Home & Design

Phil Kelly of McHale Landscape Design created a rough-hewn cedar pavilion, anchored by a massive stone fireplace on a Centreville, Maryland, property.

A Great Falls, Virginia, garden designed by Plusen Landscape Architects and installed by Planted Earth boasts an inviting fire circle paved with irregular flagstone. Photo: Thomas Walker.

A McLean aerie designed by Joseph Richardson of Richardson & Associates Landscape Architecture lures residents to relax in a pavilion with a fireplace and bar. Contractor: Winn Design + Build. Landscape Contractor: Black Pearl Management. Photo: Stacy Zarin Goldberg.

Ryan Moody of Moody Graham dreamed up a compact but sophisticated hideaway in Alexandria; its custom fire pit boasts a stucco enclosure capped with bluestone. Landscape Contractor: Oldetowne Landscape Architects. Photo: Allen Russ.

In Bethesda, April Sullivan of Rossen Landscape overhauled a dated backyard with an existing pool to create a resort-like hub for fun in every season. The project features a heated pavilion complete with a fireplace and a kitchen; a pool house; and an enlarged pool with a soothing spa and easy access to a sleek fire table. Photo: Morgan Howarth.

Year-Round Oases

Local landscape pros offer tips for creating al fresco gathering spots to suit every season

With fire pits, steaming spas, hidden heaters and outdoor kitchens on the rise, today’s outdoor rooms can keep on going long after summer’s last hurrah. We asked experts to shed light on how to plan the perfect year-round escape.

What features and amenities are essential to a comfortable, year-round outdoor retreat?
An ideal zone for entertaining should include a comfy, central seating area that is convenient and easily accessible to the primary residence. Gathering spots with privacy and good views are always nice. Shade is key—either from a well-placed tree, umbrella or roof. Other features that make a space more enjoyable include small fountains, decorative landscaping or a cozy fire. Lastly, low-voltage accent lighting extends the usability of a space into nighttime.

—Howard Cohen, Surrounds, Inc.

Explain your approach to outdoor lighting.
Outdoor lighting depends on the client’s preference. Though some like to light up the façade to spotlight the house, we usually design our lighting according to task. For example, overhead lighting is great when you’re cooking in an outdoor kitchen, but if you’re snuggled by a fire, you may want less light.

We usually go for an ambient glow around an entire landscape. Shining a spotlight on a tree of interest helps with visibility—especially in areas where path lighting may not be highly functional. Moonlighting, or lighting from above, works well for driveways and darker spaces where you don’t want a line of bulbs creating a runway effect.

For us, the glow of a light is more important than the fixture itself. Careful placement is key and should be reconsidered as plant material matures to ensure the lighting plan still functions as designed.

—April Sullivan, Rossen Landscape

When should homeowners begin planning an al fresco gathering space and what steps are involved?
It depends on the complexity of the project, but a year or more in advance is not too early to start. The first step is the design process. Well-thought-out plans take time and vary according to the challenges of the site, the clients’ schedule and their decision-making and communication styles.

The second step is aligning the design with the budget, which can mean deleting portions of the plan, changing materials or installing in phases.

Installation is the next and lengthiest step. Obtaining permits; procuring hardscape and construction supplies; and coping with the weather and season all factor into how much time it will take to complete a successful outdoor space. Consistent communication among the homeowner, designer and production team is crucial so expectations are fulfilled—and hopefully exceeded.

—Phil Kelly, McHale Landscape Design

What materials are most practical and attractive for outdoor kitchen countertops?
There are many factors to consider when making a countertop selection. Granite is a popular option that stands up to the elements, doesn’t absorb stains easily and will not fade in the sun. However, select your color carefully, as darker stones absorb the sun’s heat and can burn your skin in the summer. Another natural stone option with many positives is soapstone—a heat-, stain- and bacteria-resistant option. It’s also nonporous, so regular sealing isn’t required. One drawback to soapstone is that it’s limited to shades of gray and black.

Newer on the market is Dekton—a manmade, highly bonded stone that’s UV-resistant, nonporous and highly resistant to abrasion. It’s quickly becoming the top choice of many designers.

—Josh Kane, Kane Landscapes, Inc.

What drives your selection of hardscape materials and which ones should homeowners avoid?
When selecting hardscape materials, you need to consider durability, lifespan, carbon footprint, beauty and cost. We gravitate towards natural materials with proven, long-term track records in the climate where they’re specified. When logical, we reuse materials found on site or consider salvaged materials. In general, we are hesitant to specify composite decking that is difficult to recycle and hasn’t performed well over longer time frames.

Some materials are right for one spot in a landscape but not another. For example, while Western red cedar may be a great option for a vertical fence, we’ve found it to be too soft for a deck—especially in a high-traffic area. Granite is a favorite paving choice but needs the right surface treatment to ensure slip-resistance. By using the same material in different finishes (honed granite for a countertop, a thermal finish for paving and a rock-face finish for steps), we can showcase the stone’s variability.

Remember that not all materials need to be maintained—some should be allowed to patina over time and change with the seasons. We love the look of natural wood as it silvers.

—Ryan Moody, ASLA, Moody Graham

Explain the guidelines you apply when siting and designing an outdoor fireplace.
Outdoor fireplaces are often used as a focal element or a termination point on a long access. They are generally big-ticket items, so we site them in areas that will make an impact. Before selecting a fireplace, owners need to take into consideration how it’s going to be powered: wood-burning versus gas, or a combination of the two. They should also consider the fireplace’s relationship to the seating spaces around it, as well as its proximity to other structures. The material selected—whether brick, stucco, stone or steel—really drives the aesthetic we choose; we make an effort to complement or contrast fireplaces with other materials on a project.

—Joseph Richardson, PLA, ASLA, Richardson & Associates Landscape Architecture


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