Ask the Experts | Backyard Living
Tips from the pros for high-style and high-function outdoor living spaces
“Summertime, and the livin’ is easy,” sang Ella Fitzgerald — these are lyrics New Orleanians know well. Every season has its charm and while often hotter than we might prefer, summer is no different. Backyard living has become as big a focus for homeowners as indoor living, with more people requiring the same comforts outside as they do inside. From kitchens and dining spaces to casual sitting areas, pools, fireplaces, and gardens, outdoor living space can serve a variety of functions while extending the home’s aesthetic design. Interior designers and firms are often now bringing their interior expertise to the outdoors. As clients want interior comforts available outside, designers like Erin Nelson of Abode are incorporating more outdoor products in their designs and stores.
“A lot of our clients are actually surprised by the fact that we offer outdoor furniture, cushions, lighting, [and so forth],” says Nelson. “I usually tell clients to make a list of all the things they want to do in their outdoor space—I really try and approach it from a functionality standpoint because, for us, the easy part is making it look great,” she says.
According to Penny Francis, owner of Eclectic Home, the lines are blurred now between designs and materials used both indoors and outdoors. Aluminum, natural materials like raffia, rattan and teak, and upholstered pieces are all being mixed into outdoor environments. When considering your outdoor living space, Francis says to start as you would with the interior.
“Look at properties of scale and look at defining your groupings areas, whether with rugs, lighting, fire table, cabana, [and so on],” says Francis. “Look at what will have direct sunlight and what will be covered.”
Once you know what you want to do with a space, figuring out how to make it work with and under Louisiana’s summer sun is a significant consideration. How do you stay cool while taking advantage of the outdoors? How do you take advantage of natural light without burning up in July and August?
Everything can make a difference — from the building materials and finishes, to the flow of the space and the shading, whether by plants and trees or walls and shutters.
Outdoor design is the expertise of Matt Quitzau, associate landscape architect at Mullin, a residential and commercial design build company offering everything from pools, hardscape, and outdoor structures to planting, drainage, irrigation and landscape lighting.
Quitzau acknowledges that swimming pools are an obvious option for staying cool in summertime, but he also notes how shade structures like pavilions and pergolas with fans are a great way to make outdoor space enjoyable when the summer heat rolls in.
“I’ve noticed that the more successful spaces are the ones that don’t have every possible landscape element crammed together,” says Quitzau. He has noticed that rather than fitting in a pool, hot tub, outdoor structure, fire pit, fountain and kitchen, more people are focusing their budgets on a couple of custom, high-end elements to go with their landscaping.
“Usually incorporating two to four of these elements instead of all of them makes for a nicer overall look and functionality,” says Quitzau. “The simpler style can open up the space and make it feel less cluttered.”
Homeowners want to utilize their space year round. To be comfortable in every season, consider a shade structure to keep an area of the yard cool in summertime while adding a heating element such as a fireplace to make it more comfortable in fall and winter. To create a room-like feel, Quitzau utilizes vegetation and large canopy trees for screening, which in some cases can also help shade.
“Large Eagleston hollies are a great perimeter plant that offers immediate screening,” he says. “I also love mature specimen trees that can stand alone and offer interesting color or texture like Japanese maple and Chinese fringe trees.”
While vegetation can provide one solution, convenient wall systems can also be helpful. LAS might be best known for windows and shutters, but the company’s products also include a variety of wall and door systems.
“Customers are coming to us to solve issues with their new outdoor living spaces such as blocking that eyesore in the next lot or mitigating wind and sunlight so that they can enjoy the space as envisioned,” says Richard Maia, chief operations officer. “Our wall systems include arrangements such as gates, operable walls, and folding walls to provide solutions.”
LAS wall systems were developed to pair with the company’s shutters both aesthetically and functionally. According to Maia, there are options to custom enhance the products for an individual’s needs.
“Since we completely machine all wall system components in house, we can custom tilt and space the louvers to address any target issue such as blocking sunlight or wind from coming through an opening,” says Maia. “Similarly, we can open louvers or increase spacing to increase airflow or fine tune visibility to a specific desire.”
Surprisingly, many customers who want wall systems don’t know what kind or why — Maia recommends knowing beforehand exactly what you want to address. If you’re looking to fill an opening and want to stay on budget, he recommends avoiding accents like bricks and trim that might change the opening to something other than a square shape.
When it comes to outdoor flooring and decking, wood is commonly used. Located at 6010 Magazine St., Vision Wood offers wood flooring, exterior wood decking, reclaimed wood cladding, custom wood furniture and more. There, Owner Greg McGavran and Head of Design James Berault provide a total wood resource for the architectural and design community as well as homeowners doing new construction and renovations.
According to McGavran, tropical woods are being utilized less by nature of their sourcing and dark colors, which retain heat and are hot in the sun’s exposure. Rather, he recommends sustainable woods that weather to a light grey.
“The materials we offer for exterior use are all natural and all wood,” says Berault. “You will see a lot of companies offer plastic and PVC composite materials for decking and other exterior use — these products get very hot when exposed to direct sunlight, and we’ve even seen this material melt in some cases.”
Instead, Berault and McGavran recommend Ash and Spanish Chestnut for decking options, noting its comfort underfoot and lack of heat retention.
According to McGavran, Vision Wood customers are surprised to learn that natural options like thermally modified Ash and Chestnut will last 25 plus years in this climate. Berault adds that companies are now harnessing science and technology to create durable, long-lasting wood materials out of fast-growing wood species that have not traditionally been well suited for exterior use.
Customers considering natural wood should be aware of the maintenance schedule when installing for an outdoor application.
“If the client wants to maintain the appearance of the wood the same as the first day it is installed, an exterior-grade clear sealer will need to be applied every year or so depending on exposure,” says Berault. “We prefer allowing the wood material to age naturally and beautifully. Our wood materials gain a beautiful silver patina after a few months of UV exposure.”
Outdoor surfaces make a big difference in the feel of the space, and outdoor kitchens — one of the hottest trends in outdoor features — utilize a lot of surfaces. At Nordic Kitchens & Baths, President Randall Shaw keeps a finger on the pulse of the latest outdoor kitchen surfaces and appliances.
“We’re seeing a change in outdoor kitchens, going from stone or brick enclosures with access doors and now moving towards powder-coated cabinets and stainless steel,” says Shaw. These options offer more practical storage as well as the easier maintenance, he says. There’s no fear of mold as there might be with stucco and brick, and in some cases cleaning can be as easy as hitting them with the hose.
High-end cabinetry brands such as Kalamazoo are starting to offer 316-grade stainless steel, a marine-quality grade higher than the 304 grade used in many homes. The higher grade of stainless is more resistant to oxidizing and rusting. According to Shaw, Kalamazoo is at the top end when it comes to outdoor cabinetry, creating beautiful powder-coated finishes and features such as rain gutters around the cabinet doors that keep water out of the interior of the cabinet, even if sprayed.
The sun can be a factor in the comfort of your outdoor kitchen, though in a different manner than the usual summer heat — Shaw recommends planning both your finishes and the location of your surfaces so that you don’t end up with painful glares of sun reflecting in your eyes throughout the year.
It sure would be a shame to mix the perfect mint julep, relax onto your porch swing, and have to shield your eyes from the glare of your top-of-the-line appliance. This expert advice should help you stay cool and comfortable outdoors this summer.