Conquering the Great Outdoors

Backyard barbecues have come a long way since early charcoal blazers and hibachis became popular in the 1950s. These once-simple grills have evolved into high-tech appliances designed to expand the kitchen out into the patio and garden. But why?

The editors at Sunset magazine suggest the driving force behind the rising popularity of barbecuing is its intrinsic appeal – the aromas, flavors, easy clean-up and relaxing dining style that combine to create the “barbecue experience.”

In addition, I believe the current broadly held belief that cooking is as much a hobby as a responsibility has also been key in piquing the interest in outdoor cooking and entertaining. When both men and women see cooking as a hobby, it easily becomes part of the most obvious recreational area of their homes: the outdoors!

And, while in the past we only considered outdoor kitchens appropriate for warm climates, if the space is properly planned for comfort, clients in all different areas of the country may be willing to invest in such great additions to their “private castle.”

Indeed, kitchen/bath manufacturers have latched onto the growing consumer interest in this area, encouraging them with suggestions such as “Don’t go away, get away: in your own personal outdoor space.” They backed them up at this year’s K/BIS in Chicago with a plethora of products appropriate for outdoor kitchens.

But, despite the growing interest and market, little has been published about the space-planning requirements and mechanical constraints present when creating outdoor cooking, dining and entertaining spaces. Before embarking on such projects, designers need to know what is involved and the key issues to address to properly help their clients. They include:

  1. What questions should designers ask their clients to ensure there is a “good match” between the design space, the equipment specified and the type of outdoor living environment their clients desire?
  2. What does a designer need to consider when searching for the location for an outdoor kitchen?
  3. What is the difference between bringing the outdoors in and bringing the indoors out?
  4. What are the details of the mechanical constraints present in exterior living environments?

Questions to Ask

To start the planning process, the designer must gather information from the client.

  • Who is the cook? Who joins the cook in the outdoor kitchen? Are you creating a simple patio grill for the lone chef, or a fully functional kitchen with space for people to gather? Much like an inside kitchen, a counter area, a place to be seated and appliances positioned for easy sharing are all important.
  • What does the client cook? People often use the word “barbecue” when they actually mean “grilling.” Grilling is simply a process of cooking food over a high heat on a cooking grate. Barbecue is a style of cuisine that originated in the southern U.S. more than a century ago, and it is the process of slow-cooking large pieces of meat in a smoke-filled chamber that burns hardwood. Wood-fired ovens allow you to bake bread, cook roasts and even bake pizza. The new gas-fired appliances also offer more than just a grill: Side burners allow you to fry, boil and sauté a variety of side dishes while grilling.
  • Will the family and guests eat outdoors? How often? Is dining in a screened enclosure more desirable than dining alfresco? Heavy winds can also wreak havoc on the client’s organized dinner party, driving guests inside or spreading smoke from the barbecue across the entertaining areas. For a space designed for guests lingering after dinner over coffee, consider a fireplace or fire pit that will provide both heat and ambiance for guests enjoying the outdoor room.
  • How much outside space is there? What other activities take place outside? For example, is there a child’s playground?
  • Is the area near or attached to the house, therefore sheltered and close to existing plumbing, electrical or gas lines? Or is the planned area a distance from the primary dwelling?

Location, Location, Location

When planning an outdoor cooking center, consider the style and location of the house and the relationship between the indoor kitchen and new outdoor area. Become familiar with the yard’s natural traffic pattern, the location of utility hook-ups and prevailing weather conditions, too.

  • What are the climate considerations? What is the relationship of the kitchen to the setting sun throughout the year? And note any micro climates – the variation in climatic conditions within the property. They can vary greatly from one corner of the yard to another. For ultimate flexibility, plan a solid roof cover that will make the space usable during the day under a blazing sun, or the occasional rainy late afternoon.
  • Before suggesting cabinets, find out what the year-round weather patterns are. For instance, by the sea you may be strictly limited to stainless steel or other materials that resist the corrosive effects of salty air. Rather than attempting to custom fabricate such cabinets, learn more about recently introduced complete product lines of outdoor stainless steel cabinetry.
    For inland outdoor kitchens there are more cabinetry choices such as those with “boat board” – wood or enameled porcelain finishes designed to withstand direct exposure to the elements. Here, outdoor cabinets are similar to indoor units in size and construction, and are typically mounted within a stucco, brick or tile surround. They are not insulated, so contents are not protected from temperature extremes, but they can be protected from insects/pests with latches that create a tight seal.
  • Ask about minimum safety standards. This is particularly important when building a fire pit or fireplace. Contact the local fire marshal’s office to obtain information on what and when it can be burned. While there is no national standard regulating grill construction, local ordinances, in many areas, restrict the conditions or locations you can have an outdoor fire. Check with the local planning department before finalizing your plans. Think about safety, too. Plan rope lighting below any outdoor steps and along floor/walkway transitions, which are harder to see as the sun sets.
  • Be aware of code restrictions. Much like when planning the inside kitchen, when you consider the entire space and the adjoining living spaces, the outdoor kitchen should be laid out as an element of the entire plot. Because most communities restrict how close to property lines you can build, investigate the area’s zoning laws, as they may restrict the size, use and placement of any structure. Consider grade of the lot, and have a proper exterior survey done.
  • Test drive the proposed outdoor kitchen location. To validate your plan, “test drive” the chosen outdoor kitchen area. Rope it off, and then consider traffic patterns. Visit several times throughout the afternoon and evening. Does it receive consistent wind or none at all? What is the exposure to the sun? Remember, the sun’s angle and arc change with the seasons – it has a higher arc in the summer, and a lower arc in the winter. Avoid a cooking center that faces West so clients won’t be blinded when cooking with the sun low in the sky. Finally, don’t ignore drainage issues. Stay out of the path of storm water run-off!

Plumbing Issues

For cold water it is usually easy to tap into a water pipe that serves a nearby outdoor hose bib or faucet. For hot water, a supply pipe must run from the barbecue sink to an existing hot water pipe or the hot water heater for hot water.

An alternative is an on-demand hot water heater. An electric “on-demand” instant hot water heater is a small plug-in unit that is installed under the sink. It is an excellent alternative to running a hot water pipe from the home’s hot water heater to the barbecue sink. The unit connects to cold water pipes and heats the water as it travels through the unit to the faucet. A thermostat on the unit controls the water temperature. Units vary by the size of the heating unit’s wattage, which ranges from 500 to 1,300 watts.

If your client lives in a climate with freezing temperatures, plan to winterize the area. Water pipes need to be designed so the client can clear all water from the system in the Fall. Water connections should be buried below the frost line, as should gas lines.

Consider drainage, too: In some home installations the drain simply flows into a small pit filled with drain rock.

Overall, be careful about implementing an idea until you have checked into local codes and restrictions.

Electrical Power

Because outdoor wiring must withstand the elements, outdoor electrical materials are stronger and more resistant to corrosion than those used for indoor wiring. And because outdoor components must fit together tightly to keep out water, heavy-duty gaskets or special fittings often seal cover plates on outdoor electrical boxes.

Outdoor receptacle boxes start with a water-tight housing made of cast aluminum, zinc-dipped iron or bronze. They have threaded entries to keep out water. All covers for water-tight boxes are sealed with gaskets, and many switch boxes are equipped with an exterior on/off lever so you can operate the switch without opening the cover.

Some type of conduit piping is used to run the wires to the outdoor components. Special PVC housing boxes are designed for use with plastic conduit (different from the plastic electrical boxes used for indoor electrical cable). Non-metallic conduit does not constitute a grounded system, so you must run a separate grounding wire or cable that includes a separate ground conductor.

Complete a detailed review of the electrical power requirements of all of the equipment planned. Often overlooked are:

  • An outlet for the electrical rotisserie or side burners included with the grill.
  • An outlet for a built-in refrigerator, blender or a beer keg in the refreshment center.
  • An outlet and cable line for the TV/portable CD player and speaker line for outdoor speakers.
  • Electrical lines for lighting at walkway step transitions.

Design Details

Designers who have created outdoor kitchens offer suggestions:

  • Plan an outdoor kitchen just as you would a regular kitchen. An ‘L’ or ‘U’ arrangement works well with a captured cook and guests just opposite. A corridor or single wall with an island is also very workable.
  • Select the right countertop material – granite, marble, tile or flagstone. In warm-weather climates, flagstone is used because of the variety of colors and its easy maintenance. Its natural look blends well in an outdoor environment, plus it costs a lot less than granite or marble. A sealer is applied to the flagstone’s surface after the installation to prevent staining. Solid-surfacing materials are another excellent choice.
  • Develop a lighting plan that considers seasonal changes in the sun’s setting pattern. Try adding a counter-mounted barbecue grill flex light so that the light can be focused on the grilling surface. Be wary of lights along the backsplash that might be blocked when the grill cover is raised. Add lighting built into the roof or trellis ceiling above the grilling area. Free-standing floor lamps are also available.
  • Even if there is not much storage, think about ways to conceal the unsightly mess created from the meal preparation. Ideas for storage include:
    1. An undercounter open shelf or a dual-level island so the cook can stash dirty plates until they are carried inside.
    2. A cut-out in the countertop to house restaurant-style condiment trays, which can be filled in the kitchen and then installed in the counter for buffet service.
    3. A cart to move things from the inside to outside.
    4. A built-in trash drawer or tilt-out in the grilling area and the refreshment area so there is no free-standing trash container; for critter control, the garbage container needs to have a tightly fitted lid, and it must be removed immediately.
    5. Hooks or bars for oversized grilling equipment, pot holders, foil for cooking or covering, a recessed enclosure for paper towels and a bar or fabric washcloths or towels.
    6. A spot for equipment covers to be stashed when the kitchen is being used.
    7. A space for a fire extinguisher handy to the grill.
    8. A free-standing bar cart, or a built-in ice chest drawer, icemaker or refrigerated beverage center, all of which can be an important part of an outdoor gathering space. Don’t forget to ask if blended party drinks are part of the fun – if so, you will need to plan storage for the blender and the necessary electrical power.

To facilitate a fun-filled afternoon or evening gathering, a casual 36" counter height or 42" bar-type counter may be oriented to the refreshment center rather than to the cooking appliance. If the grill or fireplace uses tanks of propane, plan a storage area for a back-up tank.

Don’t forget to determine what type of summertime fabric covers will be used to protect the kitchen from rain, and whether or not a sturdy cover for the kitchen area is needed for protection during snowy winter months.

Grill manufacturers offer felt-lined covers to protect each specific piece of equipment. Side burners generally come with a steel cover. These items are normally not included in the price of the equipment. They are accessories and are ordered separately.

As noted earlier, plan on a storage area for these covers when the outdoor kitchen is in use. If the entire cooking center must be covered for the winter, consider a zipped blanket custom-made by an awning company or a firm that provides covers for boats.


For ultimate comfort, consider the following finishing touches for your outdoor living space plan:

  • Furniture. Knowing how many people will gather for different events hosted in the outdoor area is key. If the numbers change dramatically, you might consider a special, easily accessible storage area for stackable chairs.
    For permanent gathering areas, consider deep, reclining, comfortable seating. Furniture is not as oversized in outdoor living spaces as it has been in the past. It is more streamlined, but still comfortable. Fewer chaise lounges are being used today, so mix and match chairs and ottomans. Furniture manufacturers say consumers want their outdoor furniture to look like indoor pieces. The goal is to bring the inside style out to the new living space. Sunbrella fabric, outdoor carpets and decorative floor lamps are all now available for outdoor rooms.
  • Shade. Providing shade for the kitchen, dining area and lounging area is crucial. Natural shade trees may be planned. A pergola (a structure consisting of parallel colonnades supporting an open roof of girders and cross rafters) planted with vines, or a solid roof overhead, may be a good option. A motorized contractible awning or umbrella on a table can also be planned.
  • Fans. Outdoor fans, suspended from the roof of a porch or a semi-enclosed outdoor kitchen, keeps the air moving in the outdoor living space, making it more comfortable on hot days. Fans also help keep the bugs away.
    Look for a fan that is UL-rated for wet locations as opposed to damp locations. The former has seals and grommets to prevent moisture from penetrating the motor and electrical elements, plus plastic weather-resistant blades and stainless steel hardware.
  • Misting Systems. Misters force water through a nozzle to produce super-fine droplets of water that cool thanks to “flash evaporation” when they reach the hot air – without wetting the surrounding area. These systems work best in hot, dry areas; they simply add humidity to the air in humid locales. In the right setting, they can lower the air temperature by as much as 25°.
  • Heating. Although stone decking and walls can provide light thermal heating, a mechanical system may be required if the clients want to use the outdoor room year-round. Portable, outdoor-rated gas or electric space heaters are widely available, but may not be the most attractive option. Large, free-standing heaters that look a bit like stainless steel lamp posts are often a good solution. The size of the fixture determines the radius of the circle of heat provided by the fixture. And don’t overlook a gas or real wood fire pit or fireplace.


Watch for new and innovative appliances, accessories and special items for the outdoor kitchen. Because of the popularity of outdoor spaces, a great deal of retail merchants are offering new products.

To see pictures and examples of some of these accessories and to get some ideas, go to,, and

In addition to searching out new products offered by kitchen manufacturers, I counsel you to interview well-known landscape designers or architects in your area. For example, I spoke with Damon Lang of Green Planet Landscaping, in Las Vegas, NV (, who was very helpful during my research for this article.

Because landscapers often are asked to plan outdoor kitchens for many clients, perhaps a new collaboration can be forged between your design firm and an outdoor specialist.

This article is part of a quarterly series of “Designer’s Notebook” articles, which will continue to run throughout 2006 exclusively in Kitchen & Bath Design News and online at KBDN’s Web site, Past “Designer’s Notebook” articles can also be found on the Web site.