Bringing Indoor Comfort Outdoors


A covered outdoor seating area can be enjoyed rain or shine in this John Witt carriage house, People’s Choice luxury home winner in the Saratoga Showcase of Homes. Photo by Randall Perry.

After a cold winter spent cooped up indoors, most of us can’t wait to get outside once the warm weather returns. Now, thanks to a refreshing trend, we’re able to enjoy the comforts of our family rooms and kitchens in the great outdoors throughout the spring, summer and fall.

“It’s all about making the backyard a destination,” says David Orsini, the owner of Schenectady-based Orsini Landscaping. That’s the biggest trend he’s seeing, as customers take care to build a great outdoor space that’s a draw for family and friends alike.

“People are trying to move more and more outside,” explains Bob Daly, president of Blue Spruce Nursery in Clifton Park. “It’s not just a patio anymore; it’s an outdoor living room.”

These days, seeing your backyard through your kitchen window simply isn’t enough. “People want to engage with their indoor space from the outdoors, and they want to be able to interact with both spaces almost simultaneously,” says Geff Redick, landscape architect and owner of Redbud Development in Wilton.

Doing that requires some careful planning, attention to the elements and the handful of indoor luxuries we’ve grown accustomed to. We’re talking food prep areas and appliances, coverage, seating, warmth and beauty. The end result: The great outdoors has never felt more comfortable.

This backyard oasis—complete with patio, tiered landscaping and an expansive pool area—was custom designed and built in Niskayuna by Orsini Landscaping. Photo courtesy of David Orsini.
Covered patio by Belmonte Builders. Showcase of Homes. Wilton. Photo by Randall Perry.

Define your space

First up, creating a defined space—or spaces—in your backyard is key, using flooring, structures, furniture, even greenery. Something equivalent to making it more of a room will give you that homey feel.

In terms of flooring, the options go beyond the concrete of days of old.

“We’re doing a lot of natural woods, mahogany, even cedar,” Redick says, as hardwoods offer a sense of seamless continuation between inside and outside. But pavers remain immensely popular.

According to Orsini, paver technology has never been better. The quality of paver materials today, in terms of durability and variety, is leagues above what it was even a few years ago. He’s able to lay a foundation using stone and fine aggregate to prevent migration, and can even build a flat patio unheard of until recently.

“Permeable pavers are a trend I’ve been working to implement more recently,” Orsini says. The base is constructed differently so you don’t have to pitch the patio for the sake of drainage. “We use free-draining stone rather than a crushed-stone base, so the water will drain through it and into a pipe, then drain away from the house or driveway.”

It makes a world of difference when it comes to furniture placement, he says.

Next, create structure to provide some degree of coverage, while also lending a focal point. “People are including a pergola, or a pavilion, something you can be under and still be outside,” Daly says. Although not a must-have, it has the added bonus of making an outdoor space feel even more like a room.

Pergolas have a latticed roof and lend shade, but don’t block 100 percent of the sun. Pavilions, or gazebos, offer full coverage, but they also cost more. So it’s all about weighing options, says Daly, though he’s a fan of full coverage: “When you’ve got a beautiful day in the summer, and it starts raining at 2 p.m., it’s a shame. But for us, we don’t skip a beat and the event continues on.”

A roof or awning can also help integrate a patio into your broader living space, becoming almost like an extension off the back of your home. “Even better, it can extend the use of your space by several months,” says Redick, who suggests retractable screens for those looking for multi-season use. “You can hit a button, so to speak, and all of a sudden you’ve got a screened-in porch, great for the evenings.”

For those looking to replace a raised deck, splinters may be nothing more than a distant memory, thanks to new man-made materials. Kyle Stevens, manager of AFSCO Fence & Deck in Queensbury, says that his customers have embraced the change: “It’s the same trend we’re seeing in fencing, but our customers are going away from wood, to something that’s maintenance-free and will last a long time.”

“Most want the look of wood, but they don’t want to worry about splinters and things like that,” Stevens says. The majority of decks his teams are building are composite, often made from as much as 95 percent recycled materials, or PVC. Both are water resistant and zero maintenance, and most brands even come with a lifetime guarantee. In terms of cleaning, a quick pressure wash will do the trick.

“We use a lot of MoistureShield, which is a great synthetic product that’s not going to wear over time, and is also waterproof.” Stevens says his customers tend to opt for wood-grain styles, in natural, earthy colors, but solids are also available.

Patio in Malta Showcase of Homes 2013. Photo by Randall Perry.
Deck at home of architect Nick Waer. Photo by Randall Perry.
Deck at home on Richard Avenue in Saratoga Springs. Photo by Randall Perry.

Create seating

Furniture layout can also do wonders in terms of defining one space from the next. But the trend is getting more and more casual, Redick says. “People are less apt to have a formal seating arrangement, and they prefer something more casual, relaxed. Something that feels more like a lounge.” Which means that people snacking with plates on their laps isn’t out of the question. Comfortable seating is more usable than a formal table and chairs, and can be shifted more easily to suit an event.

Bob Scott, owner of Patio Plus Furniture for over 30 years, says he’s seen firsthand how the current trends of comfortable, casual and low-maintenance have taken hold. High-tech fabrics and materials, combined with luxe designs, have meant that his customers can quite literally enjoy the comfort of their living room, outdoors, without hassle or worry.

“When we started using acrylic fabrics with foam-based cushions years ago, they were great for seating, but they would soak up rain,” Scott says. “So if you didn’t cover your furniture before a storm, you had to turn your cushions on their side for a day or two to let the water drain and the cushion dry out.”

Not anymore, he says. The brands Scott sells have found a way to structure the cells inside their foam, so water runs right through the cushion, and isn’t retained. “They can dry completely within an hour,” he says, which makes them user-friendly. But long-lasting is also key: Scott says his customers love all-weather wicker and powder-coated aluminum, for two obvious reasons. Both are highly durable, and will never rust.

Building additional seating into the hardscape can also work beautifully, according to Daly, who says his teams incorporate stone benches and seat walls into many of their designs. “Built-in seating is big these days,” he says, “because it goes beautifully along a 90-degree wall turn, or along a nice curve.”

Daly says he also likes to use builtins alongside a fire pit—spanning about 180 degrees on one side—to offer kids and adults alike a great place to gather and roast marshmallows. Clients tend to leave the other half more open and relaxed, opting for movable chairs.

A stone deck with a view, round fire pit with seating and outdoor TV screen for watching football with friends by Best Fire Hearth & Patio, Colonie, in partnership with Green Eagle Lawn & Landscape of Delanson. Home by Otterbeck Builders, Castleton on Hudson. Photo by Randall Perry.
Best Fire Hearth & Patio custom Firepit at Bellinis in Loudonville.

Add some heat

In terms of adding warmth, the answer is quite literal, as fire pits and outdoor fireplaces make cool summer evenings and chilly fall nights more cozy. Fire pits come two ways, according to Lucas Stritsman, the owner of Best Fire Hearth & Patio, based in Albany: built-in as part of a larger hardscape project, or modular, movable stand-alones. They can be wood-burning or gas, although gas fire pits require less maintenance.

With the flick of a switch, you can trigger a battery-powered spark ignition and almost instantly see flames. Even better, gas fire pits are easy-off: “When you go to bed at night, you don’t need to worry about extinguishing it, or dealing with embers.” They can even be used on wood decks.

There’s also no smoke, so stinging eyes and smelly clothes are a thing of the past. Crystals, glass beads and lava rock are more popular today than fake logs.

And there’s no need to wait for fall. Fire pits are ideal for crisp summer nights, as they don’t give off the same kind of heat as a traditional fire, Stritsman says. “It will offer warmth, but it’s not going to heat a large space.”

Most outdoor furniture companies are incorporating fire pits into their own lines to allow for a more seamless look, says Stritsman. They can be linear in shape, rectangular, square or round, but the most popular size locally is a 48-inch round, he says.

Round is great for socializing, he says, as it helps facilitate conversation. Square is a good option for those hoping to accommodate a few Adirondack chairs. But if you’re looking to fit a fire pit alongside a sectional group or sofa, Stritsman says a linear version works well.

A fully-equipped outdoor kitchen with refrigerator, grill, oven, sink, bar—why go indoors? Outdoor kitchen built by Best Fire Hearth & Patio, Colonie, in partnership with Green Eagle Lawn & Landscape of Delanson. Photos by Randall Perry.
Indoor/outdoor kitchen at Witt Construction carriage house, People’s Choice luxury home winner in the Saratoga Showcase of Homes. Photo by Randall Perry.

Build a foodie’s dream

Central to bringing indoor convenience outside is the great outdoor kitchen. Christina Feldman, owner of KBC Design Studio in Saratoga Springs, Clifton Park and St. Petersburg, Fla., says she’s helping clients take the longtime tradition of al fresco dining and kick it up a notch.

The trend started with outdoor grills, she says, as people wanted to add some built-ins and counter space. From there, things got more interesting. “Outdoor pizza ovens have become very popular, and people are using them for more than just pizza,” Feldman says. “Plus, you can actually buy it as an appliance these days and have it installed.”

Even the grills are bigger and better, equipped with side burners and storage. Then there are outdoor refrigerators, sinks—some of which even have hot water—and built-in trash and recycling bins to keep things tidy and critterfree. The end result is a second, fullyfunctioning kitchen.

Big Green Eggs, a line of ceramic cookers, are also gaining popularity. Tripling as a grill, an oven, and even a smoker, these cookers are highly versatile and come in a range of sizes, making them a great addition to outdoor kitchens, Feldman says.

“You can almost do all of your cooking with this one unit,” says Redick, who regularly installs them for customers.

Outdoor islands are also trending, enabling guests to engage with the cook, instead of just hanging around, waiting for food, Redick says. “They can actually converse, instead of asking, ‘When will my food be ready?”’

But the best part, Feldman says, are the cabinets, which can be stocked top-to-bottom with everything you need for meal prep—from utensils to cookware, to spices and serving dishes. Which means running back and forth to fetch things from inside is a thing of the past.

“There’s this cabinet line I love, Challenger, which is great for outdoor use because it has a gasket seal around the doors,” Feldman says. It doesn’t rust and comes in a variety of colors and textures. “It’s very weather-friendly for our area, allowing us to do outdoor kitchens in a custom way.”

Architect Nick Waer designed his home in Clifton Park with a small waterfall and pond that is lit at night. Photo by Randall Perry.

Add some green—and red, pink, purple…

Herb gardens are another popular addition, in terms of sheer practicality, Redick says. “It’s really a matter of smart design, just being able to grab some fresh basil from the garden and cook. But are we designing full-on vegetable gardens? No, not really. But flower pots with herbs are for anybody.”

“We find people are using a lot more pots these days,” Daly says. It helps them switch things up depending on the season, with pansies in spring, then moving all the way to mums in the fall.

Backyard greenery has become a bit simpler, as locals opt for hydrangeas, lilies, daisies and perennials, as well as grasses. “They’re adding color and interest, without necessarily doing it in mass,” Daly says. Plantings are now accents, as opposed to focal points, great for brightening up corners and softening edges. The taste is a bit more streamlined, he says.

But larger shrubs and arborvitae are still in vogue as living fences in the Capital-Saratoga Region, serving to define property lines and create privacy. Although homeowners with pools are legally required to have fencing, greenery offers a great disguise, Daly says. “A lot of people don’t want to look at a fence, which can be awfully cold-looking, but greenery can break that up.”

Architect Nick Waer’s home in Clifton Park with a deck overlooking a small waterfall and pond. Photo by Randall Perry.

Add water

Koi ponds with waterfalls and fountains are gorgeous to behold, creating a relaxing space that’s ideal for thoughtful meditation. But as your ecosystem grows, so does the commitment—in terms of daily care and seasonal clean-up. Filters must be rinsed and changed, pH balances must be checked, and shallow ponds must be emptied and fish moved indoors once the frost hits.

Simply put, there’s a lot of effort involved, Orsini says, meaning ponds are best left to hobbyists. But for someone who loves the sound of moving water, without the heavy maintenance, he’s got a great suggestion: “A pondless waterfall will give you the sound and visual you’re looking for.” Constructed using an underground reservoir and a pump, a pondless waterfall recycles water continuously. “There’s an ease of maintenance to it, without the headache of a pond,” Orsini says.

Witt Construction 2013 Showcase of Homes patio. Photo by Randall Perry.
Stone Steps and wall by Orsinii Landscaping. Photo courtesy of David Orsini.
“Skyfall” Witt Construction 2014 Showcase of Homes backyard. Photo by Randall Perry.