Home Touch by Mary G. Pepitone

Patio Appeal

As the weather gets colder, the use of the backyard patio is heating up. Homeowners who want to create an entertaining space outside -- even into the winter -- prize the patio's appeal. Although summertime is prime patio-time, a patio can be more than a fair-weather friend to those who want to entertain during the coronavirus pandemic, says Emily McGee, spokesperson for the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association (HPBA), based in Arlington, Virginia.

"Anecdotally, at the HPBA, we have been seeing home trends showing people were increasingly using outdoor living areas prior to the coronavirus outbreak," she said. "The pandemic has only accelerated people's interest in being able to entertain outside, due to open air and physical distancing guidelines."

A patio is an outside concrete or paved area usually located in a home's backyard. While wooden decks tend to feel more like an extension of a house, a patio integrates more with the landscape, because it is poured or paved onto the ground itself. Custom-built patios have evolved from mere concrete slabs into sophisticated outdoor rooms that really cook, with outdoor kitchens and fireplaces.

Creating an outdoor oasis on the patio extends the entertaining season into colder weather. "An outdoor kitchen, fireplace and outdoor furniture are amenities on a patio that make you want to spend time there," McGee said. "And, manufacturers are always creating more products that make it easier to create an outdoor family room."

Concrete is still one of the most popular materials used to construct a patio. However, the iconic, gray square slab of the 1950s has evolved into a concrete patio with decorative stamping and staining. Before pouring concrete or laying stone or brick, make sure you're working with competent contractors who have experience installing patios. After the design is drawn, the site needs to be prepared, so that the patio slopes away from the house and drains properly.

A patio should be built with outside-rated bricks, tiles and pavers because these materials have less than a 3% water absorption rate, which means they won't crumble during numerous freeze-thaw cycles in colder climates. In addition to using outside-rated materials, it's important to use waterproofing membranes, especially if materials are bonded to concrete.

Before a patio pour, make sure you have a permit (if required) and a detailed plan in place for where outdoor features will be built-in or placed, McGee says.

"The design of a home patio depends on the space and how it will be used," she said. "When planning for a patio, the first step is to NOT be overeager and buy the patio furniture first."

Fire and Ice

Outdoor fire features are a growing segment of fireplace installations and a natural way to create a warm space for gathering or entertaining on a patio.

A patio's design can be metaphorically set ablaze with a fireplace's flames ignited either through wood or gas. With enough planning, a fireplace can be located nearly anywhere, but before becoming consumed with an inferno of ideas, it's best to involve a professional installer certified by the National Fireplace Institute (NFICertified.org).

No matter where a fireplace is located outside, expect it to bring an elemental experience to your patio. "I think being drawn to a fire is primal, " McGee said. "There can be snow falling, but you can still be warmed by a fire."

Today's gas-burning fireplaces are made to look beautiful with or without the flames dancing, whether it's turned on or off. A dramatic log set can be arranged in a vertical bonfire or flames can emerge from fire-safe rocks or colored crystals to emulate an Eastern design influence.

A Brisk Barbecue

For many who entertain, "eating out" can mean walking into their backyard outdoor kitchen. The centerpiece for any outdoor cooking is the grill, but there are many kinds available for different types of cookery: smoker; pizza oven; Argentinian-style 'Gaucho' grill; or Japanese-inspired Kamado ceramic grill.

"Many people 'winter-cue' all season long," McGee said. "If a homeowner barbecues and smokes year-round, it can be more important to have an outdoor kitchen setup with countertop space to handle hot, smoked meats coming off the grill."

Any appliances, countertops or cabinetry in an outdoor kitchen must also stand up to both steaming and/or freezing temperatures. Be certain that any appliance installed outdoors is manufactured for outside usage and marked with an UL (Underwriters Laboratory) seal approving it for outdoor use.

Fixed overhead structures or pergolas are also popular on a patio and give a sense of an outside room by creating atmosphere, privacy and protection from the outdoor elements. Outfitted with a big screen television, this space can be a place where people bring their entertaining A-game.

Sit a (Cold) Spell

Patio furniture featuring chairs, tables, chaise lounges, outdoor sofas and umbrellas can come in a variety of materials, ranging from metal and wood to rattan and resin.

If entertaining outside is part of a homeowner's holiday plan, your furniture can also bring the heat. "There are any number of fire-pit tables and patio heaters that will keep the chill out of the air," McGee said. "If you have a gas fire pit, special accommodations will need to be made in the planning phase of your patio construction and make sure you follow manufacturer's guidelines when it comes to setting up patio heaters."

McGee says it's good to have a furniture layout of the patio before purchasing anything. "Entertaining on the patio doesn't need to be high-tech," she said. "You can encourage people to bring their own lawn chair and blanket, because with a fire going and food on the patio, you can be cozy outside, too."

Patio Points

-- Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association, HPBA.org, click "Locate a Retailer"