21st Century Outdoor Living

When Bob and Carol Skib moved into their new home – a renovated downtown Tulsa industrial building – the backyard was still the building’s decades-old black asphalt parking lot. Several months later, the couple was ready to tackle the outdoor space and enlisted landscape architect Carl Szafranski of Szafranski-Pugh & Associates for guidance. After some initial collaboration with the project’s architect, James Boswell, Szafranski began lengthy interviews with the couple “so I could understand their emotional and functional needs for the space.”

The Skibs had already determined they wanted a pool, spa, outdoor fireplace plus a layout that was conducive to entertaining, from small intimate gatherings to large events of several hundred. And because of the uniqueness of the residence, the intention was to blend any additional architectural and design features with the warehouse/industrial style.

“We utilized an existing metal shed and transformed it into their garage,” says Szafranski.

Nearby rusted I-beams with a retractable Sunbrella fabric cover by Tulsa Awning creates a cozy seating environment overlooking the pool. And as a nod to the industrial theme, the fireplace cover was custom made by Garden Deva’s Lisa Regan to replicate an incinerator door.

To meld the hard surfaces required for the patio, pool deck and motor court, Architectural Paving Systems used natural, non-pigmented concrete with a rock salt finish. And to avoid a “heat island,” the cement was poured in rectangles and divided by ribbons of grass, creating a year round architectural vision. Bob Skib was so intrigued with the process and work of the concrete crew, he likened it to “watching a symphony in progress.”

Since there is a tendency for an echo to occur behind the house, Pool Creations Inc. created a swimming pool with a series of small waterfalls to provide the subtle sensation of moving water without it being so loud it requires shouting. The pools’ “wet decks,” submerged nine inches under water, are large enough to hold a chaise lounge and are favorite spots to cool off on a hot summer day. And the spa is an enticing place to relax near the fire on a chilly winter evening. Anticipating using the outdoor living area year round, numerous umbrella sleeves are installed throughout the back yard, providing the flexibility to have shade based on where it is required at various times of the year.

The Skibs are thrilled with the results of their challenging project and have been gracious in sharing their unique abode with the community. The couple has hosted several fundraisers with the most recent having more than 200 in attendance enjoying live music outside.

Creating functional outdoor living areas requires more thought and planning than just maintaining a visual flow of styles, colors, and finishes from inside to out.

“I always approach the exterior by starting with the view from inside,” says Szafranski.

And landscape architect Clare Ashby, ASLA agrees. For homeowners considering adding an outdoor living area, she suggests brainstorming all the various ways the space might be used from family gatherings to adult entertaining.

Gone are the days when using the backyard was relegated to summertime.

“We consider the design from a year round perspective,” says Ashby, who anticipates how all the plant materials appear at different times of the year.

Looking beyond the explosion of spring color, Ashby specifies ornamental grasses and sedum for visual interest peaking in the hot months of July and August. And she is not a fan of the continually blooming Encore Azalea preferring “fall colors in the fall.”

In the summer the sound of water, shade elements, ceiling fans and misters cool down the Oklahoma heat, while the winter requires protection from the north wind, and either stand alone or installed heating systems will warm up the frigid night air. Outdoor living areas are now approached with the same level of detail and planning as any interior space.

“Design doesn’t stop at the exterior wall anymore,” says Sarah McPhail, interior designer at Tulsa’s SR Hughes. “We see luxury homes now including outdoor spaces as part of their initial design.”

Plus, additions of multipurpose outdoor living areas in existing homes are increasing in popularity.

“Ten years ago, an outdoor kitchen was a grill with cabinets below,” says Jack Wills, president of Jack Wills Casual Furniture.

And it was typically considered the man’s domain. Now the “outdoor culinary center” has evolved to include interaction with the entire family. No one is stuck inside prepping the food, and there’s no messy transferring it outdoors to cook, since everything is done outside. The ultimate outdoor kitchen has three stations – food prep, cook station and the serving area. And since outdoor kitchens require storage for dishes, utensils, spices and other ingredients, today’s dry pantries are constructed so they are not a haven for bugs and spider webs.

According to Wills, outdoor appliances have also evolved. In the past, under-counter refrigerators were primarily for snacks, soft drinks and beer. Now, outdoor refrigerators are engineered to withstand temperatures up to 120 degrees, and if the door is accidentally left open, there is a built-in recovery system.

“It’s like having your thermostat on cruise control,” Wills explains. “If the interior temperature hits 50 degrees a blast of cold air brings it down to 38, keeping food from spoiling.”

And the options of the technologically advanced built-in outdoor smokers, grills and cooktops have evolved significantly beyond the ubiquitous portable barbeque grill.

Waterproof flat screen televisions are popular for outside viewing although the traditional nearby fireplace is in decline.

“Over the last five years, we’ve seen the fire pit become more popular than a fireplace,” says Wills.

The design and layout is often preferable for families and those who frequently entertain since a bench seat surrounding the fire can seat up to eight or more.

By utilizing gas jets and colorful glass toppings, the fire pit becomes a creative focal point. Gas allows the homeowner to enjoy a fire without the time it takes to build a wood fire.

“Plus you can enjoy a moment by the fire and be dressed to go out or even ready for bed without smelling like smoke,” adds Wills.  

“Remote control availability is a popular option with fire pits,” says Jeff Vivion, president of Vivion Pools, Inc. Smartphone apps set to regulate automatic fires, elaborate sound systems, landscape and pool lighting, and even the spa are one of the latest trends in outdoor living. “You can turn on the spa while driving home from work and it is already heated by the time you get there,” Vivion explains.

Water features including a swimming pool, spa, fountains and waterfalls are key elements for the backyard resort.

According to Vivion, ease of maintenance is often first on the list of requirements for any type of backyard water feature. In-floor pool cleaners and saltwater systems are popular while ozone systems, previously available on the coasts are now options in the Midwest. While the appropriate size, shape and overall layout of pools is custom to each residence, Vivion says he’s seen the trend move away from curved designs accented with ceramic tile and boulders to a sleeker, modern style with clean lines, glass tile and water features utilizing stainless steel or copper. And as an alternative to plaster and the passé natural pebble finish is the new technology featuring sparkling, colorful glass beads or processed seashells, creating a dazzling dance of color through the water.

As the popularity of outdoor living spaces has soared, McPhail has noticed a change in textile technology and design.

“Just a few years ago, outdoor fabrics had limited design options,” says McPhail. “Plus they just didn’t feel very comfortable.”

Today, popular fabric lines are introducing outdoor fabrics with softer, plush textures in a range of patterns and colors making it even easier for the interior design to flow outside. In addition to furniture upholstery, outdoor fabrics are important elements in creating curtains and awnings to block the sun and the wind.

McPhail also sees advances in other outdoor products, including EcoSmart’s portable bioethanol fireplaces and fire pits, perfect for flexibility in creating a cozy focal point whether dining, relaxing by the television or lounging by the pool.

Homeowners should use the same criteria planning their outdoor space as they do creating their interiors including budget, function, space availability, traffic flow, architectural style, color preferences and year round use. Create a master plan even if the project will be created in phases. And consider a few hours consulting fee with a professional designer or landscape architect as a valuable investment even if your intention is to ultimately do-it-yourself.

“Our job is to be creative within the budget and design requirements,” adds Ashby.

Despite the extremes in Oklahoma weather, more and more homeowners like Bob and Carol Skib are creating spaces to enjoy life outside. “It’s our favorite ‘room’ of the house,” says Bob of their impeccably designed outdoor retreat.