- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Anna-Liza Harris, 42, of Northwest Washington says she has torn-up pavement to thank for a backyard face-lift that has improved not only her driveway, but also her Saturday nights.

After seeking landscape help for her broken-down driveway, Mrs. Harris and her husband, like a growing number of area families, added a kitchen to their renovation plans — and put it in their back yard.

Moving the perennial heart-of-the-home into a natural setting has given Mrs. Harris, her husband, Jeff, and their two children a new way to spend time together, and reason to do that more often.

“I like it a lot because I don’t have the TV to distract me from eating my dinner,” says Elizabeth Harris, 8.

Her brother Michael, 10, concurs.

“If we eat outside, then we all have to talk, and it is sort of a change to actually be sitting in air that’s not air-conditioned,” he says.

Area landscape architects and trade companies report an explosion of interest in outdoor kitchens in the last three years. A third of the $172 billion that homeowners spent on renovations in 2003 went toward exterior amenities, according to Census Bureau statistics.

More than half a million Americans purchased an outdoor heating appliance for their deck, porch or patio in the same year, a study conducted by the Arlington-based Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association found.

The same study concluded that 30 percent of grill owners plan to upgrade their grills in the next few years.

Many will likely consider the trendy new backyard centerpieces, which can include anything from the Harris family’s choice — a basic outdoor grill built into a solid-rock countertop that joins an existing outdoor fireplace — to more elaborate sets with full ovens, sinks, stoves and refrigerators.

“The only appliance we have not been able to find is a dishwasher,” says Ankie Barnes, principal of Barnes Vanze Architects, a Georgetown firm that has designed outdoor kitchens in the area.

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Mrs. Harris says she had entertaining in mind when she first decided she wanted to build a kitchen outdoors.

A partner in a Washington law firm, Mrs. Harris says she often holds large parties for her co-workers and employees. So when she set out to landscape her back yard, she wanted to make sure it could accommodate that need.

With her new outdoor kitchen, Mrs. Harris says entertaining is easier and more fun. The backyard counter space is a great place to set up a buffet.

But she says what she ended up liking most about her outdoor kitchen has nothing to do with entertaining.

“Really, the most fun we have is when it’s just the four of us,” Mrs. Harris says. “The kids just get such a kick out of cooking the hot dogs on the stick in the fireplace, or making s’mores, or running out and playing while Jeff and I are out there cooking and relaxing.”

The scene is familiar to Kristin Fusco, 41, a homemaker in Annapolis.

“Any kitchen is really the center of the family, whether it’s inside or outside. The kitchen always is,” she says.

Mrs. Fusco and her husband, Jack, wanted to create that kind of family center when they decided to renovate their back yard last fall. The couple has three sons, ages 13, 11 and 2.

“We have the three boys, and we just wanted to spend more time outside, and have a place to go and hang out with the kids,” Mrs. Fusco says.

Her boys were getting older, and the outdoor kitchen provides a place for them to have fun with friends under her watchful eye, she says.

Adding a kitchen space — complete with stone countertops, a refrigerator stockpiled with soft drinks and bottled water, a sink, stove, fireplace, grill and even a pizza oven — to their plans for a pool made their back yard an inviting destination.

The Fuscos spend every day in their back yard, which the family has covered in an antique-blend stone patio that makes the back yard almost like a room without walls.

The space is surrounded by carefully manicured gardens and trees, but its centerpiece is the large fireplace that spikes up into the sky beneath a vineless arbor. An L-shaped countertop made with honed blue stone — host to the sink, refrigerators, cabinet space and grill — encloses a dinner table that seats eight.

On a second-floor deck, a Weber grill on wheels sits unused, as the attention now focuses on the swimming pool and new outdoor cooking area.

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Mrs. Fusco admits the project was not cheap.

Lower-end outdoor-kitchen projects typically cost about $50,000, says Perry Lawry, construction manager for McHale Landscape Design, the firm that built both the Fusco and Harris families’ outdoor kitchens. Adding extra amenities — such as fireplaces, pizza ovens or heating lamps — can push that cost up to as high as $150,000, he said.

Like most outdoor kitchen areas, both the Fusco and the Harris projects included gazebo-like structures over the kitchen area. Though the stainless steel that the industrial-style outdoor stoves, sinks and grills are made of makes them waterproof, creating a kind of roof over the space can help protect from sun damage.

One project in Mitchellville, Md., designed and built by McHale included a bar area that sat beneath a pavilion equipped with ceiling fans and heating lamps, for Washington’s temperamental climes. The bar seats 20 around its circumference, making it a prime entertaining advantage.

Mr. Barnes says the wealthy aren’t the only ones who can enjoy these outdoor luxuries.

“Eating outdoors is a simple, time-honored tradition. It can be that simple,” he says. “You can buy the cooler on wheels, and you get your Weber on wheels, and you can get your work counter, and it’s just all about wanting to enjoy your food and drinks outdoors.”

Mr. Lawry agrees.

“The idea is as ancient as the barbecue,” he says. “It’s like a campfire. This is something people have done all along, we’re just… making it more comfortable.”

As they enter their second summer with their outdoor kitchen, the Harris family has also in a way rediscovered their roots, getting away from the distractions of the modern air-conditioned life.

Still, returning to nature can sometimes remind homeowners why they left it.

As 10-year-old Michael Harris puts it: “Our only problem out here is the gnats.”

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