If Texas is any barometer of consumer trends, the move toward outdoor living is reaching epic proportions. John Grable, principal of John Grable Architects in San Antonio, says that outdoor living used to be mostly about making a place for people to gather and share food, but now they also want to listen to music and watch high-definition TV. The latest water and fire features are raising expectations, too. “We’re starting to flirt with fire and water in the Las Vegas sense,” Grable says. “With propane so readily available to power outdoor kitchen appliances, you can channel it into a fire pit.”
Make that an app-friendly fire pit. According to the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association (HPBA), one of the top trends for 2016 is “smart”-enabled controls, from the temperature setting on the gas fireplace to features that let consumers know when the grill is hot or the fuel tank is low. The HPBA survey also found that 10 percent of grill owners have an outdoor kitchen with premium grills, furniture, lighting, and fireplaces, and that in the next three years, 35 percent of these owners planned to upgrade to kitchen accessories such as rotisseries and pizza ovens, televisions, and surround sound.
Grable is not surprised. “Elaborate pizza ovens offer instant high heat and are self-contained, so kids can play safely around them,” he says. “The dynamic of all these elements is taking people in a new direction.”
There’s a method for designing all these elements — kitchen, fireplace, seating — to create a comfortable home outdoors. The key is to cleverly relate the outdoor spaces to the indoor spaces and erase the boundaries, thus doubling the living area, Grable says, all while keeping the budget under control. “Anyone can design a glass box, but you can quickly lose sight of how much it costs, so it’s better to have a formula for organizing the openings,” he says.
Grable’s firm cited a recent Hill Country weekend house, called Brushytop, on the side of a hill near a stand of trees that creates a foreground to distant views and opened the entire south facade. “We picked out door and window systems at the beginning, because they represent 12 to 16 percent of the total job cost,” Grable says. “If you really want to open up a house, you have to pay extra for larger glass door and window systems. That’s one of the things we prepare for early on.”
Grable figures on spending $100 to $180 per square foot for large glazed areas. “I’ll estimate $180 per square foot for sliding glass doors 16 feet wide and 10 feet tall,” he says. “When you get something that tall, it makes a big difference by opening up the ground plane, sky, and tops of trees.”
“The glow and warmth of fire and the reflectivity and calmness of water seem to go together with making food and watching TV.”
At Brushytop, a carport with slatted rolling doors doubles as an evening dining room facing the sunset. “It’s a good way to end the day,” Grable says. “Once the sun goes down, the fire pit comes alive, continuing the relationship with light.”
If propane often powers the appliances that make alfresco living feel luxurious, the region’s scattered limestone transforms the utilitarian tank into a beautiful landscape element. “Propane is king in the Hill Country,” Grable says, whether it is used to fire up a hearth or heat a pool. Although he sometimes buries the tanks, he prefers to enclose them with a native stacked fieldstone wall or bench seat that helps define the outdoor rooms.
“The glow and warmth of fire and the reflectivity and calmness of water seem to go together with making food and watching TV,” Grable says. “In Texas, we’ve always had porches, but not until the last decade did we take those elements outside. Exploiting those options is a good thing.”