Summer Kitchens: Grilling is Just the Beginning
Elaborate outdoor kitchens are popping up in backyards throughout the Pittsburgh area. Is your house next?
Photos by Natalie Morris and Autumn Stankay
Debbie Henson wanted a simple patio for grilling dinner on summer nights. But as the former art teacher sketched out plans for refurbishing her Monessen backyard three years ago, she began to rethink that plan. For as long as she could remember, she’d wished her house was large enough to hold a sprawling, open-plan kitchen where friends and family could chat with her as she made dinner. In her ideal kitchen, she wanted plenty of space for cooking, gleaming granite countertops, state-of-the-art appliances and lots of room to socialize.
Then she realized: Life is too short to waste time wishing. If her dream kitchen wouldn’t fit inside her house, why not build it outside?
It took months of planning followed by months of construction, with New Stanton-based Brown Design Group completing the work. It was expensive — comparable to building another house, Henson says — especially after she and her husband added such details as custom-made pergolas with retractable awnings, a separate ice maker alongside an outdoor refrigerator, a stovetop burner for stir-frying and a large, custom-made gas fire pit to keep this outdoor kitchen toasty even in the spring and fall.
To complete the Hensons’ backyard transformation, Brown Design Group owner George Brown added a hot tub and a waterfall that tumbles down into a peaceful koi pond. But it’s the kitchen that wows guests — and delights Henson.
As did so many homeowners in the Pittsburgh region, she grew up with a vastly different sense of what an outdoor patio could include. A generation ago, most people were thrilled to have a charcoal grill and maybe a redwood picnic table with a pair of matching benches. Throw in a few folding metal chairs with seats woven from strips of nylon and a green plastic doormat that aimed — and failed — to resemble a patch of grass, and you were done.
Residents never considered outdoor wine refrigerators and backyard pizza ovens. They never imagined gas grills with built-in rotisseries and optional quesadilla makers. And they certainly didn’t expect that TVs, fluffy rugs and delicate chandeliers would become viable possibilities for outdoors.
Somewhere along the way, things changed. Porches and patios became “outdoor living rooms,” and outdoor cooking at home became as elaborate as anything seen on the Food Network. Nationally, adding an outdoor kitchen has become a growing trend that market-watchers say is here to stay.
In our region, nothing — not even relentless winter weather — is stopping homeowners from joining the fun. Why have we embraced a trend that seems more fitting for Florida or southern California?
You could say it’s in our DNA: Pittsburghers always have believed in sharing meals with the people we love. And here in the City of Steel, we’ve always been drawn to the idea of building something permanent. So constructing a solid cooking island around a nice grill with a countertop is a natural fit.
Building Better Barbecues in the 'Burgh
Brown says he started noticing the growing demand for outdoor kitchens a few years ago. At first, he says, “I wondered: ‘Am I just getting better at this?’”
The steady stream of customers from around the region who asked for his help in expanding their outdoor cooking spaces finally convinced him. The homeowners weren’t approaching him only because they saw the projects he had completed for other happy clients, although word-of-mouth recommendations certainly are powerful in the world of home improvement.
Elaborate outdoor kitchens, he says, are “definitely a trend.”
These days, Brown says he hears from “so many folks [who] say, ‘We grill all year long.’” They no longer want to flip burgers and steaks at a free-standing grill and duck back inside the house every time they need a serving dish or ingredients from their refrigerators. They want the entire cooking and dining experience to happen outside under (preferably sunny) Pittsburgh skies.
Jeff Blunkosky, president/owner of Pittsburgh Stone and Waterscapes, LLC, in Upper St. Clair, says he expects to design and install as many as 25 new outdoor kitchens this year — and vendors who sell components for elaborate outdoor kitchens are also seeing this trend. Home Depot wouldn’t offer specific local sales numbers, but its regional manager in Pittsburgh says area customers increasingly are trading up in search of higher-quality grills. With specific options in mind, they’re seeking out such items as grills that can run on both charcoal and gas.
Whether homeowners are buying the components themselves or hiring a contractor to deliver a complete package, one thing is clear: They want something much more permanent than a grill on wheels parked near a table and chairs.
Leisure Time Looks Different Now
A few years ago, Dr. Amita Mital and her husband considered buying a summer vacation home. They pictured themselves escaping Pittsburgh’s gray winter skies by jetting off to a beachside town in Mexico. As they juggled busy work schedules while raising their (now 4-year-old) son, though, it hit them: Those Mexican beach vacations were never really going to happen. They rarely have time to plan a lengthy visit to any place outside of Pittsburgh, let alone out of the country.
“We can maybe schedule two vacations a year,” Mital says. “[Why invest in] a vacation home that’s going to sit empty?”
So they scrapped the idea of a second home and instead invested in a two-level outdoor kitchen with a graceful sloping roof held up by pillars. It has added value to their Franklin Park property and brought them uncounted hours of happiness, Mital says.
The family uses it every day through the spring, summer and fall and even on warmer winter days, Mital says, “even if it’s just for 15 minutes.” After a long day at work, she says it’s much more fun to cook a good meal out in the summer breeze instead of “cooking with pots and pans inside.”
She isn’t alone in her thinking. Keith Morris, owner of K. Morris Landscape Design in Oakdale, says he hears from many busy families who want to spend more time outdoors. They see investing in an outdoor kitchen as a great step in that direction, he says.
Morris designed the Mitals’ outdoor kitchen to include every indoor convenience — a refrigerator, a sink, plenty of electrical outlets, lots of storage cabinets and ample counter space. In this kitchen, the Mitals can focus on food and family, never wasting precious time running back to the house for essentials.
Another lifestyle bonus: Technology now allows busy families to multitask outside. Need to work? Your Wi-Fi router probably offers a strong-enough connection outdoors. Want to watch a baseball game or catch up on the day’s news headlines while you grill? If you have a roof over your deck or patio, you can hang an outdoor TV on an exterior wall (just remember to take it down and stow it in the house when winter approaches). It’s a great way to lure family members outside and make sure everyone — even screen-loving kids — gets a dose of fresh air.
Recent advances also have brought us engineered faux stone concrete products that contractors say are more durable than natural stone as well as shiny outdoor countertops that can withstand winter temperatures below zero. International companies such as Sunbrella have created impressively durable outdoor furniture fabrics that feel as luxurious as indoor upholstery.
Technology also has done one other thing: For homeowners here, the ease of online shopping brings full access to the same broad range of outdoor products that those in Atlanta, Miami and other sunny places have enjoyed for years.
Good Food, Gorgeous Homes
We’ve also become a nation that’s taking grilling to a new level. Barbecue-competition and other cooking shows have convinced us that any one of us could be another “Iron Chef.”
Millennials are health-conscious and food-focused, according to the merchandising experts at Home Depot. No longer content with an outdoor meal of hot dogs and potato salad, they want to cook Korean barbecue or grill gourmet stuffed burgers.
Some millennials — and Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers, too — also are hungry to upgrade their real estate. They take pride in showing off the one “room” that neighbors can easily see, even if those neighbors aren’t invited inside. A backyard with sleek paving stones and a full-service kitchen makes a property more valuable and more beautiful.
And the range of decorating options for outdoor kitchens now lets homeowners express personal style through everything from outdoor wall art (hung on the exterior walls of a house — you may want to hire a professional to do this) and weatherproof lamps plugged into outdoor sockets to colorful outdoor rugs that can be placed under a dining table or in front of an outdoor sofa.
Want Your Own Outdoor Kitchen?
Start the process by gathering estimates from several contractors. Some will offer to sell a range of components (grills, countertop islands, etc.) and perform the installation. Others will recommend vendors such as The Fireplace and Patioplace, with multiple area locations, which can help you to find the right pieces in your price range and work with your contractor to complete the installation.
As you talk with contractors and look at (or create your own) sketches of outdoor kitchen designs to suit your home and your needs, consider these elements:
How much should You spend?
For the cost of one nice family vacation (about $4,000 to $5,000), you can get the basics: A built-in grill area with some counter space. An attractive, faux-stone kitchen island with a high-quality grill, a 5-foot-long countertop to use for food preparation and dining, plus a mini-refrigerator and a storage cabinet would run about $8,000 to $10,000. If you’re willing to spend more, “the possibilities are endless,” says Keith Morris.
Contractors say it’s not uncommon for Pittsburghers to spend $35,000 to $50,000 for a gourmet cook’s outdoor kitchen combined with an elegant dining area. It’s a huge cost, but it’s also an investment. So before deciding on your budget, ask a real estate agent in your area how much a full-service outdoor kitchen might add to the value of your home. Debbie Henson points out that her elaborate outdoor kitchen isn’t typical in Monessen, so she and her husband probably have priced their home out of the market. She doesn’t mind. Her main goal was to create an oasis, not to increase her home’s eventual resale value.
Which extras do you really want?
A great outdoor kitchen is all about luxury. Some folks prioritize an icemaker — meaning no more trips to the store for ice during a party — or a pizza oven. Others favor separate outdoor fridges for wine and food. Some want storage space for everything from utensils and cooking items to outdoor plates, cups, silverware, table linens and candles.
For many people, a spectacular grill is the top priority. Weber’s new Spirit grills offer interchangeable cooking surfaces for different recipes, including a pizza stone, a pancake griddle and a rotisserie attachment. Some of those can be added later, says Home Depot’s director of trend and design, Sarah Fishburne. You can start with basic surfaces, she says, and then “buy a couple of pieces along the way.”
Once you know which components matter most to you, consider the range of costs for each one. The key is quality: These items will be outdoors for much or all of the year, and you want them to last. Look for customer reviews that praise durability and excellent customer service support for items that could need repair or replacement in the future.
What about the weather?
Well, this is Pittsburgh. So it’s true that December (OK, November) through March (well, even April) sometimes can be brutal. But we’re people who watch football outdoors in the snow without coats on, aren’t we? Keith Morris and other contractors say they do hear from some customers that our region’s weather prevents them from using their yards year-round. Yet many others embrace spending at least eight months outside each year. They may dash outside to grill even when it snows, assuming their grilling area is covered with a roof or awning.
The key? Be sure to add one or several sources of heat. Many contractors recommend adding a fireplace or fire pit to your outdoor kitchen for heat as well as the enjoyment of watching the crackling flames. You also can combat chilly weather by using one or several standing or wall-mounted space heaters — the kind you sometimes see on restaurant patios. It’s also important, says George Brown, to add a roof or a pergola/awning combination for warmth, protection from rain and the sense that you’re safely enclosed. Even a simple wood-frame pergola can turn a patio into a true outdoor room, he says.
Last detail: Make sure to buy a good cover for your grill (usually sold separately) and covers for your furniture. Most outdoor countertops won’t need covering in the winter, but some contractors recommend covering granite ones during the coldest, snowiest months.
Do you have enough yard space?
Here’s the good news: Yes. Whether you have a tiny postage-stamp yard in Shadyside or Squirrel Hill or a huge expanse of suburban lawn, contractors say you can have an outdoor kitchen designed to meet your needs. A cooking island with space for two or three barstools can fit into a 6-by-3-foot area. Add a love seat and small coffee table over a 4-by-6-foot rug, then add a wooden pergola on top of the whole thing and you’ve got a sweet outdoor kitchen/living room tucked into about 7 square feet of space.
How long will this take?
Contractors explain that adding a full outdoor kitchen really is as complicated as adding an indoor addition to your house. Gas lines, electrical wiring and water lines take time to install. Excavation usually is involved. Rain can slow the process unavoidably. For a complete outdoor kitchen, plan for anywhere from two to six months to pass from initial design to completion. And be patient if it takes longer. Debbie Henson also advises taking your time before approving the final design for your new kitchen. Make sure you know exactly what you want and exactly where you want each element.
Feel the Power: Lighting and Outlets
Even if you’re planning a fairly limited outdoor kitchen, consider hiring an electrician to add several extra electrical sockets outside. It gives you the freedom to use such things as blenders for frozen drinks and an iPod or iPad dock for music. It also opens up possibilities for creative lighting and space heating. Outdoor lamps now are available in a huge range of sizes, shapes and colors, as are weatherproof hanging pendant lights and chandeliers.