How to Design an Outdoor Kitchen

Since moving into our home nearly four years ago, there’s one unfinished feature that has bugged me more than any other – the drab cookie-cutter concrete aggregate slab in our backyard that serves as our patio. Dull, lifeless, and far too small for our family.  By some estimates, a backyard remodel can recoup up to 60% of the cost and significantly increase likelihood of a buyer.  But we’re not going anywhere.  So we decided to embark on a backyard remodel, a year-long endeavor starting with research andwe’re happy to share the finished product.  So what does this have to do with Steve Jobs?  Steve was known for his deep consideration and personal investment in design decisions, even if he wasn’t an expert in areas such as metallurgy or glass, he would spend the time to learn and invest himself in getting exactly what he desired without compromise.  We took many of these same principles to heart when designing our patio last year.  Below are a few tips we picked up along the way.  Our favorite vacation resort is now in our backyard.

Tip #1: Invest personal time in the Design

After brainstorming with a few landscape design professionals, I bought Realtime Landscaping Pro and went to work learning the program which was surprisingly as easy as Powerpoint.  It comes with a deep list of plants recommended by zones, different material and even accessory options such as furniture you can place for fit.  The project started off by scanning a property map, doing some quick modeling of our house and sight lines.  Then I set to work playing with the patio curves and angles, looking from different directions and times of day.  I was fortunate that our property map included Lat/Long coordinates so I could accurately view time of day (even if I didn’t model the other houses around us).  The software even renders video walkthroughs that give more perspective.  Overkill?  Yes.  Would Steve Jobs do this?  Well, he’d probably ask Jonny Ive to do it for him and review it every week.

Tip #2: You are the Project Manager, be Specific

After hearing so many nightmares about home projects and contractors gone awry, we took the approach of treating this like any other business transaction and doing a fair amount of research.  After putting together some thoughts and designs we interviewed a few landscape designers to learn about their credentials, portfolio and experience.  Along the way we realized that for an investment research with the state to make sure the short list members were appropriately licensed, bonded, and insured.  A few admitted they were a little surprised by the level of detail in our pre-existing designs.  We learned quickly that the more specific you are upfront about what you want, you can get to a more realistic cost estimate.  Many contractors will pad their estimates for client ambiguity.

Tip #3: Put in Extra Slab and Drainage 

A little extra drainage goes a long way.  In the Pacific Northwest we get plenty of rain and the last thing you want is a sinking patio.  We worked with our Landscape designer to pour concrete to extend the existing aggregate slab and build the patio on top in addition to adding a few drain grates that tie into the gutter returns.  This has had a big impact.

Tip #4: Don’t forget the Trees, Plan for 3 Years of no Growth

I’m no master gardener and frankly have enough trouble remembering what an Arborvitae looks like much less spelling it.  You don’t have to be with books like Sunset Western Garden Book which easily lays out your options.  I found that 99% of the plants we were discussing with our landscape professional were also in Realtime Landscaping Pro and I could model their growth over years.  This was super-handy as I could see how full trees would be after 3-5 years of growth.  I was surprised in the research to learn many trees experience 2-3 years of “shock” when transplanted before their growth really starts to take off.  We made adjustments to the starting maturity of trees as a result of this key fact.

Tip #5: Go Online for Outdoor Furniture and Accessories

If you go into your local patio furniture store, get ready for massive markups.  If you are fine doing a little assembly, go online to a retailer such as or BBQ Guys and purchase your accessories there.  In my setup, I went with the following:

  • RCS Infrared Side Burner (Natural Gas)  – An infrared gril can do a quick sear on a steak, cook chicken or boil a pot of water.  When we don’t want to wait for the Big Green Egg or Weber Performer to heat up, this is what we use.
  • Darlee Catalina 8-person Dining Set – About the half the cost of anything we found in stores, we traded off heavier metals for aluminum materials that are durable but light enough for the kids to move around.  We also got three matching barstools.  My only regret is not getting a fourth.
  • BBQ Guys Umbrella Mount – When putting the countertops in, I had an umbrella hole mount put in by the bar area to shield me (and friends at the bar counter) from late afternoon sun, baking while cooking dinners.  A little umbrella hole cap from Home Depot keeps water from seeping in as well.
  • BBQ Guys Stainless Steel Access Doors – There are dozens of options available.  In my case, I went with two simple sets of double doors.  Aside from magnets that aren’t really that strong, these are good options and style will depend on your design.

Tip #6: Remember the Outdoor Kitchen (Sink) and Lighting

By far the biggest learning since using the Grill island is the importance of the Kitchen Sink.  Casey at Cyan Landscaping convinced me to do this and to put in hot water.  This has made a huge difference in the usability of the outdoor area.  A quick rinse, soap and scrub and items are clean before they go back inside.

As for lighting, I thought this was a little silly as an overhead light would be good enough for most cooking events.  But the end result has me convinced.  Soft LED downlighting built into the backsplash along with the endcap of the bar area, soft uplighting on some of the trees and the mini-wall create an outdoor resort feel.  By far the best decision was to spend a little bit more than the original budget.  Do it once, do it right.

Tip #7: Don’t Stop the Music

Friends have commented most about the music setup.  By placing two omnidirectional outdoor speakers that are camouflaged into the landscaping, we can sit at the fire pit and enjoy stereo music.  At our old place we had directional speakers that you mount on the patio and found that these don’t create an ambient flow to the music – either you’re in the line of music or it’s barely there.  Cheaper options are available however the Bose come with a great warranty that made them worth the extra cost.

  • Bose Free Space 51 Speakers – Engineered to withstand snow, sun, rain, ice and saltwater spray, Bose outdoor speakers come with a 5 year warranty and provide the right level of ambient music without overpowering the neighbors.
  • Weatherproof Volume Knob – An essential even if you have remote control of your volume is the outdoor volume knob.  This was only $50 and in an instant I can adjust the music right from the bar area.
  • Sonos Wireless Amplifier – You can use many amplifier options but by far my favorite is the Sonos.  With my Windows Phone or iOS device, I can control this all in one wireless whole home music solution.  They also provide integration with popular online music services such as Pandora, Spotify, and Last.FM at no additional cost which I love.

Tip #8: Address Countertop Confusion

Granite, sandstone, poured concrete, pre-fabrication.  These are just a few of your options.  By far the most confusing part of the project was which solution to go with.  In the end, went with rounded sandstone granite which is more porous than hard granite, but significantly less expensive. In addition, we had a bit of a challenge getting a hole pre-cut large enough for my Big Green Egg kamado-style cooker so on location, adjustments had to be made and the sandstone was forgiving enough to allow for on-location adjustments.

The other challenge is angles.  Steve Jobs was reportedly obsessed with bevels and radii of curves.  Our original proposal had right-angle curves which I just didn’t think would feel good when a friend leans on the bar area, or worse one of my sons runs head-height into the corner of the countertop.  I ended up using Powerpoint to model the type of bevel I was looking for and it solved a lot of potential back and forth.

Tip #9: Increase your Timeline by a Third (~33%)

We started in January and were finished first week of March almost finished last week of April.  Apparently torrential downpours and windstorms are a bitch for setting mortar and concrete.  As an engineer, I’ve seen most projects require about a 30-40% variance from when dates are set so I applied this same buffer to my own expectations and that of our family.  It wasn’t easy but it made the subsequent delays, explanations and apologies from the contractors easy going, especially when mother nature struck right after planting.

Tip #10: Fire Pit Pointers from the Pros

Fire pits can be complex or simple.  We took our pro’s guidance that we should avoid the electronic start as these units have a tendency to wear out in a matter of a few years especially in the moisture of Western Washington.  He also suggested a star-shaped burner and a dedicated line for the fire pit vs. tapping into an existing line.  These were great suggestions as I don’t have to worry about gas pressure on the grill or fire pit and get a strong, authentic looking fire in the pit with a simple fireplace key to start.

We opened our patio and fire pit for a family-friendly Cinco de Mayo party and the fire pit was a big hit.  We may not be doing any big vacations this year, but the results were worth it!

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