The new American status symbol: A backyard that’s basically fancy living space

Bill Paliouras on a newly renovated dream deck at his Branchburg, N.J., home. Melanie Landsman by The Washington Post

BRANCHBURG, N.J. — Bill Paliouras dreamed of a backyard Eden. Not your garden-variety deck with stackable plastic chairs and a kettle charcoal grill — why settle for that? — but a loaded, supersize, decked-out deck with an outdoor living room, dining area, 54-inch grill, full kitchen, bar, two-draft kegerator, oversize island, massive weatherproof television, elaborate sound system, and semicircular fire lounge.

“I’m Greek. I love being outside. I wanted to extend my outdoor living during the winter,” the 45-year-old dentist said. His deck kitchen is only a few steps from the family’s sublime indoor one.

What else? A second dining area, a pizza oven, and a mammoth rotisserie grill from Greece. To control climate and mood, a louvered roof, infrared heaters, ceiling fans, and Vegas-level lighting. Leading to the pool area, Paliouras desired twin curved staircases because — and this is a common exterior design request — “I wanted to replicate the inside part of my house outside.”

Sean McAleer completed the dream deck in June for $350,000; Paliouras’s entire outdoor extravaganza, including landscaping, pool, waterfall, slide, hot tub, and grotto, totaled $550,000. “Why would you want to go to the beach when you can hang out on a beautiful deck with a TV, day beds, and refrigerator?” asked McAleer, owner of Deck Remodelers. “It’s all there.”

The project claimed first place in a 2020 North American deck competition — yes, there are awards for such things — and it became an Instagram hit with well over a million views. “Everybody wants to come,” Paliouras said. Friends dubbed his oasis “Paliouras Paradise” and “The Resort.”

Bill Paliouras’s outdoor kitchen and dining area has a louvered ceiling, fans, infrared heat, and a television. —Melanie Landsman for The Washington Post

The ultimate family room

Outdoor spaces are many things these days but rustic is not one of them. Neither is natural. For many well-to-do Americans and those who aspire to join their ranks, the backyard has become the ultimate family room, a place to be decorated and tamed, a receptacle for stylish stuff, while nature is held at bay. During the past decade, decks transformed into major design statements. Patios mimic hotel lobbies. Backyards are stage sets, with dramatic lightscaping after the sun recedes. Pools, if you’re fortunate to have one, are excuses for ever-proliferating furniture and conversation areas. It’s the Great Fauxdoors.

“We have a very interior design look outside,” said Lindsay Foster, senior director of merchandising for Frontgate, the high-end decor company. “We put tassels and fringes on our outdoor throw pillows.” (They have indoor prices, starting at $139.) In 2012, Frontgate offered a dozen coordinated outdoor furniture collections. Today, it features more than 30 with evocative names like St. Kitts, Palermo, and Newport.

Americans long made do with lawns, nature’s outdoor rug. This is no longer enough. Now, we have actual outdoor rugs, a design statement to tie the outdoor living room together, the outdoors being a place to be coordinated and tied together, and where feet require protection from dirt, heat, cold. We’re glamping without ever having to leave home.

“People want being outdoors to be as sophisticated as an indoor living room,” said Los Angeles designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard. Interior design long exhorted homeowners “to bring the outside in,” embellishing rooms with plants, wood, stone, and natural light. Today’s design ethos inverts this, turning the inside out: outdoor living rooms, deluxe kitchens with cooler drawers, a luxury grill that rivals any stove in size and price, elaborate sound systems, and supersize, weather-durable televisions.

An outdoor living area Martyn Lawrence Bullard designed in Los Cabos, Mexico. —Douglas Friedman

“When we were kids, parents would say ‘stop watching television and go outside,’ ” McAleer said. “Now, you can go outside and watch television.”

Exterior decorating was on the rise before coronavirus shutdowns, possibly because some folks ran out of rooms to revamp. Investment in the outdoors makes sense when you consider how much time, pre-pandemic, many workers spent in offices with sealed windows, fluorescent lighting, and view-thwarting cubicles, nature seeming as distant as Mars.

During the pandemic, the home transformed into everything: office, school, gym, asylum. The backyard’s status became more exalted, a safe space where we could gather. McAleer’s business doubled this year while scarcity of building materials forced prices up 30 percent. He completes 125 decks a year at an average cost of $125,000.

“It’s a natural desire to enlarge a home’s square footage, and this is easier than putting on an addition,” says Jane Latman, president of HGTV. The network, with 56 million unique viewers in April, is a huge influence — a favorite channel of the Paliouras deck, where the TV is frequently on — and has amped the G (garden) in its programming with shows like “Inside Out” and “Backyard Takeover.”

The pool at designer Martyn Lawrence Bullard’s Palm Springs, Calif., home. —Douglas Friedman

The desire is occurring atop a warming planet. In the Sisyphean struggle between humans and nature, it’s wise not to bet against nature. Fires in California. Valentine’s Day snowstorms in Texas. Shirt-drenching humidity. And bugs. Bugs were here long before us. Bet against them at our peril.

And what has it led homeowners to do? Hurl money at the problem: Louvered ceilings, fans, heaters, and “fire features,” all prominent on the Paliouras deck.

Emphatic outdoor living is part of our evolving self-care regimen. “At the end of day, green plants and blue skies feed everyone’s soul. People need places to just sort of relax,” Greely said. “It’s also connected to wellness. Everyone wants to spend more time relaxing outdoors after spending so much time on our devices.”

Which does not explain outdoor televisions.

The American backyard evolves

The backyard became an American staple after World War II with the boom in single-family homes and leisure time. The first Weber grill fired up in 1952. The ubiquitous Grosfillex chair, thought to be the first mass-market plastic outdoor seating, arrived seven years later.

“We want to show off our social status by what we can do in our backyards,” said Cindy Brown, who helped organize the Smithsonian traveling exhibit “Patios, Pools, & the Invention of the American Backyard” and is education and collections manager for Smithsonian Gardens. “We want to domesticate nature. We can’t but we can do one piece of it.”

A Serena & Lily day bed that retails for $3,998. —Serena & Lily

But since the mid-20th century we’ve developed better, comfier materials, and banished those uncushioned wire chairs that turn posteriors into Waffle House specials. With little space on these new decks to squeeze in another tasseled throw pillow, what could possibly be left to do? Bullard thinks spaces will become even more sophisticated and personalized. “So many things out there are matchy-matchy,” he said. “Design will be more creative, eclectically mixed and matched.”

With the pandemic subsiding, Paliouras looks forward to entertaining more guests. But he practices at seven offices across New Jersey, performing root canals six days a week. He often leaves before dawn. His wife, Irene, and their two daughters look forward to a time when Saturday is a day off and enjoyed outside.

Paliouras takes it in stride. He has his dream deck, his outdoor Xanadu. “You know,” he said, “it takes a lot of root canals to pay for ‘The Resort.’ ”

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