Imagine vacationing in a summer cabin and you probably think of the sun just beginning to set as a soft breeze wafts lazily across freshly mown grass, food sizzles on the grill and fresh lemonade chills over ice. Now imagine the same scene overlooking your own backyard as you relax and entertain friends in your fully equipped outdoor kitchen.
Until recently, outdoor kitchens were found only on the grounds of expensive estates. But as more and more people look for ways to unwind at home, the trend of creating an oasis of relaxation in the backyard has skyrocketed. In fact, spending on patios, terraces and outdoor-kitchen equipment has nearly quadrupled during the past decade, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2004 that amounted to $3.7 billion, which shows how seriously Americans are investing in the concept of relaxing at home.
If you’re eager to create your own backyard paradise, you’ll find plenty of options. But before you dive in, you need to spend a little time determining your needs, how you plan to use the space and what you expect to get out of it. Here’s a little help with your homework so you can get started.
Choosing a location
Understanding your property and how an outdoor kitchen will fit in are key to success. After all, your house functions differently during different times of the day, and your outdoor kitchen will do likewise. For example, a house wall that absorbs heat all day will slowly release it during the evening, making that wall an ideal place to orient your kitchen — the released heat will help keep diners comfortable.
Mark the location of the sun during different times of day; you don’t want to be blinded by the glare while you’re entertaining. Trees can greatly enhance your outdoor space by providing shade, protection from the wind, visual interest and a home for birds and small animals.
An outdoor kitchen should be near the house to save you steps when you need to go inside for supplies, and it should be large enough to accommodate all of the components you plan to use. Once you’ve measured the ones you want to include, draw them to scale on graph paper to make sure your vision will work in reality.
Once you’ve determined the approximate location for the kitchen, you’ll need to decide on a surface to support all of the appliances and gear. An existing patio is a great foundation for an outdoor kitchen, as you can add a grill, counters and other elements without having to make structural modifications. Decks, on the other hand, typically require additional support for all but the simplest of outdoor kitchens and in many circumstances simply aren’t up to the challenge.
What to include
Because the price of an outdoor kitchen can vary from as little as a few hundred dollars for a basic gas grill to more than $15,000, it’s vital to know what components you’ll actually use. If you just want to be able to grill dinner for the family, you may need just a few components, and the price should be relatively low. However, if you plan to do some serious entertaining, expect to invest more money for a more elaborate setup. A typical kitchen will include some combination of these components:
• Grills — No component inspires more debate, rivalry and, in some cases, outright jealousy than the grill. It’s the heart of the outdoor kitchen, so invest in the quality necessary for the cooking tasks you hope to undertake. Although you basically have two choices when it comes to types of grills — gas or charcoal — it’s the extras that set the various models apart.
Whether you choose gas or charcoal depends greatly on personal preference. But no matter which type you pick, you’ll generally get more when you pay more. For example, a typical entry-level grill that costs about $200 will on average provide 350 sq. in. of cooking surface and 22,000 Btus of cooking power. If you’d prefer a drop-in grill, expect it to pump out more than 60,000 Btus and offer more than 800 sq. in. of cooking surface. Though expensive, these high-end models offer better heat distribution and extras such as side burners, searing capabilities and often a built-in rotisserie.
If you choose to build a grill island yourself, consult the grill’s manufacturer for recommended materials and clearances. In most cases you’ll need to use specific heat-resistant materials such as concrete blocks and steel reinforcements, though fireproof sleeves are available for some drop-in grills. Ask the manufacturer what’s best for the model you’re considering.
• Eating areas — Tables typically range from 42-in. models that can seat four people to larger dining sets that can accommodate eight. When deciding on size, remember to allow at least 36 in. between the edge of the table and a wall, deck railing or other fixed object so there's room to walk behind people who are seated. And for safety's sake, place tables at least 60 in. from stairs, even if the eating area is just one level up. If you plan to incorporate dining counters instead of a table, provide at least 24 in. of counter width for each stool and 15 in. of under-counter legroom.
• Sinks — Although not a necessity, a sink is a nice amenity for serious entertaining or grill-side food preparation. Traditional stainless steel sinks have been available for outdoor use for some time, but new plastic varieties that simply hook up to an outdoor cold-water spigot can reduce installation headaches. If you do opt for a permanently plumbed sink, make sure that you also install a drain valve for purging the water line during winter.
• Refrigerators — Under-counter units are popular for outdoor kitchens because they’re out-of-sight, protected by the counter and handy for storage. Expect to spend anywhere from $500 for a basic outdoor-rated model to more than $1,200 for a unit with an icemaker. In colder climates, it may be necessary to bring the refrigerator into a garage or basement for wintertime storage.
Power and water requirements
If your outdoor kitchen requires electric, water or gas lines, they typically run to the area from the service in the house. Besides providing power for the kitchen lights and refrigerator, electric outlets should be included in plans for the cooking and dining areas. Re-member that outdoor outlets must be equipped with ground-fault circuit interruption (GFCI) or controlled by a GFCI circuit breaker. (The breaker option is ideal if you plan to include an outdoor refrigerator that may plug into a difficult-to-reach outlet.)
In cold climates, water lines should be equipped with drains or purges so that they can be emptied in the winter. And rather than have the sink’s drain line simply empty into the yard, you’ll most likely need to tie the drain back into the house’s drainage system, as most codes do not allow for discharge into the yard. Of course, you should always check with your local building code authority for the current regulations in your neighborhood regarding drains and water, electric and gas lines.
Ultimately, the outdoor kitchen you create can be as simple or as complex as you desire. Although it’s not necessary to spend a king’s ransom to realize your dream, be careful not to skimp and end up disappointed. Keep these planning guidelines in mind to create a space that pleases not only your senses but your wallet as well:
• Dream big, but stay rooted in reality. It’s OK to drool over a $5,000 grill, but ask yourself whether a $500 model could do the job. Think about how many times you’ll use an item to determine whether you can justify its cost.
• Build your dream in stages. Start with the basics, such as a grill and furniture, and you can always add luxuries such as a patio heater and expensive landscaping in the future.
• Be realistic. Just because the outdoor kitchens you see advertised have refrigerators doesn’t mean you need one. If an appliance will sit empty or unused most of the time, it’s probably a waste of money.
• Do as much as you can yourself. Hiring a contractor can greatly add to the expense of the project. A professionally installed flagstone patio can easily cost more than $10,000, but if you’re willing to put in the sweat equity, you’ll save big. (The patio we installed for this project cost slightly less than $2,000 in materials.)
Spend wisely and invest your own time, effort and creativity. That way you’ll build an outdoor oasis that you’ll be proud to share with family and friends.
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