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Backyards Built for Winter Use

"Backyards built with infrared heaters, fire bowls, hot tubs and barbecue pits make you forget it’s winter.

To celebrate the season, Michael and Sandra Genova on Friday threw open the 12-foot-wide back doors of their Spokane, Wash., home and let their 40 or so guests enjoy the deck, prime rib and panoramic views of the city and mountains. The temperature: the high 30s.

Mitigating the wintry weather are two infrared heaters installed in the ceiling of their outdoor lounge area. The warm air blankets the space, outfitted with plush furniture, a television and built-in barbecue. At the foot of the deck is a fire pit. For more adventuresome guests, there’s also a hot tub. The Genovas spent about $500,000 on their backyard to make sure parties al fresco could still be fun in frigid weather, said Mr. Genova, 55 and the owner of a company that makes hot-tub accessories.

“It was pleasant, because of the heaters in the ceiling, and the fire pit throws out such powerful BTUs. We had a lot of people out there taking in the view and the fresh air, and standing by the fire with a cocktail,” Mr. Genova said.

After spending thousands on lavish outdoor entertainment spaces, homeowners are extending the usefulness of these lounges into the winter months. New options in outdoor heaters, more firepit choices, better lighting systems and plush furniture that looks like it belongs in a cozy living room allow builders and landscapers to create spaces that can be enjoyed when temperatures dip.

Chris Wallner and Kim Troxell, both 41, finished renovating the rooftop of their Chicago condominium in the summer. To make the outdoor space usable in chilly Chicago, they turned to Don Maldonado, lead designer at Chicago Green Design. He built a pergola with a retractable canopy made of pliable plastic. It sits over a 65,000-BTU “fire table” his company designed. Heat rises from the fire table and reflects off the canopy, where it pushes downward to warm the lounge, Mr. Maldonado said. The space includes a bar, a fountain, and perennial and annual plants that Mr. Maldonado’s company refreshes each spring, said Ms. Troxell, a project director for a biopharmaceutical company. The project cost about $150,000, the couple said.

“I put a TV up there so we can simulate a tailgate party in the autumn months,” said Mr. Wallner, a nurse.

Winter gardens are also cropping up farther north—like the ski areas of Ontario, Canada. Darren Bosch, design and client services manager for the Landmark Group, a landscape designer and builder in Thornbury, Ontario, said that about half of his clients today want an outdoor cabana, often with heaters and retractable walls; requests are up at least 25% from five years ago. Prices for these cabanas range from $43,000 to $172,000, depending on the size, materials and amenities, he said.

Shelly and Fred Losani hired Landmark to help create the ultimate winter-friendly backyard for their vacation home in Clarksburg, Ontario, three years ago. They spent roughly $860,000, Mr. Losani said, on a yard with a heated cabana with retractable walls that come down with the touch of an iPhone if a breeze picks up. There’s a 20-foot by 40-foot pool, which Mr. Losani, 51, occasionally heats to 90 to 100 degrees. There’s a hot tub; a fire pit; a separate dining area and a lounge with plush cushions and throw pillows.

Even when temperatures drop to freezing in December and January, the family cooks up osso buco and pasta in the cabana and takes in the sun in their ski clothes, said Mr. Losani, a home builder.

“It’s a perfect place for après ski,” said Ms. Losani, 50.

Condominium developers are banking on year-round outdoor space as a sales draw.

In San Francisco, Jaime Cruz bought a unit in Amero, a building that includes a 4,500-square-foot terrace for residents.

“Roof decks, we think, are some of the most important amenities in the marketplace,” said Arden Hearing, managing director of Trumark Urban, a residential developer in San Francisco. At Amero, a new building in the Cow Hollow neighborhood, condos began selling this year at prices ranging from $1.3 million to just under $4 million. The developer included a 4,500-square-foot roof terrace designed to be pleasant despite the foggy climate. A 12-foot-long fire pit, evergreens in planters and plush furniture—“not cold metal,” said Mr. Hearing—provide a warm spot for residents to observe views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Jaime Cruz, 35, an organizational psychologist, recently bought a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit in the building for its list price of $1.35 million after looking at about 20 other apartments.

“The roof deck was the really, really nice cherry on top of the sundae,” that helped clinch the buying decision, said Ms. Cruz.

The cornerstone of most winter-friendly outdoor spaces is the fire pit. In a survey this year of 179 landscape architects by the American Society of Landscape Architects, 95.4% rated the popularity of fire pits higher than grills, outdoor seating and stereo systems. Home-improvement giant Home Depot said it added a selection of fire pits to physical stores earlier this year after selling them only online in the past.

Interest in artistic fire pits is giving rise to a cottage industry of custom designers. In October, Chicago Green Design launched a new company called Kimera, which makes custom fire tables that sell for between $2,000 and $10,000.

Landmark, the Ontario firm, custom-made a feature in which fire rises out of a pool of water. It cost the client nearly $7,000, said Mr. Bosch, adding that more complex creations can cost up to $17,000.

When Sandra Vlock, an architect in Stony Creek, Conn., renovated her backyard last year, she turned an unused garage into an additional living space, replacing an earthen floor with stained concrete and installing replicas of its original carriage-house doors. In front of the carriage house, she placed what she calls a “Fireball,” a hollow, steel, antique mooring ball, 5 feet in diameter that Ms. Vlock bought on eBay . She hired a local iron worker to cut out her own marine-motif design and an opening for firewood. When a fire is lighted inside, the sea creatures appear to dance in the flames.

“My mission was to create a destination to lure family and friends,” said Ms. Vlock, who added that when her son Adam comes home on college breaks, he often builds fires and fills the backyard with friends.

Matt Barton, owner of Coppercreek Landscape Design, which built the yard for the Genovas, said that advances in wiring outdoor lighting—multiple zones can work off one transformer—have made it 80% cheaper for him to create separately lighted sections of a backyard. Because of high demand, his company has increasingly been installing infrared heaters in outdoor ceilings, he said.

While homeowners and landscapers say their goal is to extend the season for usable outdoor space, some climates demand a temporary shutdown. Mr. Bosch in Canada said most of the spaces his company builds are mostly out of use from early late October until early June, with owners draining pools and storing furniture that could be ruined by ice and snow. Mr. Wallner and Ms. Troxell went up to their partially completed roof deck only a couple of times last winter, when it was particularly cold in Chicago, they said.

Even Mr. Losani, a Canadian who has been on multiple expeditions to the North and South Poles, has a limit to when he’ll use his winter wonderland.

“I wouldn’t like to be out there if it was lower than 10 degrees Fahrenheit,” Mr. Losani said."

Source: Katy McLaughlin, The Wall Street Journal. December 25, 2014