How to Design Your Backyard for Year-Round Entertaining, According to 3 Experts

Janice O'Leary
·4 min read

If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught us, it’s how valuable our exterior spaces are—not just in terms of property value, but for our physical and mental well-being. Whether that space is an urban terrace or a sprawling yard, most of us place a greater importance on the outdoors now. It’s one of the easiest elements of a home to upgrade—no taking down walls required—and often has the greatest return on investment. Over the last year, the summer kitchen has especially been seen with fresh eyes, as has creating multiple zones for relaxing and entertainment. Three experts in the field, Ryan Bloom, cofounder of Urban Bonfire; Laurie Haefele, a hard-surface designer who specializes in outdoor kitchens; and architect Paul McClean offer their wisdom about improving your outdoor adventures at home.

What’s different about how we see our outside spaces these days?

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MCCLEAN: The connection to the outdoors now drives architecture. It’s not an afterthought but an integral part. And clients are asking how we can make that space as year-round as possible. Many of these new indoor/outdoor rooms are in open pavilions, and we’re adding screens or glass nano doors that fold to the walls and completely disappear.

Materials now go beyond all-weather wicker. You can get exterior textiles that look like crushed velvet, and there are a ton of electronics, like 60-inch TVs, that are rated for outdoors.

BLOOM: Before, design stopped at the patio door. Now it’s an extension of the indoors, an aesthetic-cohesion decision as much as it is a functional one. That’s been a cataclysmic shift.

HAEFELE: It used to be the BBQ was the center of everything outdoors. Brick, stucco, stainless steel—aesthetically it was terrible. Now you can have appliances made with marine-grade materials, so they’re good for all climates, in more sophisticated finishes. The outdoor kitchen has become both beautiful and functional.

What are the essential entertaining elements everyone needs outside?

HAEFELE: More counter space. Appliances have taken over, and there are so many good ones now, they’re hard to resist, like Kalamazoo’s lovely built-in smoker. But you need some uncluttered space to prep. My favorite new technology is from Invisacook. It uses induction heating (which is magnetic) inserted beneath a stone countertop. The surface doesn’t get hot, only the metal pan, so it’s safer for kids, but it gives you a place to cook and to prep. You can also have a frost top, ideal for a buffet station, so you can keep chilled soups or salads fresh without a messy, heavy tub of ice under them.

BLOOM: Yes, counter space. One of the great flaws is too many appliances. But a covered structure is a must, regardless of where you live. A cooling pergola, something that can resist heat, rain and snow, will increase usage by 50 percent because it’s so much more comfortable. Add heating elements and you can extend your season outdoors in the north by at least three weeks at either end.

MCCLEAN: A spectacular kitchen. Often they’re quite removed from the indoor one, and if you’re going to spend the whole day outside and want to keep everyone together, you don’t want those doing the cooking stuck inside. Sun and rain protection are also important. The space has to be able to manage degrees of cold. Floor heating is great to give it a general warm up.

One last essential: a place for people to sit comfortably for long periods of time. No one wants to sit on a barstool for 10 hours.

What creates that wow factor?

BLOOM: Lighting and sound have surprisingly big impacts. They’re the Mighty Mouse of the outdoors. Magical restaurants are made that way through lighting. It makes them come to life. There’s very little you can’t do outdoors now. Even outdoor pool tables with weatherproof felt are possible.

HAEFELE: Lighting beside the grill or other cooking elements is also crucial, so you can check what you’re cooking and how done it is. It’s also a big factor for creating a mood. Adding backlighting to the outdoor bar will give it life and energy. It can add a clubby vibe or more warmth where you need it.

MCCLEAN: For me personally, it’s always water, though not necessarily a pool. It cools a space, adds calmness and reflects the sky, making the area feel bigger. Its sound can also block other noises like the distant sound of a freeway. I also use it for spatial editing, so people go only so far toward an uglier view. There’s a lot you can do with it, even in a smaller urban patio, to create your own little zone of Zen and privacy.

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