Cooler weather is the true test for outdoor living spaces. After all, a patio fire pit can be a cozy place to gather on a late fall or winter evening, and many people want to use their grill year-round.
With the lines between indoor and outdoor living areas blurring, more construction professionals are incorporating exterior heating elements to stave off the chill in style. In fact, fire pits and fireplaces were rated as the most popular outdoor design feature of 2018, according to the American Society of Landscape Architect’s annual residential design trends survey.
Here are a few ways to help them get the most out of those spaces when the temperatures drop.
Make maintenance a priority
Whether above- or underground, propane tanks can withstand weather changes, says Larry Baty, vice president of operations at Cadenhead Servis Gas in Royse City, Texas. Propane tanks can work in temperatures as low as -44 degrees Fahrenheit, below which sufficient vapor isn’t given off to perform effectively.
However, propane-fueled systems and the tanks should be checked periodically for safety and optimal performance. “Any time you’ve got metal — such as piping for a fire pit — exposed to the elements, you should make sure that it hasn’t gotten stopped up by a clump of dirt, for example,” Baty says. “Or, check to see that the firepit’s metal bottom has not begun to deteriorate and that it’s clean and free of debris.”
Regular maintenance of gas-fueled grills, firepits, fireplaces, and other outdoor features will reduce weather-related wear and help extend their life.
Design for the weather
Keep the elements in mind when orienting outdoor living spaces and positioning features. For example, while it might be less of a problem in the winter, “You don’t want direct exposure to the late afternoon sun, especially when it’s 100 degrees out and you’re grilling,” says Joe Chamberlain, president of Caprock Custom Homes in Heath, Texas. In the winter, it’s all about minimizing exposure to rain and snow. Position cooking devices in the shade and keep them and your clients protected with an overhang, a screen, or shutters.
The wind is the biggest concern. “You’ve got to take a hard look at prevailing winds,” says David Shirley, associate architect with New Energy Works, which has offices in New York and Oregon. Wind will lessen the efficiency of a firepit or grill, for example, by whisking away the heat generated. Clients will need to turn up the burners as a result, using more fuel.
For a recent project in Bend, Oregon — a windy, high-desert climate — Shirley’s team created a sunken patio and used a concrete wall to block the prevailing winds. “It turned out to be a bonus,” he says. “By lowering the patio 14 inches, it cleaned up the view lines from the inside of the house to the mountains.”
Chamberlain likes to build homes with big courtyards in the front and the back. “We put fire elements in the front and the back, and grills out back,” he says, noting that blocking the resulting smoke is important. He uses remote-controlled motorized screens as well as shutters to protect against the sun and block the wind. These can be used around an entire outdoor “room” or just around a particular element. Shutters can also be used on a seasonal basis, such as to create shade during the summer months.
To be useful year-round, outdoor living areas must hold the promise of warmth. From the initial design phase, get a handle on how your clients will be using their space. “If they want to be outside when it’s 20 degrees and they want to still be warm, they’ll need units with higher BTUs and high efficiency,” Shirley says. “They can’t just purchase a model that looks good.”
Additionally, a shelter-type structure will keep the weather at bay and keep in the heat. Durable and aesthetically pleasing materials such as metal, wood, asphalt shingles, polycarbonates, or tempered glass are ideal.
For example, Chamberlain has used polycarbonate shade structures such as awnings and canopies to protect outdoor living spaces from the elements and keep in the heat. However, venting is critical. “You’ll need to put in a 1,200 cfm exhaust system to exhaust the heat and smoke from an enclosure to the outside,” Chamberlain says. An enclosed heated pool requires similar considerations. “If it’s cold outside, the enclosure can fill with a fog so thick you can’t see your hand in front of your face,” he says. “It becomes impossible to use the pool.” The space needs to be vented and the air heated to prevent fog from developing. To do that, he suggests suspended gas-fueled space heaters.
Shirley has mounted supplementary heaters along the eaves. “We put those heaters in a gabled pavilion so they point down and make the space usable year-round,” he says. “They’re in-line and use the same gas line as the fireplace.”
Steve Walsh, owner of Walsh Custom Concepts in Rochester, New York, specifies standing propane heaters to give off the warmth needed to encourage people to enjoy their outdoor spaces longer.
All signs point to the outdoor living trend continuing. Help your clients get on board by finding warming features that will entice them to get outdoors as the weather cools.