We are a divided country. Most of us have picked a side, we have dug our feet into the ground and we are ready for a fight. I want to be the peacemaker. Making peace kind of goes against my Italian heritage but I’m going to give it a shot. My focus is going to be on something that I hope will enable us to take a deep breath and relax, something I hope we can all agree upon. The subject is Outdoor Living. We all want it, it doesn’t matter what your income bracket is, where you live, or where you come from. Outdoor Living is a hot commodity and continues to get hotter year after year. This is great news and should make masons very excited and happy.

Back in the day, I guess I can say that now because I’m pretty much a crusty old middle aged mason, when I worked with my cousins and uncle we built a lot of “outdoor living” areas, but we never gave them a name. Wood and coal masonry barbecues were popular along with some kind of outdoor fire feature. These jobs were for the select few that could afford it, but over the years we did do our fair share of these types of jobs. Fast forward to today and outdoor rooms, kitchens, bars, living rooms, dining rooms, and spas are attainable to more people than ever, and more people than ever want them.

It doesn’t matter if you live in a ten thousand square foot home overlooking the water, a two thousand square foot ranch in suburbia, or a small condo unit in the city, the opportunities are limitless even if you are on a tight budget. Outdoor living has become so popular that there are new companies entering the marketplace every day with all kinds of outdoor furniture, bar sets, gas cooking units, pizza ovens, hot tubs, paving products, pergolas, outdoor lighting, just to name a few. Even the large box stores are jumping on board. The best thing about this boom is that it has expanded our customer base and has been a large part of the growth of our business.

When I was out in the field with my cousin Derek, outdoor living was probably 50% of our business. The majority of those jobs were for customers that wanted outdoor living areas that they had been planning to do for a very long time. Some did all of the legwork for us and were very prepared with a design from a landscape architect or designer. We just priced it and got to work. There were other customers where we came up with a plan that we helped design by walking their backyards and spending time here at Plymouth Quarries, educating them about products and installation. I believe one of the most important parts of making your outdoor rooms become a reality is having a plan. If you are doing a large-scale design with grades, high-end plantings, and all the bells and whistles, then you definitely need the services of a landscape architect. They can help with a very detailed and specific design along with working hand and hand with the subs from the beginning to the final completion of the job. You can also work with a landscape designer along with a qualified mason. Working with a qualified mason and designer can save you a lot of headaches. The biggest mistakes I have seen over the years are with homeowners who don’t have a plan. I have had to take out existing patios and planting areas that were fairly new because they were in the wrong place and it didn’t fit with the final design. Once you start ripping things out and moving them around your budget tends to explode. Having a plan doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be prints or expensive drawings. You just have to have an understanding with your mason of the process.

You should have an answer to three simple questions. What is going to happen? How you are going to get there? And most importantly, how much is this going to cost? Everyone involved has to be on the same page on the specifics of the design, the function of that space, the products you are going to use to build it, and the logistics of installation. I have seen some major mistakes and ballooning budgets occur by just winging it.

One mistake you can make is getting attached to certain products. There are so many people that fall in love with beautiful stone for patios, walls, countertops, etc., that can eat into your budget very quickly and leave you with nothing left for the rest of the project. When you know exactly what products are right for your project, the size of the living area, and function of your outdoor design, all of these become your map. Having this plan gives you some options. You can install your outdoor living space all at once or over a period of a few months or a few years. I have done many jobs where we did the patio in the spring and finished the fireplace or pizza oven in the fall. Having the “plan” allowed us to know the exact layout of the entire space so it was easy to focus on one section at a time, which in turn allowed us to work within the customers’ budget.

This is a great time in the world of outdoor living because the product options are endless. I spend a lot of my time researching products. There are good products out there as well as a lot of junk. It has become a necessity for me to keep an eye out for the “new thing” because we want to be able to give our customers the best option available in the marketplace. Manufacturers put a lot of time and money into bringing new grills, pergola kits, pizza ovens, fire pits, furniture, and all kinds of outdoor accessories to the marketplace because the demand is so high.

Educating my clients, architects, and designers on new products on the market is another very important part of the process. Architects and designers don’t have time to research everything that is available to them, so that is my job, whether I help run a supply yard or I’m a mason. Trying to be a wealth of knowledge builds trust both in working with the homeowners and the professionals in charge of the job.

The other benefit is by the time I actually show up to start the job everyone involved is on the same page and have very few questions unless we have to deal with some unforeseen issues that are always part of our world of construction. Helping to educate those we are working with takes time out of your life on nights or weekends, but in my opinion, it’s time well spent.

One of the worst possible scenarios is when you begin the job and there is an architect, designer, or homeowner standing over your shoulder asking things like why are you digging here? Hey that stone you’re installing is not the color I want, or those pavers that were just delivered are ugly and I want you to send them back! Have you ever been in a situation where someone decides they don’t like a certain product after it’s been completely installed? Then they ask you to rip it out. Not a fun situation to be in. I’m sure all of us have some of those horror stories we can share that have happened over our careers, but hopefully years of experience have made them few and far between. As you know, no matter how you try and avoid certain situations there will be times it’s going to happen no matter what. For me, educated clients are the best clients. It takes a little more effort, but the payoff is big.

As I mentioned earlier having an outdoor living area in your home is a reality for most people and it doesn’t matter the zip code you live in. In the real estate business, it has become a necessity for buyers. Within the high-end market, it’s a must. But now even starter homes sell a lot faster with some kind of outdoor living area. Realtor friends of mine have told me that homes with some kind of outdoor design garner the higher prices in the neighborhood. That’s a great selling point for us in the masonry and hardscape business. Customers should see a nice return on investment when they hire us to design and install the outdoor living area of their dreams.

The old saying “your home is your castle” could not be more relevant today. There is nothing like having some kind of outdoor room in your home and most of us want more than just a patio with a gas grill. Creating atmosphere is key to any design. If you have a huge backyard that is one big flat grass area you want your outdoor living space to incorporate some plantings to add dimension, maybe trees for shade or privacy, and natural products like boulders to soften concrete paving areas. I have used natural stone products mixed with concrete pavers and interlocking walls in many of my designs. They add a great element and are cost effective. If you have a smaller yard, think about creating a room that feels like a cozy comfortable room inside of your house. I have built many small outdoor living areas surrounded by large privacy trees, quaint patios and outlined with decorative plants.

Believe it or not some of the best designs I have done have been in small areas. They tend to be very comfortable and inviting. The key is not to try and over design or fill it with too many things. My experience has been the simpler the design the better the design. Don’t get me wrong there is nothing like a high end outdoor living area with all the bells and whistles such as pools, large kitchens, fully stocked bars with a kegerator, wine cooler, and a beautiful stone counter top and not to mention the huge fireplace with comfortable furniture, a custom pizza oven with an Italian flare, maybe a water feature, and an overhead covering. Those are the types of jobs that are few and far between, but when you get the opportunity to design and install them they can be a challenge and a lot of fun at the same time.

Whether we go big, somewhere in the middle, or we keep it small, we have options. There are so many different options in paving products, natural stone in from around the country and from around the world. Concrete pavers in so many shapes, sizes, and textures priced for any kind of budget. I’m just talking about the patio areas; I haven’t even gotten into the options for wall products both natural and man-made.

One of the side effects of the growth of our business in the outdoor living segment is that it has made us get into other areas. We started to do our own plant designs, educating ourselves on specific plants and understanding how to use them in different areas. What type plants love high sun? Which ones do better in the shade? The more we did the better we got in incorporating all types of landscape materials in our outdoor living designs. One of our goals was to have color in the spring, summer, and fall. Before getting into the landscape side we realized over time that there was a lot of money we left on the table.

Getting into simple landscape designs also had other benefits as well. It was a great break on our bodies. Taking a day or two off from doing the heavy lifting and spend time spreading loam, doing plantings, and topping it off with some mulch was something we looked forward to. Let’s be honest we can build the most amazing patios or outdoor rooms but they never look as good as they can without the plantings, outdoor lighting, and furniture. The little details really do make a difference. When we built an outdoor room for someone who loves to cook we do things like planting an herb garden within arms reach from the cooking area. There are even times when we add herbs in various designs to help create atmosphere. There is nothing like hanging outside on a beautiful night with the smells of lemon grass, rosemary, or basil in the air. It sounds crazy but it’s a great added touch. Creating atmosphere is key.

The part of the country you live in dictates certain choices in product and design. Softer stones don’t do well here in the northeast with the moisture and freeze-thaw cycles. Especially some of the softer limestones and marbles. The style of your home also dictates the type of design of the space, rustic old world, modern, or ultra contemporary.

There is definitely an upside to living in warm weather climates. You get to enjoy them year round. I don’t have that luxury living in the Boston area. There is not a lot of time to enjoy my outdoor “Tuscan” pizza oven area but I do have something to look forward to in those cold dark winter months. I truly enjoy the time spent in my outdoor living space making great pizza (if I do say so myself) drinking great wine (bold reds), and most importantly creating great memories with family and friends. It does make me feel like my home is truly my castle! Just in case my wife is reading this by no means that I am suggesting I’m King. Just wanted to clear that up.

Words: Dean Marsico
Photos: Dean Marsico