2009 Home Improvement Challenge: Outdoor Improvements Winner and More Favorites

Projects like these turn the great outdoors into living spaces you don't want to leave.

Winner: Blending Naturally

Multiple seating areas, a grilling station, and a potting shed (on the left) blend gracefully into a mature landscape and create comfortable spaces for outdoor living. Flagstone carries the light gray of the house's brick exterior into the garden, defining the seating areas as well as meandering paths. Low stacked-stone walls outline new, organically shaped planting beds anchored by existing trees.

Blending Naturally, Grilling Area

A gas grill defines the outdoor-kitchen corner of the new backyard space at the Ohio home of Rick and Jacque Bailey. Brick piers that match the house integrate the new granite-topped stacked-stone walls with existing architecture.

Blending Naturally, Fountain

One goal in the project was to introduce white noise that would downplay the sounds of traffic from the nearby Ohio Turnpike. Homeowner Rick Bailey and landscape architect Peggy Brown searched for just the right boulders to create a fountain, then played with the positioning until they achieved the desired soothing sounds of rippling and splashing.

Blending Naturally, Patio

The new patio extends from the back of the house into the landscape without any barriers to block views or restrict the sense of space. New and existing shrubs and perennials, such as ferns, astilbe, and hellebores, soften the edges of the flagstone and ease the transition from house to yard.

Blending Naturally, Potting Shed

Homeowner Jacque Bailey's potting shed includes windows and skylights for plenty of natural light inside the shed. Rick tucked the structure back into the trees to create the impression that it had been there a long time and the trees had grown up around it.

More Ideas: A Cook's Dream

In Huntersville, North Carolina, it's possible to enjoy outdoor living all year. To make the most of that opportunity, Debra Xedus and her husband added a new outdoor entertaining area and kitchen to the back of their home. The living/dining area extends from the foundation of the screened porch, a level up from an existing patio that anchored one corner of the house. To give the new area a sense of privacy and enclosure, the ground around it was built up and faced with a retaining wall. The pergola-covered outdoor kitchen stretches from the back of the house into the seating area, enhancing the sense of privacy.

A Cook's Dream, Before

An elegant pond and a simple patio anchored one corner of the back yard, but the deck and grill were at the other end of the house, exposed to the weather and in full view of the neighbors. The deck was a standard construction and didn't add anything to the architecture of the house.

A Cook's Dream, Outdoor Kitchen

To blend the outdoor kitchen with the house, the Xeduses related the proportions of the screened porch columns to those of the pergola, and they capped the pergola supports with similar crown moldings. Stacked-stone walls in the outdoor kitchen relate to the texture and color of the new formal brick patio.

A Cook's Dream, Kitchen Overview

Equipped with a sink and garbage disposal, a refrigerator, ice maker, trash compactor, three types of grills, and a power burner, the outdoor kitchen is efficient, flexible, and ideal for any size gathering. Sconces and backsplash lighting provide ambient and task illumination.

A Cook's Dream, Kitchen Detail

As the owners of The Grill Doctor in Mooresville, North Carolina, the Xeduses are serious about the fine points of outdoor cooking. They use the Lynx L36 traditional gas grill for everyday cooking. It also has a wok for stir-frying. The small TEC grill tucked into the corner is a powerful infrared grill that heats up to 1000 degrees F. The high heat sears meat and chicken quickly, sealing the juices inside, and cooks the meat in less than 10 minutes. The power burner beside it accommodates large stock pots and replaces a turkey fryer.

A Cook's Dream

The Big Green Egg (right side of photo) is an all-ceramic dual-fuel cooker that is a charcoal grill, oven, and smoker all in one. It's a 2,000-year-old style of cooking, says Debra Xedus, and it can be used for baking as well as grilling. Because the cooking process is slower than the TEC or traditional gas grills, she uses it on leisurely paced evenings.

A Cook's Dream

The arched surround framing the end-wall fountain echoes the shape of the screened porch arches. Alternating vertical and horizontal stacked-stone sections creates a distinctive look for the fountain, which is dramatically lit at night with hidden spotlights.

More Ideas: An Outdoor Oasis

Carol Manzon and her husband, Chris Diplock, wanted an outdoor living and entertaining space that enhanced the natural beauty of their property and included a water feature that could be heard inside the house. Their solution included a screened gazebo for family dinners, a pond with waterfalls, and a fire pit. As the project progressed, the couple added a workshop (on the left) that matches the house in color and details.

An Outdoor Oasis

Decking and wooden steps provide a transition in levels from the brick patio that surrounds the 12-foot-square gazebo to brick paths that lead to the house and front yard. Keeping the mature azalea in place was a priority for Carol, so the gazebo and water feature were built around it. The azalea helps tie the new structure into the landscape and provides a beautiful focal point.

An Outdoor Oasis, Waterfalls

The rock-lined water feature looks like a natural pool with two levels, one a small pond that continuously flows over rock ledges into the larger pool below. Chris excavated at least 3 feet to create the pond bed, piling some of the soil on the pond's edge to create more height for the top pool. A recirculating pump hidden by soil and rock keeps the water moving from the bottom pool back up to the top one. The top pool is about 10 feet in circumference, and the lower one about 34 feet around.

An Outdoor Oasis, Waterfall Detail

Many of the stones were unearthed in the process of digging out the hole for the pool and fountain. The couple carefully selected flat stones from Winston-Salem and Rhode Island river stones for the pool bottom to create a natural look.

More Ideas: Starting from Scratch

Most new suburban homes have a raw feeling, with no structures or landscaping to integrate them into their surroundings. Cathy Zaeske and her husband set out to remedy the situation by turning their backyard in Gurnee, Illinois, into a family-friendly outdoor living space that blends with the architecture of the house. Using a variety of levels and materials, they added a deck, patio, and fire pit that provide a sense of transition from the house into the gently sloping yard and offer areas for cooking, dining, relaxing, and playing.

Starting from Scratch, Before

The backyard held little more than a concrete pad for garbage cans and an expanse of grass edged by woods.

Starting from Scratch

A simple, classically styled banister frames the main living and dining area on the deck, which adjoins the house, level with the main level. Outdoor lighting, with a finish that matches the railing, rests atop the posts at intervals to underscore the feeling of a room and to extend the use of the deck into the evening. Speakers pipe music outside. Stone planters mark the transition down to the fire pit, and weathered stone pavers define curving paths that link areas.

Starting from Scratch, Deck

From the main living-dining area, the deck steps down to a secondary deck, providing additional gathering space. New plantings of evergreens, visible beyond the pergola, will grow to provide privacy for the backyard.

Starting from Scratch

Three steps down from the deck, the gas-start fire pit and a seating area nestle into the nearby trees. Although the design of the area is controlled and formal in keeping with the architecture of the house, the shift in materials, from smooth boards to rough stone, as you move away from the house integrates the outdoor living spaces subtly into the natural surroundings.

Starting from Scratch

A pergola resting on stone piers will become vine-covered, providing welcome shade outdoors and filtering sunlight indoors. A "rug" of contrasting stone pavers will anchor a furniture grouping here.

More Ideas: A Cottage Retreat

You don't need a large backyard to create a cozy private sanctuary that encourages de-stressing. In fact, smaller might be better. Kathy Rutherford of Santa Clarita, California, made the most of every inch of space to turn her backyard into a garden room complete with pool, spa, and outdoor kitchen. She designed the free-form rock-lined pool and spa to look like a natural pond, with a waterfall at one end.

A Cottage Retreat, Waterfall

Water tumbles over natural river rocks as it spills from the spa into the pool. The water recirculates continuously through the spa and pool to keep the waterfall flowing. A wisteria-covered pergola provides a portal to the spa, giving it a greater sense of privacy. Enclosed by a Slumpstone wall and filled with lush plantings, the backyard feels like a world away.

A Cottage Retreat, Patio

Stamped concrete decking defines a free-form shape for the floor of the outdoor room. A custom-built arbor protects the area from direct sunlight with its lattice of support beams and shade bars. Fans stir up a breeze to keep the area comfortable, and outdoor sconces provide welcoming ambient light in the evening. A misting system provides additional cooling in the summer.

A Cottage Retreat, Outdoor Kitchen

The custom-built flagstone kitchen features a stainless-steel natural-gas grill, a sink with hot and cold running water, a refrigerator, drawers, and a storage compartment. Peach-color granite makes a durable countertop that blends well with the flagstone. A tabletop heater stands on the counter to take the chill off at night.

A Cottage Retreat, Furnishings

The outdoor living room is furnished as comfortably as any indoor space but with weather-worthy furnishings, fabrics, and accessories designed for year-round outdoor use. Plump cushions and colorful pillows soften the wicker seating, table lamps provide cozy light, and a coffee table supplies a landing spot for drinks and snacks. The heart-shape luminarias hanging from the arbor beam came from Mexico and inspired the decorating scheme.

A Cottage Retreat, Garden

Along the walls that enclose her back yard, Kathy Rutherford planted a lush cottage garden filled with rose bushes, hydrangeas, lilies, flowering vines, and annuals, anchored by birch trees and Japanese maples. Her pool is more than decorative; with steps and a gentle slope, it's a full-fledged swimming pool that measures 18x11 feet.

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