By SANDI TERFORD
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
When Bill and Kathleen Birsic bought their home in 1998, they wanted stylish outdoor entertaining space that was usable even if the weather was not cooperating.
What they bought was a blank canvas begging for improvement.
"We have always loved the house and the neighborhood," Kathleen said. "But when we purchased our home, it had only a concrete slab (for a patio) and some shade trees."
The Birsics are not alone in their quest for outdoor space that includes the comforts normally found under a roof.
A 2013 survey of outdoor design elements by the American Society of Landscape Architects found that 91.5 percent of professionals rate outdoor kitchen and entertainment spaces as popular with home owners.
Builders said 97.4 percent of their customers want grills, followed by low-maintenance landscapes (96.6 percent), fireplaces or fire pits (95.8 percent) and dining areas (95.7 percent).
The Birsics set to work improving their outdoor living space in 2011.
"We always wanted a covered patio to allow us to enjoy our backyard. As it usually goes, something that starts out small ends up big," Kathleen said.
Now they have a 625-square-foot patio that features granite counter tops, a gas grill, refrigerator, sink, a gas fireplace and heaters, a flat screen TV, ceiling fans and custom lighting, as well as a spa area that includes a sunken hot tub with a pergola and custom stonework.
The blurring of boundaries between inside and outside gave the family the casual, fun space they envisioned.
"Our patio has become our outdoor living space on a daily basis," Kathleen said. "We prepare our meals and eat outside. We watch TV and relax in the living area, and the spa will be a luxury for medicinal use as well as fun."
The outdoor space is so popular that it spawned its own Facebook page, "Patio 910." On a typical Sunday, the couple hosts "Grill and Chill," when friends are invited to bring a covered dish and food to grill.
"We play yard games, listen to music, and have a relaxing time with our friends," Kathleen said. "Our weekly gatherings may be big or small, but they are always memorable."
Creating the perfect outdoor environment is a team effort.
The Birsics' team included Tim Koontz of Dale Koontz Builders; Kim Mulch with Klingner and Associates; Kevin Sheesick with Tate Interior Designs; Carol Rakers of Creative Garden Services; and Bob Roman of Roman Pools and Spas, whose spa area incorporated several unique features.
Charles Whitcomb with Roman Pools and Spas said the company is seeing more people do what the Birsics did with their space.
"They may do a patio with electricity and heat in order to extend the season," he said.
Whitcomb said some people have taken the option of installing a swim spa, which is bigger than a spa but not as big as a pool. The unit allows people to swim and exercise.
"We think that is something people can utilize when they don't have a lot of space," he said.
Some people want to take the outdoors indoors, Tim Koontz said.
"We're talking to a lot of people who want to enclose porches," Koontz said. "They have a space that can be converted into a cover space."
Ted Genenbacher of Frese Nursery says when he's creating an outdoor living space, the first thing he does is ask a family to envision what they'd like to have and how they will use it five years from now.
"I tell them, ‘Just dream with me,' and then we ask how much entertaining they do and if there are kids involved," Genenbacher said. "With kids, we want to plan how they age. Children grow up, and families have different needs when the kids are only coming over on Sunday evenings to visit. We want them to be able to utilize their space through the years."
Dan Veihl, owner of The Butcher Block, often works with Frese Nursery to design custom outdoor kitchens. He says there is a misconception that these features are limited to affluent homes.
"There are also a lot of owners of farm houses and cabins who put in outdoor cooking facilities," he said. "With the economy, people tend to stay at home more, and this is one way they do it."
Regardless of the design, the same elements show up most often on home owners' wish lists.
The cooking area is often the center of outdoor kitchens, and for most homes, this means a grill.
Veihl says the first step in choosing a grill is to decide what type of cooking a family enjoys most often. "Someone who's just grilling burgers on the weekend doesn't need the same grill as someone who likes to smoke meats," he said.
Charcoal and gas are the most popular choices, but wood-fired grills, pizza ovens, smokers and infrared grills are gaining in popularity. Additional features on many grills eliminate the back-and-forth trips to the stove for side dishes.
When considering a grill, Veihl says the old adage, "You get what you pay for," is generally true.
"Some people can't see the value of a high quality grill, so they buy a $299 model that lasts a couple of years when they could have bought a $1,000 grill that has a lifetime warranty," he said.
There's just something mesmerizing about gathering around a fire. A cozy hearth sets the mood for conversation, and the cracking and popping sounds are soothing for relaxation. Portable fire pits have surged in popularity in the past decade, thanks in part to retailers stocking several affordable models. These casual elements add the atmosphere of camping, and they can be used for simple fare such as hot dogs and s'mores.
Fireplaces also are increasingly popular for outside entertaining. Cost varies by design and material. Some homeowners accept the challenge of a do-it-yourself fireplace project, while others have a professional install either a pre-made or custom-made style. Weather-durable furniture makes sitting around an outdoor hearth just as appealing as an indoor fireplace.
Fire pits and fireplaces extend the time a family can spend outside when the weather cools in autumn and provide welcome warmth for outdoor winter activities.
Outdoor living is a careful balancing act. The whole point is to enjoy fresh air and nature with the comforts of indoor living. This is where landscaping enhances outdoor enjoyment. Genenbacher says the design ideas are endless for homeowners who want to accent the hardscapes -- patios, walkways, cabinetry and grills -- with foliage. "You can really get creative in this area," he said.
Landscaping can provide color, fragrance, shade and even deter some pests. It also can be used strategically to separate areas into outdoor "rooms," and although there is no such thing as totally maintenance-free plants, homeowners can minimize the work and maximize enjoyment with careful planning.
It's no surprise that the element many folks already have -- dining areas -- is so high on wish lists.
Dining outside your backdoor has the benefits of a picnic without the effort. The traditional patio table, which seats four or six people, might be fine for a weeknight dinner, but entertaining calls for generous seating areas. To this end, many homeowners are adding bars or counters that overlook the cooking area. Guests and cooks can mingle during prep time and have a handy spot to set a plate or drink. Other options for alfresco dining include multiple tables situated in different areas and built-in benches.
Style options are endless -- from sleek, modern sets to the shabby-chic mix-and-match collections.
As long as it can weather the elements, anything goes in outdoor dining.