The tinny tunes of ice cream trucks are fading to memory here in suburbia, replaced by the mournful honks of geese overhead. Yet the outdoor living of summer isn’t over for a growing number of affluent suburbanites. It’s never over.
“We’ll be out here in 40 degrees,” says Nina Prill, a veterinarian, as she lounges in the covered outdoor living room that she and her husband, Adam, built behind their large stone-and-stucco home in Bethesda. “Rain, shine, snow: We’re out here.”
The Prills’ outdoor living room looks like a casually elegant version of an old-fashioned, screened-in porch without the screens. It’s kitted out with modern amenities that make it a year-round draw: weatherproof furniture with deep, nap-worthy cushions, a computer jack, WiFi, stereo speakers and lighting recessed in the ceiling, a wood-burning fireplace that cranks out heat and, above the hearth, a television that the family operates via iPad.
The concept of garden rooms with “walls” of privet or “roofs” of wisteria twining over pergolas is ancient. Outdoor theater is at least as old as the Greek amphitheater, and outdoor cooking dates to man’s quest for fire. But the modern desire for outdoor living spaces equipped with all the latest conveniences—plus a breeze—is redefining garden rooms, proving a boon for some businesses and testing neighborly notions of how close is too close.
Despite the economic downturn, demand for custom outdoor living rooms and kitchens is growing in affluent neighborhoods of Montgomery County. Four Seasons Landscaping & Nursery of Damascus built twice as many outdoor kitchens in the first six months of this year as it did in all of 2009 and 2010 combined, co-owner Doug Del Gandio says.
It’s not unusual for Four Seasons’ customers to spend $100,000 to $150,000 on the works: a built-in outdoor kitchen of stainless and granite, plus an outdoor living room with a custom fireplace, as well as stone or brick patios, walkways, walls and water features, Del Gandio says. Proud homeowners typically throw a big party afterward, and that’s good for his business. “People see it and they have to have it, too,” Del Gandio says. “We live in a very competitive area.
“It’s comic to me: When I do work for people in the same neighborhood, they ask me questions about their neighbor’s job. They want to know how much their neighbor spent because they want to outdo it. I just say, ‘I can’t talk about someone else’s job.’ It happens a lot.”
More and more, affluent homeowners in close-in neighborhoods are living at the nexus of two trends that don’t always comfortably coexist: the demand for more elaborate outdoor living rooms and the super-sizing of homes that has left many with a lot less yard to live in. The Prills’ 8-foot-long grilling station, for example, sits so close to their property line that their nearest neighbors could reach over and flip the steaks. Instead, the neighbors planted a line of leland cypress behind the grill to create privacy screening.
Back in the 1960s, when “outdoor theater” meant summer stock or the drive-in and the only “outdoor kitchen” in most suburban yards was a hibachi, the median size of new, detached single-family homes constructed in Montgomery County was only 1,454 square feet. Today, new homes in the county are often more than three times that size. In wealthy, close-in neighborhoods, new super-size homes come packed with amenities, but privacy isn’t necessarily one of them. If you’d rather sit out back listening to the call of the chickadee than to the Redskins’ announcer shouting from a neighbor’s outdoor TV, you’re out of luck.
For some, the proliferation of outdoor living rooms along property lines has added insult to injury. I know one Bethesda couple so unhappy when a looming McMansion sprouted next door that they moved to a huge home. Before long, their new next-door neighbors built a similarly huge house with an outdoor living room hard on the property line. The couple are bewildered that their money no longer buys them privacy, a perk of privilege that seems to have disappeared into the arcanum of Montgomery County zoning codes and affluent homeowners’ desire for more and more.
Best Buy now stocks a wide selection of outdoor televisions, including a 55-inch SunBrite that sells for $6,600. Online purveyors sell outdoor TV covers emblazoned with sports logos so fans can display team devotion even when their televisions are turned off.
Audiophile Howard Fisk founded www.outdoortheater.com for techies to trade tips on wiring outdoor theater systems with digital projectors, large screens and surround sound. At his home in the Midwest, Fisk installed speakers called “shakers” beneath his back deck to enhance the experience of watching action films by “shaking the deck when a bomb goes off or a helicopter flies over. It’s a riot,” he says.
Some outdoor theater aficionados have discovered the decibel meter, a particularly handy little item to make sure they’re not violating local noise ordinances, Fisk says.
I once interviewed Robert Lane, a Yale University professor emeritus and author of The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies (Yale University Press, 2001). Plot a chart with two lines, he told me, one representing the U.S. GDP per capita from 1940 to 1990 and the other indicating the percentage of people who described themselves to pollsters as “very happy.” The lines run in opposite directions. While there are seemingly no limits to the goods people will buy, Lane argues that spending time and energy building relationships is more likely to yield longer-term gratification. In other words, things don’t make us happy. People do.
That’s where Nina and Adam Prill really do seem to be living the good life in their busy outdoor living room. Although their home in the Greenwich Forest neighborhood has ample entertaining space inside, including a billiards room, their three children, extended family, friends and party guests regularly gravitate to a cozy outdoor living room that measures just about 15 feet by 15 feet.
“It’s a magnet,” Nina says. “If you get a fire going, people are going to come out. Sometimes when we have company we’ll all curl up in blankets out here. It’s very fun.”
Adam, the owner of a construction company, likes to position his favorite chair in the outdoor living room so he can look out over the backyards of several nearby homes and the old oaks and maples for which Greenwich Forest is named. “We’re not fence people,” Adam says. “I don’t flip out seeing my neighbors’ houses.”
Besides, he says, enjoying the borrowed view of neighboring properties “makes your yard feel bigger.”
April Witt, an award-winning journalist, lives in Bethesda. Send comments or column ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.