Better Outdoor Kitchens: Designers Offer Nine Insights to Keep in Mind

Designers weigh in on the continued evolution of outdoor kitchens, what indoor kitchen designers bring to the outdoor table and capturing the business they represent
By Chris Mordi
February 26, 2013

Face it. You’re always looking for new business. You’ve seen all the news stories that say home renovations are super hot right now, and you’re probably already reaping some of the rewards of that trend. But you want to keep growing your business, now and through 2013. So where does that growth come from? Outdoor kitchens.

Kitchen designers weigh in on the continued evolution of outdoor kitchens, what indoor kitchen designers bring to the outdoor table and capturing the business they represent, including Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, CBD, principal of Mary Jo Peterson, Inc., Design Consultants and author of several kitchen design books; Jamie Gold, AKBD, CAPS, columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune and author; and Peggy McGowen, ASID, CMKBD, founder of Kitchen & Bath Concepts in Houston and sought-after seminar presenter. Also contributing his expertise is Russ Faulk, VP of product development for Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet.

“Outdoor kitchens are a trend that is not going away anytime soon,” said Jodi Bech, publisher of Garden Design magazine. “[They] aren't just nice built-in grills anymore. There are so many options when it comes to an outdoor kitchen that technology is helping push—from outdoor pizza ovens to outdoor dishwashers. And end users want these options. Homes are being built smaller, and with that, the importance and demand for the outdoor room/kitchen are increasing—gone are the days of zero lot line homes.”

Why has the outdoor kitchen become such a popular addition to a house?
Mary Jo Peterson: We have a keen interest in bringing the outdoors in and expanding our social spaces to include the outdoors, so this is a natural direction.

Jamie Gold: There are two reasons, in my opinion. First, we’re spending more time at home and looking for ways to make them more useful and enjoyable. Second, in many parts of the country—including Southern California, where I live and work—outdoor recreation is such an important, enjoyable part of our lives that we want to enjoy it at home, too.

Peggy McGowen: Families (especially younger ones) generally enjoy much more informal lifestyles than previous generations, and the outdoor kitchen is an obviously informal extension of the home.

Russ Faulk: Outdoor living is a big area for homeowner investment these days, and the outdoor kitchen is one of the most popular areas in this trend. It adds significantly to a family’s relaxation and enjoyment at home and can easily become a focal point for the entire neighborhood.

What does the future hold for outdoor kitchens?
Gold: I believe we’ll continue to see new categories of indoor appliances brought onto the deck. We’ve already seen wine coolers, warming drawers and, best of all, an outdoor dishwasher! I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next.

McGowen: Well, we already have almost every appliance made for indoor kitchens now available specifically made for outdoor use. I think we will have even more brands and model selections available in the future. I think companies will emerge that design and build more outdoor kitchens that can be enclosed—or not—to ensure optional climate control for year-round use in areas with colder, as well as hotter climates.

Faulk: I expect the design quality of these spaces to continue to improve. I also expect to see the outdoor kitchen and indoor kitchen working together in a more cohesively planned way.

What are the top three things that make designing an outdoor kitchen different from designing an indoor kitchen?
Peterson: The biggest is the effect of the elements. First, you have to think about maintenance in season and out. Second, there are added requirements in terms of the design and installation of equipment (levelness of land; exposure to sun, wind and water; and lighting, including task, ambient and wayfinding). A third difference is in the compact space: Often the outdoor kitchen must be planned into a much smaller footprint and with such a variety of activities taking place in the allowed space.

Gold: You have weather and climate comfort elements to factor into outdoor kitchens that you don’t indoors. Many of the other elements are comparable: effective storage, traffic and appliance planning, coordinating with surroundings and integrating entertainment, for example.

McGowen: Consideration of exposure to sun, strong prevailing winds, sometimes salt-water spray, insect control, weather-resistant finishes for cabinetry and countertops, different plumbing fixtures and appliances, lighting, etc. It’s all different!

Faulk: The biggest challenge is the elements—most notably rain management. You want cabinets that can keep their contents clean and dry throughout the year. We also strongly recommend a drip edge around the entire countertop perimeter. It is important to make sure the countertop does not get hot in the sun and that all materials and finishes are robust and easy to live with. Secondly, the cooking equipment is drastically different outdoors. Grills, smokers and pizza ovens all require different design considerations from typical indoor appliances. Finally, lighting is a particular challenge without an overhead structure, and utilities can be more challenging to route and connect in the outdoor kitchen.

Land Elements Landscape Architect

How do indoor kitchen design principles apply to the outdoors?
Peterson: They are often compressed, because of the smaller space and the limited storage and work surfaces. Safety principles must be followed, if anything, to a greater degree, as many who gather and “play” around the outdoor kitchen will not be as aware of the risks associated with it.

Gold: It depends on how extensive an outdoor kitchen is being planned. At the very minimum, you’re going to want enough surface area for meal prep and you’re going to want appropriate clearances for appliances.

McGowen: Mostly only principles regarding clearances, minimum counter space beside sinks and cooking appliances, and not obstructing primary walkways.

Faulk: Indoor design principles apply to the outdoor kitchen almost in their entirety. However, an outdoor kitchen is almost always smaller than its indoor counterpart. Some of the minimum space recommendations have to be drastically adjusted, but the important concepts of landing areas and clearances still apply.

Have there been new design principles invented to accommodate weather and kitchen location in relation to the house? What would those principles be?
Peterson: Certainly the need to plan for non-cooks to be designed out of harm’s way particularly near the heat of the cooking area. There also should be principles relating to ventilation as it is so easily impacted by the wind and the relationship of the cooking area to the entertaining/eating space and the house.

Faulk: Landscape design principles are an important part of outdoor kitchen design. The best outdoor kitchens are strong on both the kitchen design and landscape design fronts. You could say merging the two has led to some new principles for designing these spaces, but I think mostly it is a matter of bringing two different disciplines and design principles together.

How does an outdoor kitchen take an indoor designer out of his/her comfort zone?
Peterson: Different codes/requirements relating to the utilities and installation.

McGowen: Initially, it’s unfamiliar territory with many different things to consider than when planning indoor kitchens.

Faulk: Of course, that would depend upon the designer, but dealing with the elements is one area that can cause hesitation. Other areas have to do with typical elements of outdoor design: stone and masonry, footings, drainage, plantings for year-round appeal, easements, etc.

What would you like to see in an outdoor kitchen? Different appliances? New accessories? Different lighting options? A stronger focus on design principles?
Peterson: Better designed lighting options, also ventilation.

Gold: I’d like to see increasing availability of low-maintenance outdoor countertops and attractive cabinets with storage accessories for outdoor kitchens. I’d also like to see faucets designed and warrantied for outdoor use.

McGowen: All of it! And more training for designers on designing outdoor kitchens by NKBA and ASID, as well as by the manufacturers of equipment manufactured for outdoor kitchens and living spaces. “Hands-On” training is best…actual use of equipment in actual outdoor kitchen/living spaces, discussion about design process as well as use of equipment.

Faulk: I want to see kitchen designers creating spaces that take advantage of all the products out there that make a space so easy to live with that it can be used at any time without much preparation; a full outdoor living plan that creates a relaxing and comfortable environment for me, my family and my guests.

What do you think needs to change about outdoor kitchens and their designs?
Peterson: They need to be designed—not just dropped in place—and designed with the same attention to the clients’ intended use of the space that we give to the indoor kitchen.

Gold: I think relying on masonry to stand in for cabinets is as dated outdoors as it is in entertainment centers.

McGowen: It’s already happening—more equipment available specific to outdoor use by many different manufacturers. Beyond appliances though, we need options for use of the outdoor kitchen spaces in inclement weather.

Faulk: I think outdoor kitchen design has matured to enough extent that most of the things that needed to change are largely no longer an issue. However, the trend toward more effective use of good kitchen design principles needs to continue and become the norm.

How does an indoor kitchen designer go about capitalizing on the outdoor kitchen trend?
Peterson: As indoor kitchen designers, we need to make the discussion of the outdoor prep/eating/socializing habits of our clients when we plan with them. In this way, we open the door to expanding our work to the outdoor spaces. In addition, we must recognize the opportunity to team our design skills with those of the professionals who are expert at design/build for the outdoors.

Gold: The designer must factor in climate comfort (like not having smoke from the grill choke guests at the table when the wind changes direction) and weather when planning an outdoor kitchen. There are also landscaping considerations surrounding the outdoor kitchen to consider. These are not typical factors in indoor kitchen design. On the other hand, there’s a lot of insight that the indoor kitchen designer can bring outdoors.

McGowen: Most “indoor kitchen designers” make their money by selling cabinets, not appliances. So they need more product to make a real profit designing and selling, along with the outdoor appliances. We always talk about outdoor kitchens as an extension of indoor living—an easy, informal way to expand existing living spaces, which should all be cohesive anyway.

Faulk: Market your skills, and their relevancy to outdoor cooking with real confidence. Discuss outdoor cooking with your indoor kitchen clients as part of the normal course of business. Partner with a landscape design professional in your market to supplement the expertise on one another’s projects.

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