Designing Your Dream Outdoor Room

The days of building a patio or a deck with a few chairs and maybe a charcoal or a gas grill are long gone. Today outdoor living is a major component in masonry and hardscape design. Outdoor Rooms have become so popular they have created their own segment in the hardscape and design market allowing for great opportunities for business in the masonry supply and design sector.  

My cousin Derek Stearns and I spent seven years of our lives doing a show focused on Outdoor Rooms for the DIY Network called “Indoors Out”. Throughout those years we spent our time designing rooms for television and our company Dean and Derek Inc. We were very fortunate to be on the ground floor of the changes in our hardscape and masonry business early on. Traveling the country offered a great deal of opportunity for us working on many projects. We were able to expand our designs working in different states and different climates, using many unique products, and pushing ourselves and our designs to think out of the box.   

I grew up in the masonry trade working for my uncle Arther Stearns at a very young age. Every summer, college winter break, and some weekends in between were spent being what we called a “Lumpy”. The job of the Lumpy was pretty simple, mix another batch, move that pile of stone, carry those blocks up three flights of stairs, set up the staging, take down the staging, strike the joints, and most importantly clean up as if you were never there in the first place. Not easy work by any stretch but some of the best times and memories of my life. No need to go to the gym to get rid of that baby fat from my youth.  

 My summers were well spent with Uncle Artie working mostly outside on jobs with my cousins getting a great tan and making money. We did a lot of incredible work back then including outdoor kitchens, and rooms. I’m very proud to say that a lot of them are being used to this day. The funny thing about those days was we didn’t use the term outdoor rooms, even though Artie was designing and building them at that time. Fireplace areas within a patio design, pool areas that had some kind of outdoor living area incorporated into them, and built-in charcoal grills for outdoor kitchens. These types of jobs were usually for those customers that had some expendable income and were definitely considered very high end back in the day. Fast forward to today and things have changed considerably. Outdoor rooms are attainable for most consumers, and there are so many options of patio materials, stone veneers, furniture, lighting, and appliances.  

Let’s start with the basics. I have learned over time that some of my best designs are my simplest designs. When we did our T.V. show, Indoors Out we would go above and beyond with hardscape products, lighting, furniture, water features, pergolas, high-end grills, and fully stocked bars just to name a few. They made for great television and allowed us to become a resource for manufacturers to show off their products. Over the years we developed some long-lasting relationships with top-notch companies that helped keep us and our designs on the cutting edge.  

The reality of outdoor design is slightly different than that in the T.V. world.  Sometimes all the bells and whistles are a little much. Today when I meet with clients, I try to break it down to the basics. Most people who come into Plymouth Quarries here in Southern MA., where I run the sales and marketing, walk in the door with one focus in mind. Masonry and hardscape products. Trying to decide on what product to choose for the patio, the stone veneer for the outdoor kitchen unit, or what type of wall stone to use for their retaining and sitting walls. They become solely focused on one phase of the design.  

That leads me to the very first step, which is to step back. Take a deep breath and look up. Look at the big picture. There are four simple elements I incorporate in all of my designs. It doesn’t matter what type of home you own. It works with a 100-year-old farmhouse, a cape house, a ranch house, or a very modern deckhouse. If you incorporate wood, metal, stone, and lighting in your design you can’t go wrong.  

For example, if you are building an outdoor fireplace there is nothing like a wooden mantle. Wood and stonework incredibly well together, including wood and metal, or stone and metal. Is there anything nicer than a rustic reclaimed wooden pergola over a high-end stone patio with beautiful outdoor lighting and a black powder coated metal dining table with large comfortable seat cushions? It’s also the subtle choices that make a big difference. 

Incorporating a centerpiece tree in the landscape design with a canopy that we uplight. Believe me, there is nothing that enhances the beauty of an outdoor room design like the canopy of a beautiful Magnolia, Willow, or weeping Cherry tree with led uplighting on a beautiful night. Including these four features in your design doesn’t always have to be bold choices. Sometimes less is more than enough in many outdoor designs.

When you are ready to start designing your outdoor room, the next step I suggest is to give it a title.  What is it?  For me, I love to cook and I love good wine. My outdoor room is the Tuscan Room, which is centered around my pizza oven. That is where I began in my initial planning. The design should always start with the function of the room. What is your thing? Do you have a great ocean view and love hanging out with family and friends having some great cocktails by a fire pit or fireplace? Are you into brewing your own beer and would love to have an outdoor bar with a working kegerator? How about a simple living room with comfortable outdoor couches and chairs that truly make it feel like you brought the Indoors Out. FUNCTION. Function is the word that starts your design and gets you laser focused on what masonry products, appliances, furniture, and lighting to start you on your journey.  

 Do your homework. Today in the world we live in doing your research has never been easier. By taking some time in front of your computer or your local masonry supply store you can find numerous patio products ranging from natural stones, concrete pavers, brick pavers, and decking products. The more you educate yourself with hardscape and carpentry products it reduces your chances of making costly mistakes. Avoid falling in love with products that are not right for your project, cost way too much and are not right for the climate in which you live.  

For example, if you live in the northeast where we get very cold winters, a lot of dampness, and crazy freeze-thaw cycles falling in love with a softer stone or wood for your patio or deck is not a very good choice. Weather always wins and your new patio can start crumbling or staining in a matter of a few years. Another advantage of doing your homework is that you start to learn the language. You start to sound more like a contractor than a homeowner. It allows you to communicate with suppliers and installers much more efficiently. I love working with educated homeowners. It makes my job so much easier, especially when the work gets started. There is nothing worse for a contractor or designer than to have a homeowner constantly questioning their choices.  

Why are you prepping the base with that material? How come you are putting that stone there? Why are you digging up the grass over there? We never spoke about that? These are just a few scenarios that occur every day on a jobsite. Spending time getting educated helps to avoid most of these situations, a develops a partnership between you and your contractor working on the specifics of products and the design.   

The next challenge I find homeowners face is making decisions on the basic layout. After doing numerous designs I have come to realize that once a homeowner steps into their backyard they completely get lost and confused when it comes to design. If you were designing your new kitchen or living room inside the house chances are you would be very specific on where to place the stove, the area where the dining table would go, or where to build the fireplace. You would never put the table right next to the stove, or design a kitchen island in the living room. You should approach the design of your outdoor room the same way you would design your inside room.  

There are so many great products available in the marketplace, especially in outdoor furniture that looks like they belong inside. Another little tip. Do not ignore the side of your house facing the outdoor room. Treat it just like a wall inside of your home. Would you ever have a blank wall in a living room? Then why would you have a blank wall outside? There are so many decorative wall hangings for outside that would add a great subtle touch to your design. 

That brings us into our next phase of design. FLOW. Flow is designing your room to function when you are entertaining a small or a large group of family and friends. If you are building an outdoor kitchen here are some of the questions you should ask. Are you going to be running in and out of the house to grab things out of the fridge? Are you going to have an outdoor refrigerator in your design? How do your guests get to the bathroom? More likely than not you and your guests will be going in and out of the house more than a few times over the course of the evening. Make sure to design for that. Design your cooking area in a place that will allow you to easily maneuver through the crowd without constantly bumping into guests standing in your way.  

When you are cooking in your outdoor kitchen at the grill or your pizza oven one of the most frustrating things is to have people standing over your shoulder. It only takes a few guests in your space to create havoc when you are trying to cook and serve food. Flow is a very important part in designing your room. One of my favorite design features that helps alleviate congestion problems in outdoor kitchens is incorporating islands. They work great inside and work just as well outside. Place the island in a strategic spot to allow guests to be part of the conversation with the person cooking and the guests sitting at the dining table, without invading the workspace. Freeing up the exit and entryways in and out of the house is a must.  

Always have open space. Taking time with the details will ensure that you don’t make big mistakes. Wasting money on the wrong design is never an option. Time well spent working on the flow in your designs helps get you specific on figuring out the size of your patio or deck. I have cut the square footage size of many patios and decks once I focused on the flow. In a lot of instances, it allowed me to use the extra savings for some of those finishing touches that add so much more to the outdoor rooms. 

The last phase is hiring the right contractor. We talked about communicating with your contractor now it’s time to choose. A great contractor will take your ideas and make them better, some will even l refine your ideas to save on budget and get a bigger bang for your buck. Make sure to look at your potential contractor’s work. Top contractors take pride in their work and love to show it off. Ask to see some outdoor designs they have done over the years. Maybe even meet former homeowners that they have worked for. The greatest compliment a contractor can get is when a former client is at a dinner party or a social event and someone in the crowd asks if they know any designers or masons? When they jump into the conversation and say “You have to meet my mason, or my designer” that is the best! When former clients use the words “My contractor” you know they were more than happy with his or her work. 

Take a deep breath, educate yourself, get specific, and take your time with the design. There is no rush on getting the job done ASAP. That’s when some of the biggest and most expensive mistakes are made. This should be a fun process not a stressful one. When the job is done you will have an outdoor room that will create some great moments and a lot of memories with close friends and family. It doesn’t get much better than that! 

Words: Dean Marsico
Photos: ivanastar, penguenstok,