidding a project; that’s the guarantee of the price. Even though it’s remodeling to some degree and there are some things that you run into. That’s an advantage; we’re not nickel and diming them to death.”

That deep experience also helps homeowners decide what their dream backyard should look like. Between the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth offices they’ve managed to compile an impressive and diverse portfolio of photographs, which helps narrow down the homeowner’s preferred style.

Although some clients already know exactly what they want, which is how a man from Denmark ended up with an outdoor living room that blends the best of the Texas Hill Country with cedar finishes and Scandinavian accents.

Douglas says that he and his team of project developers act as ambassadors for their clients and stay involved with the project from inception to completion. “If I design and sell you a project I’m not handing you off to a construction manager. I’m ordering materials, checking on progress daily, I’m involved throughout the project,” says Douglass. “I’m your only contact with the company. Nothing can get lost in translation.”

He says the big trend these days is fire features, such as fire pits and fireplaces with inserts, which can provide warmth in the cooler months but are a nice aesthetic year round. The flat hibachi-style grills also are popular and are now being made to withstand the elements. “They can do burgers, they can do vegetables; they can do anything. It just changes how you might think about grilling outdoors.

“The goal is to recreate their favorite room in the house. Sometimes when they buy a house they didn’t have a choice in the design, and here’s an opportunity,” says Douglass.

“It’s a good feeling. At the end of the day we’re building a want instead of a need,” says Douglass. “I think people are thrilled with the spaces that they have.”


A Affordable Aluminum
101 Ketchum, Angleton

Creative Contours
Landscape Co.

Cunningham Gas Products
18700 Carrot, Spring
27602 I-45 North, Spring

Lewis Construction
2506 Salt Grass Trail,
Deer Park

Smelek Design
22477 Murrell, Hockley

Texas Custom Patios
11391 Meadowglen Lane

Texas Decks & Patio Covers
405 East 31st

Texas Pit Crafters
31909 Decker Industrial Circle, Pinehurst


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