Connected to the outside: porches, sunrooms, outdoor kitchens

Here in the Pioneer Valley, many people live close to nature with forests nearby and mountains in view. An increasing trend is to meld living space with nature to create a backyard oasis, whether it’s a sunroom, screened-in porch, or another room in the house.

Kent Pecoy, owner of Pecoy Companies based in West Springfield, said that demand for outdoor spaces that seem like they are indoors has been steadily rising.

“People like to spend more time outdoors,” he said. “What’s become very popular now is outdoor kitchens.”

Cooking and eating outside are without a doubt a summer past time, and some homeowners are asking for elaborate set-ups including fire pits, tables and chairs, and cooking areas all in an open-air environment.

With fire pits or in-space heaters, some of the spaces can be used even after summer has passed. “We make them so you can get through the holidays with it,” Pecoy said.

Pecoy advises clients not to build them on the windy side of the house, or if there is wind to use walls to block where it usually comes from.

And what about the bugs? Pecoy said that ceiling fans do quite a bit to keep the biters at bay.

The spaces they have worked on have ranged between 600 and 2,000 square feet, according to Pecoy.

“Any time someone makes an investment like that, it is all about family and friends,” he said. “There is no better motivation, in my opinion, that bringing family in and having friends around you.”

Vern Harrington, principal at Thayer Street Associates in South Deerfield, said the materials used for such spaces that will be exposed to the elements are important to consider. Often, for decks, people will use polyvinyl chloride (PVC) instead for decks and outdoor trims.

“People that really want to use wood will use wood,” Harrington said. “The idea is that it is maintenance intensive. You have to stay on top of it.”

The consideration is whether people want to pay the higher up-front cost — Harrington said it can be between two and two-and-a-half times as expensive — with PVC, or the longer term time and money costs with taking care of wood.

“If they can afford it, then it really does cut down on the maintenance,” he said.

For screens to keep away the bugs, Harrington said many people use invisible screen, which is a very fine screening that doesn’t filter the view much.

“If you don’t know it’s there, you could walk into it,” he said.

Melissa Caldwell, sales and marketing director at Wright Builders, said bringing the outdoors in is attractive in all kinds of living and working environments.

“There’s lots of research about the happy factor and the productive factor and that relationship with the outdoors,” she said.

Having a sleeping porch or an outdoor kitchen is a way for people to connect with being outside, she said.

Hunter Marosits is the owner and president of H & R Homes Remodeling Inc. in Wilbraham. H & R Homes Remodeling has been in business since 1979. Marosits explained that when meeting with a contractor, it’s important to know the difference between a sunroom and a three-season porch. A three-season porch is generally not open to the rest of the house (but is accessible by a door like a regular porch) so it’s usually not heated.

“It’s primarily meant to be an extension of the outdoors,” Marosits said. “[The customer] doesn’t want more square footage, but a different type of entertaining space.”

A true sunroom, Marosits explained, would be an addition to your home and would be usable year round with heat and air conditioning.

“It’s more like an extension of your home,” Marosits said.

Which one you choose depends on what you want out of the space. If you want a deck or patio without the hassle of bugs and weather, than a three-season porch might be perfect. A traditional sunroom is more expensive because it requires a foundation and heating and air elements, but it also adds square footage to your home. You can ask your contractor’s advice about what option is best for your property. Marosits said that he often includes a sunroom when doing kitchen renovations.

“It’s a little get away; a little quiet sanctuary,” Marosits said.

H & R has also built three-season porches with dividing walls, so the customer can use the space for multiple purposes, like for instance a hot tub and a dining area.

“I like to say that every time I build one I sell two more,” Marosits said. “Everyone wants one who sees one.”

H & R Homes has put sunrooms and three-season porches on all sorts of homes, including lake houses. While all of the rooms are custom designed, he often includes cathedral ceilings (12 to 14 feet high) in the design.

“High cathedral ceilings really make you feel like you’re outside,” Marosits said.

When starting to think about a sunroom addition, Marosits recommends working with a contractor who has done similar work before. He also said to look for people who can successfully match the exterior and the architecture of the house when putting on an addition.

“You want it to match aesthetically to the house,” Marosits said. “That’s what seperates a good job from a great job.”

Chris Jacobs is the owner of Barron & Jacobs in Northampton, where he and his staff design, build, and remodel homes and additions from New Hampshire to Connecticut. Jacobs took over the business from his father and has been working at the company for over 28 years.

Sunrooms are a specialty at Barron & Jacobs, and Jacobs explained that he tries to encourage customers to go for a sunroom as an addition with conventional wall framing, as opposed to framed sunroom made of glass. He said that the all-glass sunrooms are often difficult to maintain, particularly because the specialty sunroom glass can be hard to replace.

“(Our customers) are mostly looking for sun and volume,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs also frequently uses cathedral ceilings for the sunrooms he designs, and said that he likes to include skylights to allow as much light as possible.

“Once we build it for them they usually end up living out there,” Jacobs said. “They spend most of their time out in that space because it’s so close to nature.”

On their website, Barron & Jacobs say that they can “help you get going on improving your home and your lifestyle.” While a sunroom might seem like just an addition, both Jacobs and Marosits mentioned that their customers feel closer to nature in their sunrooms, which seems like as much of a lifestyle change as an architectural one. If you live in the Pioneer Valley because of the natural beauty, a sunroom might be the perfect way to enjoy that beauty every single day from the comfort of your own home.