Residential Real Estate: Patio Makeover

*This article features DeckWright, now known as MOSAIC Outdoor Living.

By Karl Ritzler

INVITING FRIENDS and colleagues over for a cookout can be a challenge if the backyard is anything but inviting. That’s what Dara L. DeHaven, a partner at Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, faced at her house in Morningside. The swimming pool was a popular gathering spot, but her patio wasn’t. A mishmash of slate, marble, concrete and brick, it was stuck behind a stucco wall and physically and visually separated from the rest of her yard. The space, DeHaven says, “was a pass-through from the house to the pool.”

She grew some herbs in planters and cooked on a standalone grill. “We didn’t tend to sit out there,” she says.That all changed with a patio makeover.

Gone was the old grill, with a new gas-fired Viking Range and bar sink built into a brick and concrete counter.

The wall was cut lower, opening a terraced vista to the upper-level pool and plantings.

So long to the unsightly wall blocking the view to the next-door neighbor’s garage. In its place is a brick-topped wall that matches the one on the other side of the driveway.

The narrow, deteriorating steps were moved, terraced and replaced with brick and bluestone, inviting guests up to the pool and making a smooth connection with the house.

DeHaven’s project, which ran about $65,000, is not atypical for Atlanta-area homeowners who want to spend more time outdoors and bring their comforts along with them.

“I enjoy sharing my outdoor space,” says DeHaven, who cooks for and hosts backyard functions for friends, summer associates, a book club, political candidates and nonprofit organizations.

In an area that encourages outdoor living, Atlantans love to live in their yards and on their porches and decks.

“With this wonderful climate, we enjoy our yards year-round,” says Mary Donovan of Donovan Design, an interior, exterior and landscape design and consulting company based in Gwinnett County.

It’s been a trend over the past five years, adds Rick Goldstein, an architect and co-owner of DeckWright Inc., a Chamblee-based design and construction company.

“People are focused on the outdoor environment,” he says. “They are creating outdoor rooms and spaces, sometimes even in place of vacation homes.”

That echoes the opinion of housing author James Grayson Trulove, who notes that because house prices have increased so rapidly in recent years, people may be less willing to move and are looking at their backyards instead. Add-ons can prove to be much more economical than a big move.

Meanwhile, new houses tend to be bigger but are built on smaller lots as real estate gets more expensive. That’s putting a premium on using the outdoor space that’s available.

Even side yards are becoming outdoor living areas with landscaping and a bench, rather than just passageways from front to back.

“Indoor living has moved outdoors, especially in Atlanta,” Goldstein says.

Screened-in porches have been revitalized. “They’re coming back into fashion,” Donovan says.

The contemporary version of the traditional screened-in porch has become another room on the house, she says.

In the 1950s, the porches were add-ons, Goldstein says. “Now, they are living rooms.”

They’re big, often 12 feet by 16 feet, usually built on a slab and connected to the living areas of the house.

The windows are big, too, Donovan says. “Porches are almost all view, even at the base. You gain a view of the entire backyard.”

Porches also are being built on decks to connect with the living levels on houses built on sloping lots. “They stare out at trees,” Donovan says. “There’s a tree-house feel.”

Sometimes, the porches even extend the full length of the back of the house.

Most are open, have high ceilings under a full gable and are cooled by ceiling fans. Many are open-air, providing protection from the sun and rain but not from bugs.

“Enjoying them can be a problem because of insects,” Donovan says.

The solution is screens, which are dark-colored and nearly invisible from a distance or from inside. To combat springtime pollen and winter chills, some porches also come equipped with Plexiglas panels that clip into the window spaces.

“I can get 10 months of use out of my own porch,” Donovan says, and using a small electric heater can make it useable even on chilly days.

Another way to take the chill off is an outdoor fireplace. It can be as simple as a fire pit or a ceramic chiminea costing a couple of hundred dollars or so at the home-improvement store, or a full-size masonry fireplace that costs thousands to build.

Cooking areas like DeHaven’s can be built on porches as well.

A survey in 2005 for the Propane Education & Research Council, an industry organization, found that a third of U.S. homeowners already have an outdoor living space and another third expect to add one. The most important reasons cited are creating a space to relax and to spend time outside, even ahead of adding value to the home.

People in the survey also say they spend more time at home than five years ago and that they see home as the place for entertaining and relaxing. As a result, outdoor rooms are second only to remodeling the kitchen as top priorities for home projects.

Whether a porch is built on a deck foundation or a slab depends on the house, Goldstein says. Hilly lots in the Atlanta area mean that many times, the living area is a floor or more above ground in the back of the house. He says that where the owner puts the porch “is more about adjacencies” to the inside. “They want proximity to the living room or kitchen more than anything else.”

Regardless of where it’s built, it’s important to plan well for the space. Designers in an article for Home & Garden Television suggest starting inside to check out the views. Make sure that the new room will be an extension of the house. It can be tied to the house visually by using the same materials for walls or flooring, for example.

Finally, they suggest, make sure the design is compatible with the use the space will get, whether it’s cooking, playing games or just sitting.

A master plan

At DeHaven’s Morningside house, her new patio is part of a larger plan that links a breezeway between her house and the garage to the stairs to the pool. The fence—which had just surrounded the pool—now encloses the whole back yard.

The entire area has been surfaced uniformly in bluestone, and the designer added a small planter beneath the window that overlooks the patio from inside. The steps are the same stone, with brick risers, and have a pair of landings along the way, which helps DeHaven’s Scottie dog, Bonnie, have the run of the yard.

Against the side wall, masons built a counter to house the outdoor grill and small sink while adding continuity with the rest of the house by copying the brickwork atop other walls.

Moving the steps a few feet to the side was the best idea in the project, DeHaven says. She now has a vista from the house up the steps to her plantings around the pool.

And the Viking Range is a far cry from a beach hibachi; DeHaven has cooked the Thanksgiving turkey on the rotisserie.

Before the project, DeHaven did all her entertaining around the pool. Now she likes to use all the areas for dinner parties. The second floor of her garage serves as the pool house as well as an air-conditioned guest room that doubles as a party space.

“I use the patio every morning and almost every afternoon,” she says. “I enjoy sharing the space with my friends.”

She says she has tried a number of culinary experiments with the new grill, including an entirely grilled dinner—from grilled endive salad to grilled peaches for dessert—for her book club.

Instead of using the patio just to get to the pool, DeHaven says, she now spends her mornings there, drinking her coffee and reading the newspaper before going to the office.

She says she enjoys her intown neighborhood. “You’re sitting here, looking at all of these trees,” she says of the oaks and beeches that tower over her yard. And at night, you can see the lights atop the Bank of America building from the pool.

While DeHaven’s project didn’t include an enclosure, the plans for a cooking area and resurfaced patio meant it did have a number of high-end additions.

A porch addition on a slab generally will cost a minimum of $15,000 for a small and simple structure, says Donovan.

The slab doesn’t have to be expensive bluestone, brick or flagstone. New concrete can be stamped and dyed to look like any number of styles of stone or brick.

“You can do anything,” she says. “There’s no limit on what you can spend.”

Typically, a 12-by-16 porch runs about $25,000 and tends to be added to a house costing between $500,000 and $800,000, she says.

“You can drop $100,000 very easily” by adding paving throughout the landscape, terraces, a fireplace, pond, lighting, irrigation and a kitchen to a backyard-deck-porch project, says Donovan.

Goldstein says some of his projects have even included backyard putting greens.

His company focuses on high-end properties in northern Atlanta, including Marietta, Sandy Springs, Buckhead and Alpharetta. The company’s Web site says its projects cost from $25,000 to $200,000.

Many times, he says, projects focus on replacing a deck on an older home that has been neglected. The company’s typical job involves a new deck and screened porch on houses in established neighborhoods.

A deck-and-porch project typically will cost $50,000 to $60,000.

One project in Sandy Springs involved adding an airy Craftsman-style porch with a loft and sitting and eating areas to a Tudor-style house. The challenge, he says, is in the design, “making them integrate and fit nicely”—even when the styles are as different as Shakespeare and Frank Lloyd Wright.