How the pandemic has us growing closer to the outdoors

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Outdoor spaces like balconies, decks, patios and porches are precious amenities for homeowners and renters alike. The past year-and-a-half of solitary pandemic living has turned them into invaluable real estate assets. Now demand is soaring.

“Any outdoor space is now more highly prized than ever,” said Catarina Bannier, a Compass agent in the D.C. area.

Fresh air is intoxicating. Now in autumn it’s cool with a hint of chill. An artist would paint the air amber and yellow to match the changing leaves. The pandemic has enhanced our sensitivity to the beauty of outdoors.

And people are churning their creative juices as the pandemic inspired them to enjoy the outdoors in new ways.

“We spent a lot of time in the garden, tending the plants, enjoying being together. My kids needed screen breaks and exercise and I needed to de-stress and get fresh air and sunshine,” said Amy Suardi of her five children ages 8 to 19.

They cared for fruit trees, flowers, strawberries, carrots, tomatoes and sugar snap peas. “We farmed the tree box by hoeing up all the weeds, adding compost and planting sunflower and zinnia seeds. The sunflowers grew over 12 feet tall. We planted blackberries along the driveway and edible flowers like nasturtiums and chamomile,” she said. Suardi and her husband, Enrico, live in Northwest Washington on a small lot not far from Wisconsin Avenue.

When the pandemic broke out, “Suddenly the ordinary things became precious and our garden started to feel like a wonderland,” Suardi said. She began writing short essays, poems and mini-memoirs in an online blog. After seven months, she had enough to fill a book. “My Beautiful, Terrible Pandemic Life” was published last year.

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“We bring an old bench under the cherry tree near the rosemary plant that has grown shaggy and sloppy . . . We trim off minty, muscly rosemary branches and fill empty pesto jars and leave them outside the front gate for neighbors.”

Across the country, Michele Grace Hottel, a San Diego architect, watched people create their own pop-up outdoor spaces.

“I saw people set up outdoor rooms in the front, side and backyards and even their driveways. They put down dining tables and chairs and added fire pits. They reimagined places for small gatherings with family, friends and neighbors,” she said.

Brendan Doyle, owner of Planterra, a landscape design-build company founded in 1985 in D.C. and now based in Portland, Ore., said the pandemic enhanced people’s desire to be close to nature.

“During covid everyone wanted to get outdoors because it was a safer place to be. Clients asked me to make new outdoor spaces and plant four-season flower and edible gardens,” he said.

One client favored a Clematis collection — a flower in the buttercup family with 300 varieties. Another sought his expertise to create a children’s play area and outdoor dining room. “I designed and planted a yard for a guy who was barely conscious of the outdoors before the pandemic. Now he ambles across the lawn with handheld clippers trimming his grass blades,” said Doyle.

“Even I bought a wheeled trug planter, stationed it on my terrace and am growing leafy greens. I go out and pick fresh salad every night for supper,” he said.

Two self-described queer couples, Lauren and Jessie Garner, parents to an 18-month-old son, Kendall, and Zendzi and Rachel Curry-Neal, who have 7-month-old twin boys Johari and Jadzia, are longtime devoted friends joined emotionally and spiritually; but the pandemic crystallized their desire for geographic proximity, too.

They decided to build a duplex in Northeast Washington — on a lot originally purchased by Zendzi Curry-Neal’s grandmother in the 1940s. There will be two homes side-by-side with shared outdoor space in the backyard and at the house front. One walkway will lead to steps up to a porch shared by both houses. One entry door will open to a vestibule with a private door on each side leading to two living spaces.

“I visualized scenarios of shared spaces especially outside. Our children playing together in the yard and coming home from school in the rain and kicking off their wet shoes on the porch,” said Rachel Curry-Neal.

High demand for outdoor living

The trend in outdoor living predates the pandemic, said Kermit Baker, chief economist at the American Institute of Architects. “It really started to take off around 2009-2010 and stayed strong for well over a decade.”

“Last year there was a surge throughout the country. We found a dramatic uptick in demand for features like outdoor living spaces as a result of the pandemic,” he added.

In September AIA released its home design trends survey for the third quarter of 2021, focusing on home features. “During that time period we saw another significant increase in interest for outdoor living space,” said Baker.

As outdoor entertaining became popular, the purchase of accompanying accoutrements rose in tandem.

“Demand for outdoor accessories has been exponential. I’d say the interest has increased at least 50 percent with the pandemic. Our call level is higher than in my entire career,” said Joseph Smith, partner at Owings Brothers Contractors in Eldersburg, Md.

“People are asking for decks, covered porches, screened porches and pools. They want outdoor kitchens under overhead roofs, grills, cabinets, sinks, refrigerators, pizza ovens,” he said.

John DeForest of DeForest Architects in Seattle said when the pandemic first hit, many architects thought they’d get requests for adding or remodeling spaces for home offices.

“But instead people craved a connection to the outside in the form of large windows and doors opening to covered decks and patios,” he said.

“I do think there has been a surge in demand for outdoor spaces that’s clearly tied to the pandemic. Instead of carving out additional space in basements and attics, many recent clients have expressed a desire for more exposure to the elements, a broader visual horizon and perhaps a sense of escape from being cooped up,” he added.

“Sheltered spaces with radiant heaters, windscreens, comfortable furnishings and fire features provide added space and flexibility year round in mild climates like ours,” DeForest said.

Demand has surged for pools. “I can’t tell you how popular they are now but you can’t get one till next year. We can’t get materials and don’t have enough skilled labor,” said Smith. “Product demand for pavers, cultured stone and low-maintenance decking is so great we can’t always secure enough of the items needed. Covid has created a double whammy — supply challenges and demand.”

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Product supply problems span the country. A colleague of Smith has a waiting list of 10 pools and a friend is No. 75 on a list to get a dock built. That’s in line with Caruso Homes’ Alan Shapiro’s viewpoint. “We have seen a surge of buyers who are purchasing lots on the water and they have grand plans for the outdoors,” said Shapiro, division manager for the company’s On Your Lot-East Coast division.

Brad Blank, president of the D.C. Metro Division of Tri Pointe Homes in Potomac, Md., agreed that construction items are taking longer to get. “Additionally, a number of products have been discontinued by manufacturers to streamline their production so we have to thoughtfully select substitutions that remain in line with the style and function of our designs,” he said.

Cindy Plackmeyer, a Maryland Building Industry Association board member and vice president at UrbanBuilt, a general contractor in Baltimore, said, “Smaller, more nimble builders with fewer national restrictions in design responded quickly to buyer preferences by creating outdoor options they wanted.”

Tri Pointe is putting more effort and creativity into the initial design of its homes. “We’re making outdoor spaces as important as the interior. We want them to be memory points for our customers,” said Blank. “With more time being spent in the home, decks, patios and rooftop terraces have become top of mind for buyers.”

They’re also incorporating outdoor kitchens, fire pits and fireplaces, special lighting, and landscaping into their models.

The newest Tri Pointe outdoor designs will appear early next year in the Amalyn community in Bethesda, Md., and Brookland Grove in Northeast Washington.

Pulte Group architects are including porches in most of their new homes in the communities at Potomac Shores in Northern Virginia, Mason Park in Fairfax, Va., and Bull Run Reserve in Centreville, Va.

“Porches provide not only extended living space but charm and character to the streetscape,” said Rian McClevey, vice president of sales operations for Pulte’s Mid-Atlantic Division.

Demand for porches, patios and decks predated the pandemic but accelerated because of it, said Paul Emrath, National Association of Home Builders vice president for surveys and housing policy research. Citing NAHB surveys he said 65 percent of the approximately 990,000 single-family houses built in 2020 were built with porches, up from 63 percent in 2010; and 61 percent were built with patios, up from 45 percent in 2010.

“There’s no question that the pandemic enhanced the outdoor living trend and we’ll enjoy living outside even though the health motivation might not be there,” said Baker of AIA.

“The pandemic has drawn attention to what people already knew even if only subliminally, namely that we derive great benefits from interacting with nature,” said Theo Adamstein, sales associate with TTR Sotheby’s International Realty. “A grassy yard, a porch swing or deck chair, a beautiful garden, can help clear their mind and induce a state of calm.”

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