Why do bad outdoor kitchens happen to good people? It’s a question I ask myself every time I walk around otherwise gorgeous residential landscapes and see poorly planned grill islands, view-obscuring pizza ovens, and homely rows of unnecessary appliances. It’s a question I ask myself when I stand in front of the grill in my own backyard and can’t find a place to put a spatula, let alone a plate of food. As a south Florida landscape and outdoor designer, I’ve seen enough bad outdoor kitchens that they now fall into recognizable categories for me, including something I call the Mushroom, that oversize island that looks like it appeared suddenly after a heavy rain; the Utterly Inadequate, which is epitomized by a Weber grill standing all by itself on a big patio; and the Full Vegas, a category that doesn’t really need an explanation, except that the words “retractable television” are often involved.
Here are some things to consider when designing an outdoor kitchen:
1 Plan, Plan, Plan. Poor planning explains most badly executed outdoor kitchens. Outdoor kitchens are not an afterthought. A thought through plan and proper budget will ensure that your outdoor kitchen is one that is functional and will work with your other hardscape and landscaping. I sit down with everybody in the household and quiz them: “How do you envision yourself using the space? What will you cook?” I give clients a 21-point questionnaire. Most people don’t know what size sink they want or type of grill they will need until we talk through how they plan to utilize these things.
2 Make It a Group Effort. Layouts, utilities, countertop choices — installing an outdoor kitchen is complicated, and more than one contractor is often needed. Too often the entire project is left to a single designer or builder. As a project coordinator as well as a designer, I get expert advise from all of the contractors involved. I often meet with the builder, architect, appliance and granite company, landscape contractor, electrician, and anyone else who will be involved in implementing the outdoor kitchen. Communication with the different contractors and homeowner during the design and installation process make all the difference in the world for a project to be completed on time and on budget, with a result that is pleasing to everyone.
3 Keep Abreast. Appliance features change dramatically from year to year. Make sure you, or somebody who is helping you, have a firm grasp of what’s available.
4 Look Around. Take clues from the landscape. The materials you use should be dictated by the home and its surroundings. The best way to blend in a new kitchen is to build it with the same trim and stone that are used on the house and in the landscape. And be wary of inexpensive solutions. Stucco is cheap, and builders love it because it’s easy to use, but if the only place you have stucco is on your outdoor kitchen, it’s going to stick out.
5 Think Proportion. If you have a large home and a tiny exterior kitchen, it can look like a wart on an elephant. The opposite can also be a problem. Don’t let counters get too big. A long counter has the same volume as a Volkswagen. If the transitioning from the home to the outdoor kitchen is not done well, it will look like a beached whale. Smart designers incorporate numerous structural elements to make a kitchen fit into its surroundings, including pergolas, screens, and plantings.