Extra living space: outdoor rooms

Extra living space: outdoor rooms

Since spring is busting out all around central Virginia, it’s a perfect time to consider upgrades to outdoor living space. An ideal project might be a deck addition or a screened porch. Another welcome addition could be an outdoor kitchen with counter space, a grill, a built-in ice chest, or even a small refrigerator. Families might enjoy a fire pit or fireplace.

“I love spaces that are designed and maintained to bring the inside flow of life and laughter to the outdoors,” declares REALTOR® Sara Greenfield, Principal Broker for Charlottesville Fine Home and Properties. “Simple contemplation, resting, and entertaining are all delightful aspects of enjoying your home in what we’ve come to call an outdoor room.”

She points out that these “rooms” come in all sorts of designs from eclectic to upscale. “Outdoor rooms are the envy of anyone who has experienced them,” she says. “Though not all outdoor rooms have screening, they should have good airflow, and it is nice to have a roof overhead. They definitely add value to a home–especially when they are screened in and covered.”

Defining the space

Outdoor rooms can be defined by walls, by the railings of a deck, or by a floor area of wood, stone, brick, or composite. Adding shade is definitely a priority in our region and shelter from the sun can be provided by pergolas, arbors, awnings, umbrellas, or roofs. An important consideration is the movement of the sun overhead. The south and west sides of the property will definitely be warmer, while the house itself may provide shade on the east and north sides in the afternoon and evening.

Depending on the size of your property and the proximity of neighbors, you may opt for privacy screens or fencing. Other desirable features are some sort of fan for cooling, effective lighting when the sun goes down, and even music which can be piped into an outdoor room by any good electrician.

Decks are popular

“A deck or patio is such a nice extension of the home for entertaining company,” continues REALTOR® Greenfield. “There is an ambiance you can get in this type of space that is simply unavailable inside the home.”

Enhancements for a deck might include a grill, a hot tub, and portable or built-in tables and seating. “Hot tubs have extra code requirements on a deck because of the weight of the tub and the water,” Greenfield cautions. “An experienced builder who knows the code is very helpful when it comes to this type of addition.”

“Our bread and butter these days is composite decking,” says Richard Graves of Archadeck, a franchise begun in Richmond. He has owned the business in Charlottesville for more than 20 years. “We do a combination of resurfacing or extending an existing deck as well as new construction for a variety of outdoor structures.”

When the economy faded several years ago, Graves says, many people simply stayed in their home rather than moving to a bigger place. “They improved what they had,” he says, “and they often put money into outdoor structures and decks.”

Many homeowners have discovered that decks not only make great additions to a house, they can also provide solutions to landscape problems. For example, it’s not easy to maintain a lawn on a steeply sloped yard and it may be prohibitively expensive or structurally impossible to level a section for patio space. In this case, a deck built on supporting posts can be the answer.

A deck extending from an upper story can add living space to a second-floor bedroom, playroom, or den.  Such decks can even be designed to flow as a series of living platforms right down to the ground.

A deck can provide a shady play area for the kids underneath. If the deck is watertight, it can serve as a roof to create a wet-weather sitting area or an out-of-sight storage area for yard and garden equipment.

Graves says that composite decking like Trex is the most requested. “Fifteen years ago, composite was maybe 20 percent of our business,” he reports. “Now it’s 60-70 percent.” Trex is an example of an environmentally positive composite, processed from recycled materials such as sawdust, reclaimed and scrap wood, and a variety of plastics. Unlike wood, these composites won’t warp or rot. Besides, termites just aren’t interested. Although products like Trex, Veranda ArmorGuard, or NewTechWood initially cost more than wood, they have superior durability and don’t require maintenance such as staining, repainting, or replacing deteriorated sections.


Pergolas are also popular, Graves says. Sometimes called trellises or arbors, they can define the space for an outdoor room, provide partial shade, and support growing vines to offer additional shade.

Awnings or shade-curtains can be added hanging down or on wires beneath the overhead beams to provide shelter from sun or wind or drawn back to allow a view of the sky. The beams also can support hanging plants, lighting, a ceiling fan, or even an old-fashioned porch swing.

Because most pergolas don’t require the support of footings, they can be constructed over a stone, concrete, or brick patio. Sometimes they are attached to the house, but often they are freestanding. Pergolas can be built on a deck, above a hot tub, beside a pool (or even over a portion of a pool), or all by itself over a lawn area.

Pergolas can be built from wood, vinyl, fiberglass, aluminum, or even steel. Since they rarely require footings or complicated construction, building one can be a rewarding do-it-yourself project. In fact, home improvement stores and Internet sites offer a wide range of pergola “kits” with the planned construction materials pre-cut to length in a variety of materials, styles, and prices. Many websites have extensive photo galleries of pergolas for planning inspiration.

Pergolas, of course, aren’t waterproof. “The pillows and cushions have to come inside during wet weather,” says Greenfield, the broker with Charlottesville Fine Homes and Properties, “Even better, they can be hidden inside a waterproof outdoor bench, made for just this purpose.”

Screened Porches

Creating a screen porch is an economical way to add an extra room in your home for about half the year in our area. Indeed, a screened porch is a definite benefit in this region’s climate affording shade on a hot day, shelter from summer rains, and blocking those clouds of buzzing and biting critters that appear at twilight.

“What we’re seeing this year is that many people want screened porches,” agrees Dennis Kidd, owner of Decks by DAK in Palmyra. He and his wife have operated this family business for 27 years. “Last year we did 10 or 11. There’s a good market for it in this area. Many people want a combination of a deck and screen porch.”

It’s ideal to site the porch with exposure to breezes from several directions or a sheltered spot if your location is constantly windy. Other factors may be the dimensions of the yard, a wish for privacy, or taking advantage of a wonderful view. Having an existing paved patio or deck may dictate the placement to lessen the cost.

It’s also important to consider how you plan to use it. Will it be a quiet place to relax or a protected play area for children with built-in toy chests? If you will be dining or entertaining often, you may want a collapsible table or buffet space that can fold down against a wall. Do you want a door from the porch to the yard, access directly from the house or both?

Some people prefer a rustic porch with exposed rafters while others want a more elegant construction that is basically a finished room with walls of screening. There might be a ceiling, outdoor carpet, attractive lighting, and at least one ceiling fan. Overhead heating or a fireplace could also be installed to extend the useful porch season.

Kidd notes that decks and screened porches are often add-ons in upgrading a home. “When adding to existing structure,” he says, “you have to tie in to the existing roof line and some people have really challenging places they want to put them. You can end up with gable roofs or even flat roofs.

“The key,” he adds, “is whether the deck or porch blends in with the appearance of the home and enhances its function.” The right roof line makes all the difference in making the porch an integral part of the house rather than something that was just tacked on. Using the same roof material and color also helps make the porch appear a natural part of the house.

“Just as important as blending in,” Kidd continues, “is the quality of materials and knowledge of the individuals building the deck.” Like Graves of Archadeck, Kidd favors the new Trex flooring.

Fire pits

One couple, let’s call them Jane and John because they don’t want their names used, had “outdoor fun for the grandkids” high on their “want list” when they built their new home in Fluvanna County.

A deck from the main floor overlooks a pool and the space under the deck next to the walk-out basement provides shady pool-level seating. They’ve hung bird feeders and installed a safe archery target and there’s a big lawn for playing.

“We didn’t know if a fire pit would be used or enjoyed,” says John, “so I started with an inexpensive stand-alone fire unit on a base of river rock. The family ended up enjoying it, but Jane was worried about the instability of the rock and mesh of the cheap fire pit burned through.”

So John laid a sand base and replaced the rocks with sturdy pavers around a much heavier sunken fire ring.  “The fire ring came with a heavy-duty grill and a screen to contain embers,” he explains. “We keep four Adirondack-style chairs around it and saved sections of a big tree trunk for side tables that double as stools. We store cushions in an outdoor storage box.”

The pavers delineate the edges of this outdoor room and it’s been a big hit. “When the family comes over and I light the fire,” John says, “everyone is down from the house pretty quick with the littles hitting the s’mores.”

Whatever your choice for an outdoor room, it will add extra hours of fun and relaxation during the spring, summer, and fall of the year.


By Marilyn Pribus

Marilyn Pribus and her husband live in Albemarle County near Charlottesville.  When they moved from California almost eight years ago, they had a screened porch added over an existing deck. It ties in seamlessly to the house with its gabled roof which echoes the roof slope of the house. The shingles, gutter, and painted portions match the house perfectly.

Posted In:     Magazines,Real Estate


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