What goes into planning an outdoor kitchen?

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What creates a great BBQ? A warm atmosphere, delicious food and an amazing built in grill setup of course! Building the right outdoor kitchen for your picture-perfect barbecue is easy and can fit within your budget, if you plan it the smart way.

We asked Ted Cleary from Studio Cleary: Landscape Architects in Charlotte, North Carolina, about the ever-rising popularity of elaborate outdoor kitchens. “Outdoor grilling has been a trend since the postwar years of suburban affluence, but it seems to have really accelerated in the past 10-15 years.” Cleary believes this is a result of several factors coming together: larger and grander homes with correspondingly sophisticated backyard spaces, a real explosion in cooking-as-art as a new hobby and manufacturers responding to the marketplace with a wide array of high-quality components in sleek and stylish stainless steel, ranging from grills to warming drawers to beverage coolers to pizza ovens. The outdoor chef today can enjoy every bit of luxury and convenience as indoors plus the magic of cooking under the sky.  

From more of a lifestyle perspective, Cleary says the most successful outdoor kitchen meets these criteria:

It looks as though it was actually designed along with the original house in terms of material choices and architectural details, rather than as a cobbled-on afterthought.

It should apply the same functional considerations, such as "work triangle" and toe-kick space under islands, as your home's main kitchen so that it's a pleasure to use.

And, every bit is important, it should be integrated thoughtfully into your yard's overall landscape design, so that family and guests can enjoy easy interaction with the cook, surrounded by inviting patio space and refreshing plants.      

To The Drawing Board

Before calling in a designer, you can measure your outdoor space to find the best possible location. An important component according to Cleary is the function of design: adequate counter and storage space.  He believes you'll really appreciate the thought you and your designer will put into making sure you have plenty of room for food prep (generally one foot on one side of the grill and two feet on the other at a minimum), storage with both open shelves and closed cupboards and such mundane things as a place for paper towels and tossing trash.

Start by taking into consideration how much space on your deck, lawn or outdoor patio you have to build your outdoor kitchen. You want to make sure that there is enough space to make it a comfortable cooking environment, convenient for the chef and that its location is away from other outdoor features including gardens, trees and swimming pools.

Here are the guidelines to follow to map out the space you’ll need:

- Start with the estimated width of the built-in grill and sink you're considering.

- Add 36 inches of workspace on either side of the grill and any additional burners.

- Add 18 inches to 24 inches of open space on either side of the sink.

- If you're including an eating counter, allow 24 inches of width per stool and 15 inches of leg room.

- If you're going to have an outdoor dining table and chairs, allow a perimeter of 36 inches to 42 inches beyond the edge of the dining table, so people can walk behind the chairs. Make sure you'll be able to place the table well away from any stairs.

Basic counter layout designs include:

- Large “L“ shape—a large cooking section, a prepping station, and counter

- Small “L” shape—a small cooking section, prepping station, and counter

- Stand-alone counter—a half circle serving counter and cooking section

- Separated area, such as curved outdoor kitchen that is separated from other outdoor living space

Keep in mind that your outdoor kitchens can be placed on:

- Concrete patio, sidewalk or walkway

- Pool deck

- Outdoor “concrete carpets”

Putting Together A Wishlist

This is the fun part. Before calling in designers, list all the bells and whistles needed to create your ideal space. Your main component is the grill, the centerpiece of virtually every outdoor kitchen around which all other features will be added, says Cleary. So you want to give considerable priority to which model and brand you want. If the sky's the limit, Blaze, Viking, Wolf and Kalamazoo get high marks for enhancing the cooking experience and making a statement, but there are many mid-range brands that will do just fine.  

Ted suggests that you make sure there's "enough grill" to accommodate the occasional large crowd, in terms of BTUs, grill-top space and perhaps a side burner, but don't pay for more size and power than you'll really need.

The more features the grill has, the more enriched your grilling outdoor experience will be. But that's just the start. There are the other important components of crafting the perfect outdoor kitchen:

Refrigeration: Choices include a fridge, wine cooler, freezer and ice maker

Storage: A useful set up with cabinets—think about whether an open set-up is fine or if you'd rather have doors and drawers.

Other cooking equipment: A pizza oven, double-burner outdoor cooktops, a warming unit and a ventilation hood are possibilities

Additional features: Depending on how you want to use your outdoor kitchen, how long a "season" you want to have and the specifics of your climate, consider lighting, patio heaters, a dishwasher and a fireplace or fire pit. Also remember the necessities like insect control and trash bins.

Working With A Contractor

To make your vision a reality, the next step is searching for the right contractor for your project. Finding a landscape architect or designer for your outdoor kitchen is easy because there are many specialists. The secret is finding an experienced designer who understands your concept and can execute it.

  • Review credentials, successful jobs they've completed and homeowner reviews. Membership in the American Society of Landscape Architects means a professional has attained a certain standard in the field.
  • Meet at least three contractors and compare estimates. Many contractors will consult with you and provide a free estimate that includes a detailed schedule, costs and tasks.
  • A vital component is making sure designers provide warranties on the job and the appliances installed in your outdoor kitchen.

The dramatic outdoor kitchen pictured above is from the Quaker Smith Point Residence in Shelburne, Vermont. It was designed by H. Keith Wagner Partnership of Burlington and is an ASLA 2012 Honor Award recipient. 

The outdoor fridge and the side burner from Blaze, center, are great wishlist items to customize your outdoor space.