Patios, porches and decks get high-tech

Men laying new hardwood flooring

Back in the day, the sounds of sweet music coming from speakers disguised as rocks was enough to impress even the most tech-savvy of your backyard guests.

Not anymore.

Outdoor living spaces have become as high-tech as your all-American family room. Theater systems, outdoor kitchens, Internet connectivity and state-of-the-art security features have taken the backyard patio to a whole new level. The reasons for this popularity spike are many. For some, improving their home is a way of life. Once they have turned their attention from the indoors out, homeowners want the newest and best features, of which advances in technology have provided numerous options. For others, the time when they could jump on an airplane to some luxurious locale is long gone. So instead, they seek to create that vacation type of atmosphere in their backyards.

Yet, maybe the most common reason behind the popularity of these high-tech outdoor living spaces is pretty simple. “People are tending to stay closer to home for their entertainment,” says David Walker of Magnolia Outdoor Living in Atlanta. “A dollar spent on comfort and usability for an outdoor entertainment area gives long-term rewards. An investment in home entertainment lasts for years.”

Creating a fun and interactive outdoor space where homeowners can entertain all of their friends is the goal now. People want to gather and mingle with one another not only online but also offline, whether it’s a lunchtime barbecue or a late-night swimming party. “People spend plenty of time inside due to work or the routine requirements that having a family demands,” says Bobby Parks, owner of Peachtree Decks and Porches in Alpharetta. “Time spent outside can be time away from all the headaches and stress that come with life in today’s world. People can slow down, regain their composure and find themselves, at least for a given period of time.”

Undoubtedly, the chance to create an entertainment oasis just a few steps from the back door is enticing.  And luckily, transforming outdoor spaces to true living spaces can be done virtually within any budget thanks to an increasing number of outdoor living options.

Tune in—outside

Once upon a time, there was one centralized TV that the entire family would gather around. Now, TVs not only can be found in the family room, but also in the kitchen, the bedroom and, yes, the outdoor patio. And when it comes to televisions, it seems that bigger is always better.

“Many people want to watch their favorite sporting events or TV shows outside and still enjoy grilling outside as well,” says Frank Pologruto, president of Decks & More in Smyrna. “We’re truly seeing a tremendous move to the total outdoor living space.” Several local contractors say that 80 to 85 percent of the jobs they take on now are wired for flat-panel TVs and satellite radio. “The majority of our decks today incorporate a TV, whereas just a few years ago, only about half did,” says Dave Bielicki, president of DecksAtlanta in Cumming.

More and more outdoor-rated LCD flat-screen televisions by a number of high-end manufacturers are coming out in the marketplace. Projection screens can also be installed to come down from the soffit of the home.

Hidden  projectors  can be tucked away in a compartment on the patio. Want something a bit more portable? Inflatable projector screens can now actually offer a high-quality image.

Stir it up

Grills aren’t just for cooking hot dogs and hamburgers anymore. As the gourmet-cooking trend continues to rise in popularity, the outdoor kitchen plays a vital role in meals—especially when entertaining guests. And to keep from spending the entire evening running back and forth into the kitchen to get the ketchup or spices, outdoor cabinetry and appliances have now found a home in any corner of the patio. Weatherproof but luxurious cabinets, sinks, refrigerators and, of course, the grill can come together on spectacular cooking islands.

“The latest in outdoor kitchens is the large ‘Mac-Daddy’ grills,” Pologruto says. “It always seems that every year the manufacturers are adding or improving the latest model.

Creating your space

Certainly, equipping your outdoor space with all of this high-tech “stuff” requires, well, … space. “The first things I ask a potential customer are, ‘How do you entertain? For how many people at a time? What are your interests, and what style do you like?’” says Lou Biasi, office manager of Decks & Porches Unlimited in Buford. Most of the time, the answers lead to a larger deck or porch. “The trend in decks is expansion, creative design, increased functionality and use of alternate materials,” Bielicki says. “Decks are larger and designed as part of the overall backyard space by creating circulation to a pool, spa or other high-traffic areas of the yard. If a deck is high enough to walk under, the space below the deck is being finished with pavers or concrete and a dry below system with fans. This creates a second outdoor space and doubles the function of the deck.”

Building a high-tech outdoor living area also requires money. Although with so much to choose from, it might not be as much as you might think. “Along with electronic gear becoming more portable and rugged, there are advances in composite deck materials,” Walker says. “Faux finishes are making concrete floors more attractive. Pressure-treated lumber is less toxic than it was just a few years ago. Screening can be far more durable and attractive with newer materials. Under-deck ceilings are advancing in design and ease of installation.”

Looking to protect all of your outdoor gadgets? Check out the many lines of motorized and remote-control sun-shading screens. With the touch of a button, you can transform a high-tech outdoor living area into an enclosed patio to protect against both the sun and nature’s lovable but pesky creatures. Under-deck ceilings also offer excellent protection.

To prevent water from penetrating under-deck ceilings, Rainaway Deck Drain Systems in Marietta applies an industrial-grade silicon sealer to the area where the gutter meets the house. Strategic placement of electronics also helps prevent weather-related damage. “Put [the TV] in a corner where rain can’t blow in from the side, and protect it with a case,” says Rainaway’s Jeff Butler.

You should also make sure that any equipment you decide to use in your outdoor space is made specifically to withstand the elements. Indoor products are designed much differently than outdoor products—and you should know the difference. Look for products that are specifically rated for the outdoors, and consider how you’ll keep them safe. “We build weather-resistant cabinets that fold around the TV and lock for security,” Bielicki says. “We integrate the cabinet design with the deck for a seamless flow.” For another option, Pologruto recommends keeping the flexible cover that comes with the TV and slipping it on when not in use for added protection and to keep the unit out of sight.

In a housing market that is keeping more and more people in their homes longer than they had planned, outdoor living areas offer yet another inspirational space to transform and use to its full extent. The possibilities are endless. You’ll never look at your backyard the same way again.

Illuminating Ideas

So, you’re ready to buy a fire pit for the patio, a new grill to sit just outside the back door and the biggest television known to man to set up just beyond the pool. But what happens when it gets dark, and you can’t see any of these elements very well? Once again, manufacturers have answered the call, offering lighting features that will help illuminate every homeowner’s outdoor living space, no matter how late the party lasts. One example is TimberTech’s DeckLites, a low-voltage system built into the railing that offers a clean look while effectively increasing safety.

Get Support

Inspired to build a deck that holds all of your new outdoor toys? Be careful. Some of the most high-tech components of an outdoor living space can also be the heaviest. When using a deck area, you must begin with a safe and solid substructure that will withstand the weight of everything from stone countertops to oversized grills. Also, make sure to consult with a licensed contractor who is familiar with local building codes. The severity of your climate will determine how deep support materials need to be buried into the ground, as well as the best types of materials to use during the building process.

In Control

You find yourself outside, under the stars, sipping a fruity drink through a straw. And while you may have reached the ultimate level of relaxation, chances are that the last thing you want to do is get up out of your chair to change the channel or turn off the fan. Manufacturers feel your pain and have come up with a number of options in universal remote controls that can serve as a hub for turning on and off all electronics that have remote capabilities, including outdoor lighting.

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