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The Outhouse — And Other Rooms — Get A 21st Century Makeover

Sonoma Retreat by Aidlin Darling
Marion Brenner
Courtesy of ASLA
Sonoma Retreat by Aidlin Darling

Americans are discovering — or rediscovering — the allure of outdoor living, according to a 2014 survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects.

Whether the instinct stems from a primordial desire to reconnect with the natural world or to disconnect from in-house clutter and chaos, people who can afford it are transporting traditional indoor areas — kitchens, dining rooms, bedrooms, entertainment centers — outside.

"More and more Americans are using the outdoor spaces as living spaces — for cooking, dining, lounging and for play," says Jennifer Horn, a landscape architect in Washington, D.C. "With better, more environmentally sound lighting, people can spend time in their gardens well into the night. With features like fire pits, fireplaces and outdoor heaters, people can spend time in their gardens well into the winter. And cooking outdoors has come a long way from a Weber grill. Smokers, eggs, pizza ovens and hybrid grills have all allowed homeowners to build a customized outdoor kitchen. "

Outdoor shower in New Century Garden by Steve Martino and Associates
Steve Martino / Courtesy of ASLA
Courtesy of ASLA
Outdoor shower in New Century Garden by Steve Martino and Associates

In Texas, the state Association of Realtors reports that developing outdoor living spaces adds value to a home. The HGTV website devotes feature after feature to outdoor rooms.

Some people are even building backyard bathrooms, according to reports in Apartment Therapy and Studio M, giving the outhouse — long a symbol of American backwoodsiness — a total makeover.

One HGTV video showcases a 1,000-square-foot, million-dollar open-air master bathroom in a Hawaiian mansion. To get to the bathtub, you walk across stepping stones that seem to be floating in deep black waters.

Personal Drive-In Theaters

Outdoor kitchens and chair-spangled patios may be old-school. But watching movies or TV on wide screens in wide-open spaces is becoming widely fashionable.

Here's one way the DIY Network suggests you create an Outdoor Entertainment Center.

1) Prepare the chosen dirt with a rototiller, then level and compact the soil.

2) Lay down weed fabric, then limestone gravel.

3) Install landscape lights, weatherproof speakers and a vast inflatable movie screen.

Or you can spring for an all-weather TV set — some sized at 80 inches — from one of several companies, including Sunbrite and SkyVue. "Once you've added a SkyVue television to your outdoor living space, you'll wonder how you ever entertained without it," the promotional material advises.

You might glance at a backyard TV while tossing a ball around with someone else, a USA Today reporter recently observed. But "based on my experience, anyway, you're more likely to be enjoying barbecue, gulping down a brew and — I admit it — lounging around while watching others play sports."

Now you can be a couch potato in your own backyard garden.

Impervious To The Elements

Maple Hill Residence by Stephen Stimson & Associates
Charles Mayer / Courtesy of ASLA
Courtesy of ASLA
Maple Hill Residence by Stephen Stimson & Associates

Al fresco aficionados are not confined to the warmer climes.

The USA Today reporter with the outdoor TV above lives in New York. The Sunbrite website contains a winter-withstanding testimonial from a Chicago customer. And in Connecticut, Danver Stainless Outdoor Kitchens advertises the Glastender Home Cocktail Station with "a beverage-preparation counter, along with a well to hold iced bottles. These sit above outdoor kitchen cabinets, which offer plenty of space to store cutting boards, knives, jiggers and other tools of the trade."

Landscape architect Jennifer Horn says people everywhere are finding more ways to be outside. "While Americans in South Florida, Hawaii and California are probably not clamoring for an outdoor fireplace for winter warmth," she says, "gas-powered fire features are popular in all these locations for night light and as a dynamic artistic feature."

Meanwhile in colder climates, she says, "heated swimming pools and spas are still routinely requested."

So, for whatever reasons, the pendulum is swinging back. We moved from outdoors to indoors to outdoors again. What would our ancestors — who fought and thought long and hard to improve our shelters — say? Throw some more wood chips on the chiminea, perhaps.


The Protojournalist: Experimental storytelling for the LURVers — Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers — of NPR. @NPRtpj

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.