There's no confusing Cincinnati weather with that of Tampa or Los Angeles, but residents here like outdoor living just the same as those in the sun-bathed states. It just requires a little more work to enjoy it here.

These days in Cincinnati, that effort is going toward well-appointed and coordinated exterior rooms that go way beyond the simple patios of old. Homeowners are getting full-fledged outdoor kitchens that spare no appliance, with intimate seating areas and firepits, wood-burning fireplaces with stone hearths, and brightly colored lounge furniture that matches landscaping.

"People are looking to extend the season a few more months," says Jeff McClorey, owner of Bromwell's, a Cincinnati retailer of upscale fireplaces and custom indoor/outdoor hearth design. "The trend is certainly becoming more popular in the Midwest and in Cincinnati." That means that instead of gathering outdoors with family and friends from May through September, residents are doing it through December and heading out again in March.

Some of those months, of course, require some heat. Outdoor firepits have been popular for several years and continue to be, says Ken Peck of Underhill Landscaping, a residential and commercial landscape design and installation company in Cincinnati. They took over where water features left off, as homeowners discovered that fire pits were natural crowd pleasers and centers for a ring of seating.
Peck has a firepit at his home, and family gathers around it in any season. "There's nothing like having a fire. Almost everyone wants to be outside burning wood or cooking."

HEART AND HEARTH

Outdoor hearths are also a huge trend in outdoor living, according to McClorey. Locals are building them in brick or stone, anchoring a backyard kitchen or pool area and often building them 12 to 20 feet high. Such a project seems a natural fit for the large yards in Indian Hill and the suburbs. Actually, though, many projects are taking place in smaller spaces and older homes, such as in Hyde Park and Mount Lookout. "People with smaller yards want to carve out an outdoor room to maximize efficiency of their space," McClorey adds. A free-standing chimney is a natural screen for neighbors or unsightly views, and it increases privacy and intimacy in the space. Such large fireplaces with raised hearths for seating can define an area and even block the wind, he adds.

The fireplaces often complement what has morphed from a simple grill to a major trend: the outdoor kitchen. Homeowners are building in barbecues, stone countertops, icemakers, running water, refrigerators and inset blenders. "Some setups are bigger, some are smaller," Peck observes.

Bromwell's carries high-end grills that are primarily designed to be built into an outdoor kitchen, replacing a grill on a cart. "A built-in grill looks like it was designed custom," McClorey explains. It's often plumbed into a natural gas line and included in a pre-set island covered in granite or poured concrete countertops. Bromwell's also has a stainless steel bar, complete with hoses, an ice well, and a liquor bottle holder. It completes the outdoor setup.

"Outdoor rooms "” that's a term I'm hearing a lot," says Doug Bosse, general manger of Sun Spot Pool & Patio, which specializes in all things outdoors, particularly custom in-ground vinyl-lined pools and chemicals. "Some people want to grill and dine outside. But we have more people this year who want to go out and relax."

Exterior couches and lounging chairs are moving fast in his store, where business picked up considerably the first week of May. One of Bosse's contented customers is the Weber family of Green Twp. Karen and Len Weber, their children and, for sure, the family dog find the extra-comfy outdoor rocker chairs to be a perfect fit for their custom patio, which includes a fire pit and waterfall.

CHAT TABLES A TREND

Tables are getting lower, with the 16.5-inch high "chat table" gaining in popularity over the 29-inch high dining table. "You can see people across the chat table, and it's a more interesting look. It's just casual," Bosse adds. The tables are surrounded by spring chairs that distribute weight and provide a soothing bounce for comfort. For guests, plenty of seating is important. An easy way to add it to almost any outdoor arrangement is with a seat wall, Peck says. The perimeter of a small patio is often a great spot for a 12-foot seat wall, 18 inches off the ground. "They are a big hit," Peck says.

And dwellers aren't just mixing and matching the furniture. They're choosing fabrics that match landscaping, carefully chosen to bloom throughout the season. New fabrics allow homeowners to have bright colors to coordinate "” choices they didn't have until recently. Manufacturers such as Sunbrella are making acrylic fabrics that are solution-dyed to resist fading. The bright red cushions by Sunbrella "can be out in the sun every day for five years without fading," Bosse says.

"People are looking away from the brown furniture to brighter colors," Peck adds. Lime green and canary yellow are top choices. "There is a trend where folks will try to match cushion covers to other features, like the plants and interior."

As for "flooring," pavers are available in a multitude of colors and textures to create looks from Old World to contemporary. "Folks like the rich look of pavers," says Peck. Unlike a solid, poured slab of concrete, pavers can expand and contract. It's easier to pull up a section for repair without damaging the entire patio. "A lot of patios these days are upscale," Peck adds, using bluestone or quartzite pavers.

But if you're in the market for an outdoor room, don't expect to do it on the cheap. It takes planning, and Peck says that good design requires that you have a professional architectural rendering.

PLAN FOR WALKING PATTERNS

"A good designer will make sure he understands the needs of the clients," observes Peck. That goes for everything from the layout of the space to the appliances, materials, and plants.

Pets and children in the home require designs to accommodate their walking patterns, since children are accustomed to running out the door and taking a straight path to their destination. "Kids are supposed to speed through a landscape," Peck says. "Not take a left and a right."
Plants should be used as a screening feature. Sun and shade should be taken into account, as well as safety. In Cincinnati, boxwoods are popular, as are a new yellow-flowered magnolia, forsythias and roses, although the latter should be used with caution where children play.
Such guidelines aside, outdoor rooms have very few hard rules. They can be expansive or intimate, and built to suit every taste. The first thing you need to do is find the right spot in your yard. "People want to get outside," Peck says. "It's not just a patio anymore. These days, it's a room outside."