Outdoor Structures: The Backbone of the Landscape

The demand for outdoor living remains strong, and outdoor structures can pick up some of the slack of a weakened housing market.

During the last few years, the backyard living concept has evolved from a deck or patio area (with a pool for the more fortunate) to true outdoor living spaces complete with full kitchens, eating, sitting and living areas (with surround sound and HDTV for the very fortunate). And with this rise in the popularity of outdoor living spaces, it's no surprise that outdoor structures such as gazebos, arbors, trellises, pergolas and the like are also more in demand.

"People aren't looking for a simple outdoor space anymore. They're thinking in terms of defining spaces with walls, ceilings and roofs, but only in an open sense to blend with the outdoors," says Ernie Sears, president and owner of Backyard America of Manassas, Va. Ernie began his business as a building contractor specializing in outdoor structures, but since 1998 has been providing design services and fabricating kits for customers all over the country.

"Pergolas have really taken off over the last few years," says Ernie. "They've gone from practically zero percent of our business to the single largest segment."

Michael Mendelsohn, owner of Mendelsohn Construction in Scottsdale, Ariz., is also seeing his business grow as a result of more outdoor structures. "Every home I'm doing, we're enlarging the back patio areas — even after the plans are done. People want more multi-use living centers with TVs and full kitchens."

For Contractors, Not Much Difference

Most outdoor structures are some sort of variation or combination of a deck, patio, pergola, arbor, trellis or gazebo, and sometimes they may be of a custom design or even go by different names to reflect their function or region of the country (lanai, ramada, veranda). But they all serve the same basic function: to provide an aesthetically pleasing place to hang light fixtures, fans or A/V equipment, provide shade or a break from the wind, and even as a place to locate cooling misters or infrared heaters.

"These structures are all about expanding use," says Ernie. "People want to get more useful hours per day and more useful days per year from the outdoor living spaces."

From a contractor's standpoint, the same basic principles of design and construction apply as to the main house: use materials and design similar to those of the home to blend the two structures, make sure you follow all codes — especially those regarding setbacks and electrical/gas hookups, and choose materials and build carefully so that the structure will stand up to the elements.

"Where snow load is a concern, most pergolas will have less structure on top to reduce surface area, and where wind load is a concern, make sure you have the structure properly anchored to the ground," says Ernie. "But those are all things most contractors know anyway."

Michael also advises that contractors do all they can to minimize the disruption to the homeowner's — and neighbor's — existing landscape. He says to make sure you have appropriate access for your equipment and plan ahead if you'll need a cement pump truck or extra hands to wheelbarrow the concrete to the appropriate spots. "Make sure you lay plywood or other protection down so you don't tear up the landscape, and clean up the street at the end of every day. That's very important to the entire neighborhood," he says. "Wash the street down with a hose if you have to."

For the Bottom Line, Perhaps a Big Difference

No doubt, the biggest markets for these types of outdoor structures are in the warmer states such as Arizona, California, Florida and Texas. But don't think that just because you're in the Snow Belt that people don't want to maximize their backyards.

"We sell a ton of product to New Jersey and even the Dakotas are really hot in terms of sales," Ernie says. "We sell a lot more to colder climates than even I would have thought a few years ago."

The typical customers for these structures are usually in the mid-range to custom/luxury markets, and once they've got their dream backyard, they typically want to renovate or embellish the rest of their yard as well. "Outdoor structures usually lead to even more add-on sales such as fencing or privacy screens," says Ernie. "You can easily gain an extra 10 to 20 percent on top of your original price for the project."

Michael agrees, saying that not only does it often increase profits from that particular job, but it can lead to other similar jobs in the neighborhood. "These types of jobs tend to go up very quickly, and they impress the neighbors," he says. "These structures are very visible and can be a way to open the door to larger jobs."

Rob Fanjoy is a freelance writer who frequently covers residential construction.

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