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To cultivate outdoor living, nip maintenance in the bud

“What’s the point of outdoor living if maintenance keeps you too busy to enjoy it?”

That question inspired one Pennsylvania couple to plan their new outdoor living space project around one overriding principle: Include nothing that would need painting, weatherproofing or replacement—ever.

In 1996, when Donna and John Pace built their Pittsburgh-area home, they already were determined to adopt as many low-maintenance materials as possible. They specified brick construction, vinyl-clad windows with low-e glass, wood-composite or aluminum-wrapped wood exterior trim, and molded urethane gingerbread.

The designated patio area around back got minimal attention as the Paces focused on the house itself. As Mr. Pace recalls, “There was no sense of urgency. Where we live, winter can consume five of the twelve months, so at the time we really didn’t stop to consider the value of the space.”

Still, the low-maintenance agenda prevailed. “We aren’t fans of wood or composite decks, so we installed concrete patio pavers—nothing special, but functional. That taught us another lesson in maintenance, however. Chipmunks, moles and voles like to burrow into the soft sand bed under the pavers. Net result: the pavers sink and have to be pried up and reinstalled every year.”

Meanwhile, the Paces matured, as did their appreciation for outdoor living. “We began to see the advantages of a space in the open where we could entertain friends, and host family gatherings. At the same time, new products and technologies were emerging, and they promised to make outdoor living more attractive and more integrated with the overall life of the home.”

In 2013 the Paces were ready for the great outdoors, and they knew exactly what they wanted. “By then we had a strict set of design criteria,” he says. The list of preferred materials was tightly edited, but ranged from the elemental (stone) to the technical (cellular PVC). “Within those limits, we had to be creative in order to achieve our own look and style,” he says. 

“The new space had to blend with the home’s exterior, but also express its own style. It had to be designed with audio/video entertainment in mind, and support cooking with equipment just as sophisticated as what you’ll find in a conventional kitchen. It needed to be roofed over, but with a high ceiling to give it an airy, spacious feel. Its floor had to be made of durable material, and level with the house’s patio doorsill. 

“And, finally—with Donna and myself in our late 50’s—the addition had to be not just low-maintenance but literally maintenance free. We chose bluestone for the floors, manufactured-stone veneer for the walls and fireplace, sandstone caps for the low wall areas, stamped concrete in front of the patio, stainless steel for all kitchen appliances and cellular PVC for the soffit and fascia, ceiling, column wraps and cabinetry.

“We wanted the ceiling over our patio to be constructed of PVC, because of its resistance to moisture, mildew and other environmental effects. It could have been just a flat beadboard affair, but we chose a nominal 1 x 6 in. WP-4 profile, with its dramatic V-notch, instead of ordinary ½-in. PVC tongue-and-groove boards. We added a coffered ceiling with recessed skylights, framing each coffer beam with a deep 4-in. PVC crown.

“Recessed PVC column wraps extended the architectural effect. To finish off the column wraps, we had custom column caps and bases built from nominal 2x (1½ in. actual) cellular PVC stock. And to make the corners stand out, we installed three column wraps around the outside supports, and single wraps against the house.”

Custom cabinetry, crafted from solid ¾ in. PVC sheet, concealed the media-system wiring and components, as well as the gas manifold and fuel lines serving the kitchen area, fireplace and fire pit. The cabinetry also had to provide plenty of storage for tableware and cooking gear, Donna Pace notes. To echo the style of the structural column wraps, the Paces had matching recessed cabinet door panels CNC-machined from cellular PVC sheet. They chose stainless-steel cabinet handles and hardware, and framed the casework in standard PVC moldings. A 2-in. glazed sandstone cap topped off the lower cabinet, matching the caps atop the patio’s stone perimeter wall.

Mr. Pace, an engineer by profession, served as his own architect. He hired Primrose Homes Inc., of Cranberry Twp., Pa., as general contractor, and engaged Bill Sandrock of Stratton Creek Woodworking in Kinsman, Ohio, to fabricate the cabinetry and custom column wraps. Mr. Pace designed the three-coffer, skylighted ceiling, the recessed column wraps and the cabinetry, and envisioned the fire pit, the media system and the lighting.

The project kicked off on May 14, 2013, and was completed on Aug. 1. The 11-week schedule included all landscaping, as well as installation of an in-ground sprinkler system.

“Since then, the finished project has met every one of our objectives,” Mr. Pace says. “Not only has it been a welcome addition to our home, but it’s validated our idea that you can create a comfortable and beautiful outdoor living environment without the typical maintenance demands required by standard building components.”