Homeowners are spending more time and energy on their homes and properties than ever before. With the DIY movement on television and the big box home improvement chains, folks are showing great interest in creating and enhancing their “outdoor living areas”. In some cases, homeowners are trying to do the work themselves. However, for the work that we are typically involved in, professional stone and brick masons are employed to help construct a vision that has been created by the landscape architect or designer and the homeowner. That vision usually involves the incorporation of a variety of gathering spaces and use areas, focal points, and specialty elements to extend a homeowner’s interior to the outside spaces.
Fire pits and fireplaces have become one of the most popular improvements in recent years. Fire pits come in all shapes and sizes, from the traditional round design constructed of fieldstone with a bluestone cap, to rustic salvaged granite slabs pieced together in a square, to long rectangular fire pit kits incorporating a concrete board base structure with thin stone veneer. Homeowners need to decide if they want a wood-burning fire pit or if they would prefer a fire pit that utilizes natural or propane gas. The wood-burning fire pit is appealing to folks who enjoy building fires and who want to smell the burning wood. Gas kits are appropriate for homeowners who want to be able to enjoy a warm fire with the flip of a switch or the push of a button, as well as be able to switch it off just as easily when it is time to call it a night.
We have found that if you are looking for some real heat from your gas fire pit, it is important to use a fire pit kit that has a capacity of at least 90,000 BTUs, if not more. Pleas note that cast concrete and metal fire pits are also relatively common, but they are usually installed by landscape contractors, and not necessarily by those highly skilled in stone and brick masonry. Keep in mind that in some regions, wood burning in an open fire pit may be prohibited.
Like fire pits, outdoor fireplaces are helping folks stretch their outdoor living seasons. Outdoor fireplaces can also be designed in different sizes and with different features, and they are typically a much larger investment than that of a fire pit. When designing an outdoor fireplace, it is common for designers to incorporate a pergola or shade structure to help complete the feel of the “outdoor room”. While many fireplaces are built with CMU blocks and full 4-6” thick stone veneer, it is becoming more common for masons to build the core of a fireplace utilizing concrete panel kits, such as those by Isokern, and finish the surface with thin stone veneer.
This typically reduces the labor time. Still, fireboxes for the fireplaces are typically built with firebrick and the flue is constructed with clay elements. I think that constructing a firebox that drafts and functions successfully can be a real challenge, so we appreciate it greatly when we work with a mason who can do this well. When it comes to the appearance of an outdoor fireplace, there are a variety of materials that can be incorporated.
In New England, we tend to utilize native fieldstone for the main body of the fireplace, and then consider incorporating salvaged granite or bluestone accents for elements such as the hearth, lintel, mantle, and chimney capstones. Whether a homeowner chooses a fire pit or a fireplace, a well-designed and constructed fire feature can be key in creating an outdoor space that draws people in, and helps folks enjoy t heir property.
Outdoor kitchens are another landscape feature that has become a “must-have” by more and more homeowners. These elements are usually incorporated with a stone and/or brick terrace or wood deck. While wooden grill surrounds are not uncommon, most folks prefer to have their outdoor kitchens built with stone. As mentioned earlier with fire features, outdoor kitchens are typically constructed with a CMU core and fieldstone veneer. However, concrete board core grill surround kits are becoming more popular with masons for their ease of installation.
For countertops, granite and bluestone are still the most highly-favored materials, although concrete is increasing in popularity. Finishes can still vary for countertops, but are typically honed or thermal-treated. Sealing the countertop seasonally will help preserve the life of the countertop and minimize staining from oils and beverage spills. The days of the old thin metal kettle grill and bag of charcoal have certainly evolved.
The centerpiece of the outdoor kitchen is now the commercial grade stainless steel grill, as one would expect, which is typically either gas or propane-fueled. In recent seasons, we have had folks want us to incorporate a ceramic/kamado wood grill, in order to enjoy wood-grilled fare. Features of the outdoor kitchen go far beyond the grill, however. Gas side burners are often desired by homeowners who want to boil corn-on-the-cob, lobster, anything else that can be prepared in a pot. Warming trays and drawers are an effective way to keep food warm when cycling the different courses on and off of the grill.
Outdoor sinks have become a standard for the well-apportioned outdoor kitchen, and often paired with a cocktail center. As the social aspect has become more important in the grill area, anything related to beverages has grown also. Outdoor refrigerators and wine coolers are now becoming popular, as are icemakers, cooler bins and even “kegerators”. We always feel that a trash and recycling bin is an important element in an outdoor kitchen. The newest element on the scene is the pizza oven, which can come in various forms, from a stand-alone stainless steel unit to a traditional clay oven shell, which is veneered with stone.
Since we all know that all parties end up in the kitchen, giving the outdoor kitchen the feel of its beloved interior cousin is something that has become a common design goal. In doing that, we have found ourselves designing in “islands” with stone bases and concrete or stone table tops. In addition, stone countertop peninsulas for additional bar height seating is a way to accommodate more people in the outdoor kitchen area. Electrical outlets are designed into stone backsplashes to accommodate phone chargers, blenders, additional task lighting, as well as portable speakers.
Water elements in the garden are another area where stonemasons are practicing their craft. While this may mean a stone fountain basin to most folks, and a fountain is certainly an element that we have designed and had constructed, I am thinking more along the lines of a raised spa. While masons are typically responsible for installing the stone coping on a pool, their stonework on raised spas is more visible in the landscape, and serves not only as a functional pool, but also as a water feature and focal point. Fieldstone veneer is mortared to the exterior gunite spa walls, which are typically capped with bluestone or granite coping. The coping usually has a thermal finish on the top surface and an “eased” edge treatment on the sides.
Stone retaining walls and steps, while serving the purpose of retaining grade and providing access from one space to another, are also being designed and constructed as aesthetic elements. Stonewalls have long been desired as garden elements, and can vary in appearance from loose, dry-laid farmer-type walls to tightly-fitted architectural-type landscape walls. Salvaged granite accents are often incorporated to add interest and give the wall a more aged appearance. Steps may be constructed of fieldstone risers with bluestone tread, full-depth bluestone, as well as salvaged granite slabs. We have even designed lawn steps stone risers for an even more unique garden experience. A stone “moon gate” is an intriguing focal point in a garden path that we recently designed and had constructed.
In residential gardens, landscape architects and masons are collaborating to create features that enable and inspire homeowners to experience their property more deeply, to spend more time outside in the “shoulder” seasons, and to socialize with friends and family. This collaboration is one that can result in timeless beauty and increased enjoyment in the landscape.
Words: Sean Papich
Photos: Sean Papich