The Backyard Living Room Boom


The Backyard Living Room Boom

As Backyard Hardscaping Becomes More Elaborate, Concrete Pavers
Help Set the Mood

Some spa owners might be jealous of the newly revamped backyard of a Wayne, NJ family: 5,000 sf (465 m2) of outdoor living space, complete with an elevated patio area, pool and hot tub lined with natural rock, a waterfall bubbling gently down from a walkway above, and a cozy fire pit tucked off to the side. 

The era of kiddie pools, Coleman grills and fold-up lawn chairs may be officially over.
The era of kiddie pools, Coleman grills and fold-up lawn chairs may be officially over.

“Our backyard residential projects are all becoming high-end, and even people who are watching their budgets are asking for elements like fireplaces, outdoor kitchens and extensive living spaces,” says Joe Monello, owner of New Jersey-based Monello Landscape Industries. The recent project in Wayne makes significant use of hardscape, with concrete pavers playing a major role. Four different sections on the project — dining, pool entrance, lounging and fire pit — each used a unique paver style to differentiate one space from the other, with a repeating border that brings the hardscaped area together aesthetically.

Even the smallest backyards can be transformed into living rooms.
Even the smallest backyards can be transformed into living rooms.

Currently, Mr. Monello is working on several similar projects, including one that involves about 7,000 sf (650 m2) of concrete pavers. He certainly isn’t alone in garnering more extensive backyard projects like these. The trend is toward elaborate, sumptuous living spaces that replicate and expand indoor layouts, complete with a kitchen, dining and lounging areas, and a fireplace. “There’s no question this is going to continue,” he says. “If anything, these projects are just going to keep getting bigger.”

Bigger is better, especially if for entertaining
Bigger is better, especially if for entertaining.

Going Backwards
The shift toward larger backyard projects comes as the result of several factors, including a continuing interest in staying home and connecting with nature. Even though the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the dramatic move away from travel as recreation never really
returned in a big way, notes Justin Hampton, co-owner of Paver Designs in Omaha, NE. And the sputtering economy of recent years has put “staycation” in the American lexicon
firmly if not permanently. “Instead of going on vacations, people learned how to stay
home and have fun,” he says. “They’re turning their backyards into places to hang out. They’re going from a small patio or deck to grill islands, pizza ovens, seating walls and fire pits.”

Most of these projects incorporate several natural elements like fire, water and stone, as well as edible plants like grape arbors or herbs, says Julie Moir Messervy, a landscape architect based in Vermont who helms JMMDS, a creative design firm. “I’ve been pushing for people to put these things in their front yards and actually talk to their neighbors,” she says. “But there’s a sense of privacy in the backyard, and intimacy when you’re entertaining.”

Backyards hardscaping enables personal expressions with privacy.
Backyards hardscaping enables personal expressions with privacy.

Another part of the reason for the larger scale is lower cost compared to renovation, adds Frank Gandora, president of Creative Hardscape Company in Englewood, CO. To build an addition onto a home is usually around $300 per sf (about $3,200/m2), he says, but for 10 percent of that price, a homeowner can have a large outdoor space for entertaining. Mr. Gandora experienced this phenomenon firsthand. He spent almost $100,000 to refinish his home’s basement but less than $20,000 for a sumptuous backyard patio area. Where do guests prefer to spend their time? “Everyone wants to be outside, it just has a better feel to it,” he says. 

The recent recession also reduced material costs, notes Jeff Zock, a landscape architect with Ryan Hughes Design in Florida. That incentivized homeowners, prompting them to increase the scale of outdoor projects. The recession made people retreat from interior renovations and put funds toward backyard projects instead. As the economy has improved, those projects got larger and more elaborate, Mr. Zock says.
“People felt like they couldn’t justify remodeling, but they could see the sense in spending money on outdoor spaces. As a result, there’s been a huge surge in people wanting to invest in their backyards.”

Then there’s Pinterest. More than any other social media site or marketing campaign, the online bulletin board has driven interest in backyard landscaping and remodeling.
“Basically, people spend hours on that site getting ideas,” says Mr. Gandora. “Then they go to Google and spend more time looking at separate features, like fire pits or concrete
pavers. People used to want to keep up with the neighbors. Now, they want to keep up with everybody on Pinterest.”

Bigger Is Better
The trend many contractors and landscape architects are noticing is more larger pavers and slabs that require special handling and installation to prevent cracked units. Big pavers and slabs give a more natural look, believes Mr. Gandora. “The sense of scale is bigger, so what we’re seeing is a preference for bigger pavers,” he says. “If you have a very large project with smaller pavers, it can tend to look busy, and homeowners
don’t like that, especially with so many elements in the space.”

Paving slabs that create a calm mood work well in backyard living rooms
Paving slabs that create a calm mood work well in backyard living rooms.

Mr. Gandora thinks the paver industry may see challenges with this trend in the near future. If homeowners start asking for larger pavers on driveways, they won’t work well there. Another disadvantage to larger pavers and slabs is weight; some can weigh up to 60 pounds, requiring specialized equipment to place them. But larger pavers are bringing advantages as well, Mr. Gandora says. Since each paver or slab takes up more area, they install faster, which increases production efficiency. They also create an expansive aesthetic similar to natural stone, he adds.

Addressing Challenges
With the trend toward large outdoor residential projects, particularly in backyards, construction challenges emerge. One of the major difficulties can be access, especially with homes that have landscaping or narrow passageways along the sides of a house. That can increase a project’s cost because it takes more time to get materials into the backyard, says Mr. Hampton. For example, on a recent backyard project that involved
a grill island, fire pit, retaining wall and extensive pavers delivered along the side of a mansion-style house, Mr. Hampton and his team couldn’t use a skid loader, so they
used smaller equipment that required more trips. Overall, the project took five weeks, which was longer than it would have been with better backyard access.

But the extended timeframe became a positive, Mr. Hampton says. As the crew worked, the homeowner kept adding to the project, wanting more pavers and additional features. Grades are another challenge with backyard projects. People often will want their hardscape floor to meet the back door or existing patio, but a contractor has to figure out how to create enough slope away from the house to prevent water problems. That usually means putting in more hidden drains and finding appropriate outlet areas.

Looking Ahead
Many landscape architects, designers and contractors expect these outdoor living spaces to get even more extensive, especially as the economy strengthens and more of the population ages. “Empty nesters are really taking hold of this trend,” says Ms. Messervy. “They’re creating these backyard-homestead kind of spaces, where they have an appreciation for the land and nature. They find ways for their backyards to simply work better for them.”

The backyard is no longer a mere grass patch the kid down the block grudgingly mows each week. These days, that space is a place as vital and lively as any indoors. In some cases, it’s even more enticing than hanging out in the kitchen. Messervy says, “People love what they can create for themselves in their backyards, and it doesn’t matter where they live or whether it’s winter for six months of their year. They all want to be outside.”

Staying at home can mean hanging out in the outdoor kitchen.
Staying at home can mean hanging out in the outdoor kitchen.