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Cover story: Outdoor kitchens blur home-yard line

- - Thursday, August 18, 2011

The "eat local" movement encourages consumers to buy food that has been grown as close to home as possible. You can't get much more local than growing your own zucchini, grilling it in your outdoor kitchen and serving it to your guests a few feet from where it was planted.

"There's a natural progression for people to take their lives outdoors when the weather gets nice that started with creating outdoor living rooms," said Jeff Akseizer, principal of Akseizer Design Group in McLean. "We've gone from hanging a hammock between a couple of trees to creating a full kitchen with plumbing, a fireplace and an entertainment space."

Mr. Akseizer said an outdoor kitchen allows more people to be involved in the cooking process, with the main chef the center of attention.

"From a social perspective, outdoor cooking allows the chef to be surrounded by guests and family members," Mr. Akseizer said. "Family members exchange responsibilities, and everyone spends more time together without the distraction of indoor activities. Although people like them, I try to avoid putting outdoor TVs in the kitchen because I think it disturbs the serenity."

Jim Rill, principal of Rill Architects in Bethesda, said homeowners want to extend their living space into the yard, so often the room facing the outdoor kitchen will have a wall of glass.

"You want a symbiotic relationship between the landscape beyond the kitchen and the inside of the home, so you need to create a space that is outside yet feels comfortable and cozy," Mr. Rill said.

Mr. Rill said it is important for homeowners to have a master plan to create an outdoor kitchen that blends with the home and the landscape design.

"It's important to use the right materials so the outdoor kitchen will last and also tie the design into the house," Mr. Rill said. "For instance, if you are putting in a fireplace as part of the kitchen, you need to make sure it doesn't block the view from the inside of the house or from the outside, and you don't want everyone to have their backs to the swimming pool when they are in the seating area."

Though shelter magazines display high-end outdoor kitchens, the truth is that you can spend as little as a few hundred dollars for a grill and a table with an umbrella or spend more than $100,000 for a space with plumbing, electricity, a full range of appliances and a covered space for protection from the weather and mosquitoes.

"The key to the success of an outdoor kitchen is the workspace," Mr. Akseizer said. "You need to have everything in one place, including a grill with a side burner and space for food prep and storage."

Mr. Akseizer said an outdoor kitchen with a built-in grill is nice to have, but for homes that need a grill with a propane tank, he recommends PropaneTaxi.com, a company that delivers propane tanks for a reasonable price.

Mr. Rill said outdoor kitchens need a grill, a refrigerator, a countertop, storage space for glasses and tableware, a dishwasher and food storage space for spices and a few staples. Some homeowners also opt to put in an outdoor bar for entertaining.

"If you can weatherproof the outdoor kitchen, that helps a lot, but you at least need to be able to turn off the water to the refrigerator and drain it before winter," Mr. Rill said.

Lori Graham, principal of Lori Graham Design in the District, said an outdoor kitchen needs a beverage refrigerator for wine storage and soft drinks as well as an ice maker.

Mr. Rill recommended using materials that offer moisture control outside, such as stainless steel and stone.

"Stained wood can work for the cabinets as long as you stain them before they are exposed to the elements," Mr. Rill said. "Flagstone works well for flooring, and honed granite or fieldstone works nicely for countertops. It's important to use natural materials that will fit into the landscape."

On high-end properties, an outdoor kitchen often is part of a landscape plan that includes a swimming pool, so homeowners should consider the impact of some of their guests coming directly into the kitchen space from the pool deck.

"Typical materials that are slip-resistant and heat-reducing, ones that don't radiate extra heat, are the way to go," Ms. Graham said. "You wouldn't want to use a black stone, but rather a cool and tumbled stone. Be cognizant that chlorine or bleach from the pool will take sealants off finishes, so choose polished chrome instead of nickel, porcelain instead of ceramic, light-colored marble and granite instead of concrete."

A complete outdoor kitchen would need the services of an architect to design the masonry wall with granite or stone tops, an electrician for lighting and appliances, and a plumber for a sink and dishwasher. Many homeowners also opt for a fire pit or a fireplace for added ambience and to use the space in spring and fall. Outdoor heaters are another option for extending the use of the space.

Though the outdoor kitchen does not necessarily need to be in a covered area, the addition of an overhang or roof not only protects the space from the elements but also makes the room more comfortable in every season.

A three-season screened-in room is especially important to consider in the D.C. area because of the mosquitoes in the summer, Ms. Graham said.

"Homeowners can easily spend as much or more on an outdoor kitchen as they do on a new indoor kitchen," Mr. Rill said. "They can also spend a lot of money on furnishing the space with outdoor couches, love seats and lounge chairs covered in fabrics that are designed to stay outside."

And while homeowners with acres of land can create an outdoor space as large and elaborate as they wish, Mr. Akseizer also has designed outdoor kitchens for rooftop decks and small yards that turn a little outdoor space into a "jewel box for your backyard."