Outdoor Kitchens

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Updated Feb 15, 2013

Realtors will tell you a quality kitchen remodeling is one home improvement project that gives homeowners a good return on their investment. The same holds true for outdoor kitchens. Some client requests may be as simple as a built-in grill on a patio, while others involve major additions such as terraces, arbors, planters, landscape lighting and water features to accompany a deluxe outdoor kitchen set-up consisting of a bar, refrigerator, ice maker, grill, pizza oven, smoker, and more. As the outdoor living trend continues, consumers are often looking for economical ways to improve their landscapes that not only will make their home more attractive to potential future buyers, but also provide them with a lot of satisfaction in the meantime.

Making a list, checking it twice
Joe Raboine, president, Harmony Outdoor Living, says a client’s budget is a huge determining factor in an outdoor kitchen design, but the process needs to begin with the client’s wish list. “When designing the project the contractor should be asking the consumer what they intend to use the space for,” Raboine says. “How many people do they generally entertain? Will they be cooking on a daily basis or only occasionally? Do they want a fireplace or fire pit?”

He says once plans are solidified, contractors need to convey exactly what the construction will entail – how many subcontractors will be involved, how long it will take, what could go wrong, what kind of mess will be made, and so on. “The more they can keep the client in the loop and abreast of what is going on, the more the client will take part in the process and feel like they are being heard and respected,” Raboine says. “In today’s highly competitive environment it is critical contractors remain in constant contact with their clients. Doing so will ensure a better relationship and fewer issues.”

Dan Reisdorf, a landscape architect with Milaeger’s Landscape Design, Racine, Wisconsin, says he’s noticed a big demand increase for outdoor kitchens in his area, one he believes is due largely to the convenience of modular units. “Three or four years ago there really wasn’t anything available like this, so we would build in a customer’s grill,” he says. “Everything was custom. The benefit of these modular units is the speed of installation. If you have the area prepared, you can have them delivered and installed in a morning.”

Raboine says the prep work is generally the same as prepping for concrete pavers and walls. “Our units are monolithic and can be placed right on top of the gravel base,” he says. “In some cases – depending on soil conditions – we recommend a concrete slab be poured. The slab does make it easy to install multiple piece units such as kitchens. Once contractors install a unit or two they can get their install time for fireplaces and kitchens to a few hours or less – a huge savings in labor.”

“If there is a bad thing about the modular units, it’s that they’re not flexible,” Reisdorf says. “You can’t make them longer or shorter once you get them there – that’s not going to happen. When you’re doing your design, you have to know the dimensions of your space and the units.”

Joe Rider, president, Stone Age Manufacturing, which produces outdoor kitchen units, points out contractors need to distinguish between pre-fab units and custom kits such as the ones his company makes. “Our kits allow the contractor to make some adjustments on site,” he says. He suggests the contractor set up the units and then consult with the homeowner to see if it’s satisfactory and then cut out holes for the appliances. With pre-fab systems the cut-outs for appliances are built into the island for a particular brand and if the customer doesn’t prefer that brand the contractor doesn’t have any options.

Take a test drive
Milaeger’s has a Harmony fireplace and bar unit set up at its garden store so clients can get a genuine impression of the units. “They like to open the lids and get a feel for the scale and finishes,” Reisdorf says. Outdoor fireplaces have been his most popular units lately, exceeding requests for built-in grills. In areas such as Wisconsin with a lengthy cool season, he says clients want outdoor fireplaces to extend the season late into the fall and allow them to get outdoors earlier in the spring.

“Clients tend to go outside in the evening more, so it extends the life of their patio,” Reisdorf says. “Even though they’re expensive, they’re something you just can’t duplicate with a little fire pit. They’re like a fireplace in your home. Most come in two parts, which can be set in place with a fork lift. In half an hour you’re ready to have a fire.” He cautions that installing gas log fireplaces, gas grills and electrical appliances requires a licensed plumber and electrician. Gas fireplaces are popular for clients who want to avoid the smell of smoke on their clothing and gain the safety and convenience of a fire that can be switched on and off with a button.

Making accurate estimates
Raboine points out newer modular kitchen units take much of the guesswork out of the bidding equation. Unlike custom units, which involve masonry construction and more measuring and fitting, knowing the exact dimensions and costs of the units and how they fit together means the contractor leaves less to chance. “Clients know exactly what they are getting, the contractor knows exactly what it takes to install them, and they are installed very quickly,” he says. Raboine suggests landscapers interested in pursuing outdoor kitchen installation as part of their services should spend time educating themselves on what is possible in terms of styles and components. He suggests contacting the Hearth, Patio and Barbeque Association (www.hpba.org). “Building a network of subcontractors is critical to their success as well,” he says. “Right now is a great time to contact plumbers, electricians, carpenters, etc., since many of them aren’t as busy as they once were with new construction.”

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