Rooms Without Walls

By staff December 1, 2003

Florida homes have taken the design party outside. Lavishly appointed and leviathan in scope, outdoor living spaces now boast a world of comforts, as any tour of the region's luxury model homes will show. Designers have gone all out on these new outdoor rooms, seamlessly integrating interior and outdoor spaces with disappearing sliders and decorating motifs and adding furniture and appointments that make them feel like actual rooms.

Homeowners can step into their bathing suits and cool off in waterfalls, immense tiered fountains, lagoon-sized pools and European spas featuring seating for 12 and a swim-up bar with submerged stools. Then they can walk over to a high-tech kitchen area, seize the grill and serve up gourmet meals.

Entertainment centers with comfortable couch seating have become gathering places on the patio, where everyone can enjoy plasma televisions, surround sound, symphonic stereo systems and DVD players. Outdoor fireplaces are a nice touch, too, whether the style is a free-standing hearth and chimney amid a circular seating arrangement, two-sided and see-through fireplaces for dramatic impact, or masonry fireplaces built right into the exterior house wall.

Another feature gaining popularity in outdoor living rooms: a wood-burning oven, functional for preparing pizza and baking bread but also aesthetically pleasing with brick surrounds and charming arches. Why not whip up a pepperoni and sausage deep-dish to serve Sunday afternoons during NFL watching parties? You can grab a slice using the hand-sanded wooden paddle hanging on its fancy wrought-iron hook.

Builder John Cannon believes that upscale outdoor living rooms are here to stay. When constructing his Nariah Model at Portmarnock in Lakewood Ranch, he included a wood-burning fireplace, spa with pergola, solid wood tongue-in-groove beamed ceiling, a 70-foot pool with 14 jets, and lots of porches, plantings and pretty details. The floors are stone with tile insets, and the fireplace features imported tiles and a rough-sawn wood mantelpiece. The adjacent family room was fitted with glass sliders that meet at two corners, so that when the doors are completely recessed, the family room walls virtually disappear. The two rooms merge so indoor and outdoor spaces become one. Lavish seating and dining areas, a full kitchen, entertainment center and bar complete the space. The Nariah listed for $2.89 million, and Cannon says that the outdoor living space accounted for approximately $250,000 in building costs-an indicator of how much people are willing to pay for the outdoor living they love.

A few examples of innovative and popular products:

oSandi Poole of The Plumbing Place says customers go for Perrin & Rowe's decorative pullout faucet in satin nickel finish for $1,000, as well as for an oversized farmhouse sink, available in porcelain by Kohler for $1,100 or in Grohe's stainless steel version for $1,600.

oAccording to Patty Smith of Florida Builder Appliance, in addition to the usual side burners, warming drawers and rotisseries, clients clamor for beer tappers, keg units, refrigerator drawers and multiple sinks in varying sizes. California heaters are also in high demand and available in different finishes to complement furniture and accessories. Prices start at about $800 and go up.

o Rolling storage units in stainless steel can hold all cooking utensils, flatware and dishes. Stylish stainless steel refrigerators, water coolers and icemakers easily slide under countertops, and gorgeous wrought-iron ceiling racks display goblets and glassware.

oSome outdoor options are just for fun. Consider Jacuzzi's La Scala, an eye-popping combination hot tub and entertainment center that retails for $30,000. "The thing is a monster," says Poole, "measuring over seven feet across the tub itself and featuring multiple jets, underwater sensors and ergonomic loungers." Towering above the water is a 42-inch plasma remote-control television set with DVD, CD and AM/FM stereo system. A crystal plexi-glass sheet encases and waterproofs the unit, and the La Scala comes in solid white or solid black. "You can sink the whole thing into the ground," says Poole, "or install it at ground level and build a base around the entire system."

Sometimes homebuyers really want to personalize their outdoor spaces beyond readymade products, and when money is no object, finishes get more intricate. Jean-Pierre DeBoise of Kingstone Studio recently completed an outdoor kitchen for his client that incorporated polished blue semi-precious stones on the countertops, white stone molding with marble insets and genuine gold leaf and gold plating as accent colors. "This was a custom job for a very particular client, and I followed those wishes," explains DeBoise. "The client just wanted these specific colors and materials because they were pretty."

Artists are often commissioned to hand-paint pool tiles, tiles for the fireplace, wall murals and, suddenly, ceilings. "Exterior walls of any home can look rather flat and lackluster," explains Howard Firth of Robb & Stucky. "We hire artists to faux walls, create interest with different colors, or paint a still life right on the wall and then paint the frame as a whimsical touch. Ceilings are important, too, since the eye tends to travel upward when you are outdoors." Some of the best ceiling treatments Firth has seen include painted sky murals, foliage and a paint-layering technique that turns a boring ceiling into a textured surface that looks like bamboo.

Designers respond to the challenge of adapting existing space, too. Pamela Hastings was charged with creating an outdoor living room from a 1920s' carport with a plywood ceiling during this past year's ASID Designer Showhouse on St. Armands. Her answer? Wood molding and oversized tin squares, antiqued for an Old World feeling in warm rust and copper tones. She acid-etched the old concrete floor to simulate weathered tiles and hung custom-made valances of Sunbrella fabric to emphasize the room's arches. Her finished room earned Hastings a write-up and photo in Florida Design magazine.

"The patio used to be the place for plastic furniture and a few potted plants," says Hastings. "Today, people want to go outside and be very comfortable. Also, they wish to create a beautiful spot to gaze upon when they're indoors looking out through all that glass. Surfaces on the lanai that were previously ignored, like empty walls, are getting treated. I'm seeing more and more decorative tile work, painted accents and murals. I also like decorative pieces on walls, say, sculptures in stone and wood, or an architectural piece of metal."

Improved products, new lines and better fabrics have certainly opened the doors to creating outdoor living space with gorgeous furnishings, floor treatments and lighting. Firth likes using panels of portieres tied back to delineate and soften outdoor spaces. Sheer gauze draperies around an outdoor terrace extend the master bedroom beyond its walls. Canvas panels fixed at top and bottom with smart metal grommets solve wind problems for waterfront properties.

"I can even use fringes and tassels to dress up an outdoor room, because the materials and fabrications have improved so dramatically," says Firth. "Everything can be hosed down and rinsed off or tossed into the washing machine."

Typically, outdoor rooms will have floors done in pavers, tile or stone. Hottest picks right now are travertine floors in cool neutrals or antiqued limestone laid in a pattern of large, variable rectangles with wider grout lines. Stone flooring is going to cost about $18 per square foot, but promises a lifetime of beauty and durability.

To warm up the stone, Firth chooses weather-resistant rugs that resemble sisal and look wonderful with any furniture style. Outdoor rugs are available in many sizes and provide distinction between dining area, seating groups, lounging space.

Outdoor rooms are illuminated by mounted wall sconces in metal and glass, oil lamps on the tables and some of the new decorative table lamps powered by battery. Indirect lighting from the home's interior can be positioned to cast illumination outside, and one of the newest trends is to move floor lamps outside for entertaining and simply carry them back inside when the party is over. Ceiling fans have also come a very long way, says Firth. Today's models offer great style and tremendous choice. "We don't have to buy plastic anymore," he adds.

Furniture provides the finishing touch, and upscale lines such as Pavilion, Brown Jordan, Century and Lane have come out with entire catalogs of pieces created for outdoor living. Rolled-arm sofas, oversized chaises with plump cushions, comfortable ottomans and fabrics in solids and patterns that can withstand Florida's heat and humidity give homeowners excellent selection. Furniture frames are being done in teak, aluminum, wicker, cane and metal and more, handsomely crafted and designed for durability.

Demand for these lines became so great that Robb & Stucky expanded its outdoor living section into a separate store. Robb & Stucky Patio features top-of-the line outdoor furniture in styles ranging from traditional upholstered looks to contemporary minimalist silhouettes. "New lines and products are actually making it easier to spend time outdoors," says Firth. "The furniture is comfortable, the fabrics can take wet swimsuits, and the kitchens are as well-designed as anything you can find indoors. Even given Sarasota summers, you can live outside all year long."

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