Design Considerations For Outdoor Kitchens

I have a photo of an outdoor kitchen I designed that’s in my presentation portfolio. Outdoor kitchens are funny. They appear to be one of those things for which there is no middle ground. People either want them badly, or they tell their partner no way, no how, not happening, I’m taking the kids and the dog if you do. I think part of the issue is that the photos that get all the attention are of the elaborate, fancy kitchens with grills the size of a ’57 Chevy’s trunk and more stainless steel than you can shake a stick at. Just like your indoor kitchen, there is no one ideal outdoor kitchen – just the one that’s right for you. Let’s look at some design considerations.


The hub of the outdoor kitchen is the grill. We’ve established that I love the grill, but this isn’t my bias talking. An outdoor kitchen without a grill is an outdoor serving bar. The first question to ask: do you want a built-in grill or a freestanding one? There are advantages to both. A freestanding grill (like my awesome Weber kettle grill) is far less expensive and it can be swapped out easily down the road if it starts deteriorating or fashion trends change. It’s hard to imagine, but stainless steel may go out of style someday. A built-in grill, on the other hand, is generally bigger and beefier than a freestanding grill. Integrated with the structure of the kitchen it just feels good.

As far as cost goes, you can get a freestanding gas grill that does its job well for $500-600. A built-in generally starts at around $1,500 and a brand name (like Viking or Wolf) can be more than double that.

You then have other options to look at, like side burners, warming drawers, etc. Only you know how you cook, but for me a side burner (ideally two) is a must.

Friends & Function

How many people are you cooking for? Not only does that impact the size of the grill, but it establishes how much serving space you need. While you may do most of your prep work inside, you still need to stage the food before it gets cooked and lay it out for serving afterwards.

At the same time, you don’t want to feel silly using the space when it’s just you and the kids grilling up burgers and dogs on a Wednesday. This is where proper space planning can really come into play. And speaking of space planning, let’s talk about bar counters.

A standard outdoor kitchen utilizes a countertop set at the standard height of 36 inches. You can then have it stepped up with a 6 inch backsplash, on top of which is a bar counter. These are great because your guests can sit on bar stools and chat while you’re working, and when it’s time to eat you have a serving counter that’s totally separate from the prep/cooking counter. It’s also a great setup for when you bring in a caterer.

Bar counters are, however, difficult to work in if space is tight. Here’s why: I usually recommend 60 inches (5 feet) of space on the working side of a kitchen. That gives you loads of room to move around, step back from a grill flare-up, bend down to get stuff out of cabinets, and two people can pass by each other. Now add in the width of the counter, typically 2 feet wide, plus another foot for the bar counter. At a minimum we should allow three feet on the far side for people to shuffle their stools back and forth, or to walk through when using the counter as a serving line. So far that’s 5 ft + 2 ft + 1 ft + 3 ft = 11 feet, all before you can define where the dining table and other furniture go.

Bottom line: let function dictate the design, then add in the “ooh shiny” stuff.


If you can put it into your indoor kitchen, you can probably find it for your outdoor kitchen. For example, take a look at all the options Viking offers. You can have sinks, ovens, cabinets, drawers, vent hoods, refrigerators, freezers, and even keggerators. Another vendor for great products for outdoor kitchens is Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet. The options are amazing – you can have as much function outside as you do inside.

Lighting is very important as well. Some may find a little bit of romance in the idea of clenching the butt end of a Mini Mag Lite between their teeth as they cook, but I had braces for five years. I want to protect my choppers. Perhaps the best advice I can give is that you never have too many outlets. Trust me.

The Bottom Line

There’s a lot to consider when thinking about an outdoor kitchen. Odds are you’ve cooked in poorly designed indoor kitchens, especially if you’ve rented more than one apartment. Why do that to yourself in a brand-spanking-new outdoor kitchen? If you’re looking for an outdoor kitchen design in northern Virginia, Maryland, or DC, click that little blue Contact button on the left and let’s talk!


Wildlife and Water Features

One of the benefits of having a water feature is that it will become the cool watering hole for the neighborhood critters. I’m working with a landscape design client in northern Fauquier County to rejuvenate the existing decades-old landscape, and one of the assets I have to work with is a small water feature adjacent to the back patio.

As you can see, it’s really overgrown (but look at that Hakonechloa. Look at it!!!) but the local fauna still love it.

This cute little fella was hanging out and enjoying the warm sunshine. Yes, you will likely get the occasional snake around your pond. There’s water, abundant food, and big flat rocks on which to sun themselves. It’s ok, they’re no more interested in you than you are in them.

This little guy was chilling with a few of his friends. If you have a shallow, relatively still section of water you’ll create a great hangout for birds to bathe, and I’ve seen deer and foxes coming right up to backyard ponds. As we build out and slap houses on more and more habitat, we’re doing a good thing by creating little pockets like this for wildlife.

Elements of Design: Space

Space is a funny concept in design, especially landscape design. Space is an abstract concept that can’t really be described until it’s defined by walls or boundaries. It’s a crucial part of design, as evidenced by the fact that a large part of design is space planning.

When working with space, we’re trying to balance two conflicting human needs. The first is the need to feel enclosed, sheltered, and protected. This is achieved with smaller spaces – think of when you were little and made a fort from blankets and couch cushions. In the landscape we can make a space feel smaller with walls, railings, fences, hedges – any number of visual tricks. However, if we make the space too small it feels confining and constricting.

On the flip side, we also have a need to feel a sense of freedom, to take in the vastness of a space. Think of a deck or patio overlooking the mountains in the northwestern corner of Virginia, where you can survey the entire landscape spread out below you. There still needs to be a means of creating human scale (see how it all relates?), or a huge outdoor space can feel uncomfortable, even a little unsettling.

The photo below is from one of our trips to the Charlottesville area. From the patio, you have views of forever that could feel a little overwhelming. The pergola helps to “lower the sky,” in a sense, and as the shrubs at the edge of the patio grow and fill in they’ll provide a little enclosure.

Designers have a lot of fun playing with space. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright used small entry doors and low-ceilinged hallways that open into large, high-ceilinged living spaces to create a sense of excitement, even tension and release. Outside, you could get the same effect with a narrow walkway between tall hedges that opens out into a bigger space. This photo from the Winery at La Grange shows that really well. The patio at the other end feels twice as large as it is, just because of the “compressed” feeling you get coming down the walk:


As you can probably tell, I love playing with space. There’s the functional part of space planning and circulation that I enjoy, but playing with the edges of an abstraction is pretty cool.

Next up: shape and form!