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Designing an Outdoor Kitchen

July 26, 2009

The first outdoor kitchen I ever helped build was in San Diego in 1998. They were just starting to become popular again (remember the ones from the late 70s?), and I thought they were the coolest thing ever. Fast forward to today, and they’re still a wildly popular option. After all, northern Virginia has a great climate for outdoor entertaining, and with a couple of patio heaters you can almost eke out year-round use from your space. There are some big considerations to think about.

BBQ Grill closeup

Base Materials

There are two primary means of building an outdoor kitchen. The most common (and my preferred method) is to pour a footer at frost depth and build up with concrete block. The resulting structure is then capped with a countertop and the sides are typically covered with stucco, tile, or stone. Built properly, a masonry kitchen should last for decades.

  • Advantages- durability, strength
  • Disadvantages- cost, difficulty of construction

The other common method of building outdoor kitchens is to create a frame from steel studs (usually 2x4s), cover the structure with concrete backerboard, and top with the countertop. The sides are also stuccoed, tiled, or veneered with stone, although it’s more common to see man-made stone veneers used. Kitchens built this way don’t require as aggressive a footer, and will often be built on a 4 inch concrete slab. This makes them much simpler to add as a retrofit to an existing landscape.

  • Advantages- lower cost, less difficult to build
  • Disadvantages- not as indestructible as solid masonry, framing openings to support heavy components can be more challenging than building up openings in masonry

Most outdoor kitchens you see in barbecue or pool store showrooms are steel framed; most of the ones you see as part of a larger landscape installation are masonry.

Countertops

If you ignore the sustainability issues, granite is probably the number one choice. It’s dense, weather-resistant, heat-resistant, and gives a lot of service without demanding a lot of care. Manmade alternatives like Silestone can give you a similar look and functionality. Polished concrete countertops are gorgeous, but require a little more maintenance (sealing) due to their porous nature. I’m least likely to advocate using porous stones like flagstone or sandstone for countertops. While they can represent a large cost savings, they’re very easy to stain. Consider the components of a great evening cooking with friends- burger, brats, and red wine- and think of what those could do to a light-colored, highly absorptive surface.

Grills

How much do you want to spend? As with a lot of other appliances, brand names will cost you. Viking and Wolf make beautiful grill units, and you’ll pay a premium for the nameplate. I’ve actually found that the Turbo Grill, from Barbecues Galore, is a great value for the money.

So, what about taking your exisiting grill and modifying it to be a built-in? It’s not really that simple. A drop-in grill (one that was manufactured to be installed into a countertop) has all the proper mounting hardware required to safely install it into a masonry or framed opening. A free-standing grill doesn’t have any of those mounting points, so it’s not like you can just cut the legs off and call it good. If you have a freestanding grill and don’t want to spend the money for a new drop-in unit, you could always design the space in such a way that you’d wheel the grill into an alcove. It won’t look as seamless as a drop-in grill, but you’ll still get the use of the countertops to either side.

Lighting

Don’t understimate the importance of task and area lighting! While I do it, I’m not a fan of holding a flashlight in my teeth while attempting to view my instant-read meat thermometer. You can buy low-voltage lights that can be wired into your landscape lighting system and mounted to the countertop. Focus Industries makes my favorite fixture for this application.

Accessories/ Appliances

The options are limitless- you can buy side burners, refrigerators, trash compactors, warming drawers, almost anything you can imagine, suitable for outdoor use. Every cook has different needs, so I won’t even begin to discuss options, but I will say one thing: don’t skimp on the outlets. Once the unit is built, the patio is built around it, and the landscape project is done, it gets a lot more difficult (and expensive) to add that outlet for the rotisserie, fridge, or blender.

The most important thing to consider with an outdoor kitchen is how you plan on using it. Many of the same principles used in designing indoor kitchens come into play outside, and if your space doesn’t function well, it’s nothing more than a costly pile of stone. Plan ahead, and you’ll have an outdoor kitchen that brings your family years of enjoyment.

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