By Maggie Wolff Peterson
The season of outdoor living is only weeks away, which leaves just enough time to transform a backyard to an entertainment destination.
Whether the patio is constructed of brick, pavers, flagstone or simple concrete, a patio invites leisure. Furnish it with a table, some chairs and an umbrella, and it's just about ready. Add a fire pit or barbecue, a water feature or other focal point, and the patio becomes the best room in the house.
"People are looking at outdoor space as part of their home," said Steve Slaughter Jr., president of Frederick Block, Brick & Stone in Winchester. "They want to see a decorative element."
Complex designs, multi-level spaces and innovative materials are allowing homeowners to enhance their properties with outdoor function. People are spending more on exterior improvements than in the past, Slaughter said. But robbing the piggy bank is not required.
Do-it-yourself kits are cost-effective and can be completed in a weekend, Slaughter said. A kit to construct a 100-square-foot patio costs "a couple hundred dollars" in materials and can be purchased on a Friday for a project over a weekend, Slaughter said.
"There's a whole range of projects and a whole range of abilities for homeowners," he said. And planning ahead allows homeowners to start modestly and expand the project in phases, resulting in an enhanced hardscape that couldn't be afforded all at once, Slaughter said.
"Something you can do over seasons, as your budget allows," he said. For example, a backyard hardscape can be begun with a few stepping stones, leading to a bench.
"A couple of stones may cost $75," Slaughter said.
New products and colors have been introduced in the past few years, expanding the idea of what a hardscape can look like. "It's almost become like a fashion industry," Slaughter said.
Browns, reds and grays make up the color palette for brick, while purples, grays and mauve tones are natural in local limestone. Created stone is available in many colors, and tints across the rainbow may be added to concrete.
Selecting materials for an outdoor space brings lots of choices. Created stone, made from a mix of Portland cement, crushed natural stone and mineral pigments, can be made to look like everything from horizontal slabs of flagstone to rounded river rocks. Bricks offer the opportunity to work patterns into a design. Natural flagstone is a more organic choice. The durability of all of them is about equivalent, Slaughter said.
"If installed properly, they're going to last a lifetime," he said.
Laser engraving can personalize things further. Photographs, logos or typeface can be engraved into stone to accent or individualize a space.
Some homeowners incorporate eco-friendly aspects into their outdoor spaces. The old-fashioned cistern makes a reappearance in some designs, allowing homeowners to capture rainwater for gardening and other purposes. Some perforated pavers allow grass to grow around and between stones, while permeable materials allow precipitation to seep into the ground naturally instead of creating runoff.
Some man-made materials, attached to flexible matting, can be used to protect erosion-prone areas such as hillsides and water frontage. Some products use individual, perforated concrete blocks, cabled together to allow natural vegetation to grow between and around the hardscape. Retaining walls can enclose terraces for landscaping design, or even a built-in sandbox for children.
Today's outdoor living spaces integrate elements hardly imagined a few decades ago. Outdoor kitchens are "not just a grill," Slaughter said, and outdoor entertainment systems include television, music and video. There is even framed wall art made to withstand the weather.
Beyond the fireplace or fire pit, outdoor heaters allow patio use in nearly all weather.
"People that like to entertain can fit only so many people in the house," Slaughter said. "Your creativity is your only limitation."