Mary Anne and Michael Berner moved from downtown Vancouver 30 minutes south to one of the oldest settlements in British Columbia, the harbour-side village of Steveston. Although they were out in the burbs, they wanted to keep a measure of the sheen of their downtown life – martinis on the veranda, not tea parties in the garden.
Inside their home, the mood was all about entertainment – sleek furnishings and a funky cocktail bar. Outside, however, was a different story. The back yard was a mélange of decrepit teak furnishings, lumpy grass and a beat-looking umbrella.
We helped them put together the perfect solution: an outdoor cocktail lounge. Here's what went into it.
A grassy backyard is fine you've got time to mow and weed, but the Berners want to spend every spare moment entertaining. Steveston (and Richmond around it) is at or below sea level and the soggy grass of the backyard impeded their taking the party outside.
So we turfed the lawn and replaced it with a stone patio. Unlike grass, stone requires little maintenance – one good power wash in the spring and you're done for the year. The key is to have it installed properly so it lasts for decades. Paving is not a DIY project. Hire a professional landscaper to come in and remove the existing lawn and install stone or concrete paving stones.
The job entails bringing in layers of soil and sand, then compacting it with heavy machines. It creates a strong foundation for your pavers and makes the patio resistant to erosion. Pavers installed poorly will be uneven and riddled with weeds in a season.
Whether you choose concrete or real stone, a patio is expensive. The most economical finish is concrete pavers: They're less expensive, and, because the man-made shapes are uniform, easier to install.
For the Berners, we chose small grey concrete pavers with tumbled edges. (Large format pavers would have looked too modern for the vintage of their home.) Instead of size, we relied on colour to give the space its contemporary feel.
The Berners wanted the bar to be the hub of the outdoor lounge. It had to be easy to access, highly functional and resilient to the elements.
We placed it close to the house so that it would be easy to restock (from the kitchen just inside) and designed it in an L, which allows guests to gather around it in a semi-circle. We sectioned off the service area, preventing guests from moving into the bartender's zone.
The bar was simple, but we had to make sure to build it with the right materials. Its frame was steel studs and concrete board. Apart from concrete cinder blocks or masonry, no other materials should be used in outdoor applications: They'll absorb water and eventually rot.
To relate to the dark blue-grey of the house yet maintain a contemporary look, we clad the bar in black mustang slate. This blue-black slate is often used on the exteriors of modern homes because its texture is soft and velvety, and it's resilient to all weather conditions.
The world of opportunity for indoor countertops doesn't extend outside. Your options are much more limited. Trendy quartzite and acrylic products don't stand up to UV rays and cold winters. The best materials are those you often see in landscaping: concrete and stone.
Concrete can have pigment added to it if you want to customize the colour. Unfortunately, though, each countertop must be custom cast and polished, so you need lots of lead time to get it done. For the Berners' lounge, we didn't have an hour to waste, so our best and most efficient choice was slate.
For the countertops, we used the same black mustang slate as on the bar tile, only in a much thicker cut. Many stones need to be cut and polished in a workshop, but slate comes in small slabs and can easily be fit by a professional onsite. Our stone was delivered, cut and installed in just hours.
Slate is low maintenance. We applied a sealant, which dried in minutes, leaving the stone with a soft sheen. Sealing is not a one-shot deal, though. You need to repeat the process once a season.
The Berners were keen on slinging cocktails, not steaks, so we skipped the barbecue and went straight for the appliances they really needed – a beverage fridge, ice maker and cocktail centre (with built-in sink).
When you're buying outdoor appliances, there are two things you need to consider: grade and insulation.
Stainless steel is manufactured in a number of grades; the only one suitable for long-term outdoor use is a marine grade stainless steel. If a brand doesn't boast that it's made of it, avoid it.
Insulation is the second concern. An outdoor appliance should be ready for cold that plunges well below zero. Inquire about the quality of insulation around the appliance's electrical components. If you have a cold snap, you don't want to be worrying about whether your refrigerator will make it through the winter.
Around the perimeter of the Berners' patio we left ample space for greenery. The sultry mood of the design inspired our selection of plants with strong forms and textures. These included: cedars (to hide the back fence), blue sedges along the border of the garden (to soften the transition between patio and green space), and wispy Mexican feather grass (for movement and sound).
To create a luscious, layered backdrop we installed black cube-shaped planters in each corner of the patio. They were planted with annuals and succulents in deep purples, burnt orange and chartreuse.
The lounge theme provided the perfect opportunity to use something I'd been dying to incorporate into a design: a concrete fire bowl.
Custom cast and polished, the bowl was ordered well in advance of the installation. It's kitted with a special burner engineered to be outside all year round, and the whole thing arrives on site ready to be installed.
At $5,000-plus, it's pricey, but if you compared that with the time and money of purchasing and building an outdoor fireplace, it starts to look more reasonable.
There you have it: six steps to converting a small piece of suburban back forty into something urban and cosmopolitan. These days it's high season in the Berners' back cocktail lounge. The air is bright and fragrant with salt water, their friends are gathered around and chattering, and the wine is flowing. There are worse things.
***** ***** *****
Where to buy it
Cane furniture: Chintz & Co., chintz.com
Outdoor fabric: Kravet, available to the trade
Fire bowl: Solus Decor, solusdecor.com
Slate countertops and tile: Pamas Slate + Stone, pamasslate.com
Appliances: Perlick, bringperlickhome.com
Metallic stools: Peking Lounge, pekinglounge.com
Kelly Deck can be seen on Take It Outside, airing Saturdays at 10:30 a.m. on HGTV. For more outdoor design tips visit www.hgtv.ca