Cover Story

Outside Is In!

One of today's most popular home trends is the addition of expanded, often lavish, outdoor spaces.


by Deborah R. Huso, Contributing Writer


One of today’s most popular home trends is the addition of expanded, often lavish, outdoor spaces.

Photo courtesy of TREX.

Anyone who has visited a home show or parade of homes recently knows that one of the biggest trends in new construction is expanded, sometimes even decadent, outdoor living space. But you don’t have to build a new house to enjoy additional, comfortable living areas outside. Steve Leigh with Backyard Creations in Virginia Beach says that a lot of people are taking advantage of low interest rates on home equity loans and improving their current residences to create new looks, more space, and bigger style. Among the more popular home improvements are sunrooms and decks.

“People are definitely moving living spaces outside more than they used to,” notes Tommy Bryant with Turtle Rock Construction, also in Virginia Beach. Bryant specializes in decks and has seen increasing interest among his customers in synthetic materials as homeowners seek to spend less time and money on maintenance and more time enjoying the new outdoor features of their homes worry-free.

Boundless options for year-round outdoor living

Low-maintenance has become the watchword of the building and remodeling industry. “The new thing is vinyl,” says Tom Scruggs with Clear Visions Glass in Fredericksburg. “Vinyl windows, siding, fences, decking. Everything is vinyl.” And that includes sunrooms.       

Photo courtesy of Clear Visions Glass.

Clear Visions offers more than 35 styles of pre-fabricated vinyl sunrooms for homeowners who want to take in a spacious view, cozy wood line, or a sunset over water, without the interference of insects or weather. And pre-fabricated sunrooms make for a quick and relatively easy home addition. “From the time you order the sunroom until it’s installed and ready to enjoy is about eight to 10 weeks,” says Scruggs. “They actually only take about three days to install.” Scruggs says if a homeowner has an existing deck, often a sunroom can be placed right on top of it without too much upgrade of the deck structure.

“Today sunrooms can provide year-round comfort,” says Steve Champion with American Window Company in Virginia Beach. “We put in heat and air conditioning, extending existing ductwork to the new rooms,” he says. Most sunroom contractors also install double-pane glass windows with argon gas and low emissivity. That makes for windows that have four times the insulating capacity of single-pane windows, the traditional choice for porch enclosures that are not constructed for year-round use. Matt LeBlanc with Better Living Patios and Sunrooms in Chesapeake says homeowners should consider a sunroom the way they consider replacement windows and should look for windows that have a good insulating capacity.

Photo courtesy of TREX.

Though vinyl has quickly overtaken the aluminum sunroom market, it’s not the only option. American Window Company offers its customers sunrooms in both vinyl and mahogany in a variety of architectural styles designed to fit in with the home’s current look.  The advantage of mahogany is that customers can stain it any color they want, whereas vinyl sunrooms typically only come in white or tan. But vinyl is the better option, says Clear Visions’ Scruggs, for customers who want minimal maintenance and good insulating capacities.

“The most important thing after high-quality windows,” says LeBlanc, “is not to mix elements. Don’t mix an aluminum frame with vinyl windows. They will fade differently, and in a few years it won’t look good anymore.”

Many companies, including American Window, also provide stick-built sunrooms, which Champion considers the best option for homeowners willing to wait out construction. LeBlanc agrees, noting, “People want something that blends into the rest of the house. With stick-built custom sunrooms you can do that and use a foundation that matches the rest of the home.”

If you’re considering a sunroom for your home, the price tag will be in the $25,000 to $35,000 range, whether you buy a pre-fabricated room or        have it stick-built. Scruggs says in the current real estate market, an investment in a sunroom will pay for itself in one to two years in terms of adding to the home’s value.

To Maintain or Not to Maintain: Deck Options Continue to Expand

It wasn’t that long ago that building a deck meant using treated lumber or an expensive hardwood like cedar or redwood. And regardless of the choice, homeowners still had to contend with regular maintenance in order to keep the wood weatherproof and looking like new. But thanks to new synthetic decking materials, options have expanded. Today homeowners can have a virtually maintenance-free, long-lasting deck without a hefty price tag.

Tommy Bryant with Turtle Rock Construction says 50 percent of his business now is in synthetic decking. The new EPA-initiated use of ACQ to treat lumber has resulted in an increase in cost for treated lumber decks, making them more comparable in price to composite decks. “The big advantage in having a deck made of synthetic materials,” says Bryant, “is the low maintenance. All you have to do is clean it.”

Among the more popular synthetic deck materials is Trex®, which is a mixture of recycled plastic and waste wood fiber ground into sawdust. “It’s the best of both worlds,” says Trex® public relations officer Maureen Murray. “Plastic protects the wood, and wood gives the deck a natural look.”

“Trex® was the pioneer for creating an alternative for standard wood decks,” she adds. “It comes in a variety of colors, so you don’t have to paint it.” In 2004, Trex® introduced a wood-grain look for its decking materials, and in 2005, the company introduced decking that emulates the look of tropical hardwoods. Murray says alternative wood products like Trex® presently represent about 13 percent of the total market share.

“With our product, there’s a lot more design freedom,” she explains. “You can mix different colors into sunburst or herringbone patterns or create round or curved decks.”

Bryant is a big fan of Trex®. “Maintenance expenses are cut in half, if not more,” he says. And Trex® comes with a 25-year warranty. Murray notes that Trex® decks in the Florida Everglades have stood up to 13 years of harsh, wet climate so far.

Homeowners should keep in mind, however, that synthetic decks still require a treated lumber frame. Ed Sherrill, owner of Decks, Inc., in Charlottesville, says he doesn’t build a lot of synthetic decks. He uses Trex® on occasion, but says some alternative wood decking products will buckle if not installed properly, and synthetic railings can be dangerous if not installed according to instructions. “I think pressure-treated decks are fine,” he says. “They’re time-tested and proven. If you stain it every other year, it will look good for a long time.”

Sherrill believes the market for pressure-treated pine decks will remain strong. “For people who think about economy, safety, and aesthetics, the only thing that really does that is wood,” he says.

In the end, it may just be a matter of taste, cost, and the homeowner’s willingness to maintain the deck. Regardless of what material you use to build your new deck, make sure to do your homework, both on the product you use and the contractor you select to build it.

Deborah Huso is a freelance writer who resides in Bath County. She covers the history, culture, recreation, and people of the southern Appalachians for publications like Preservation Magazine, Blue Ridge Country, Virginia Living, and Military Officer.

Choosing the Right Decking Material



Beauty of natural wood grain


Can be stained or painted any color


High-maintenance — should be stained or painted at least every other year to prevent rot, insect infestation, and moisture damage


Will crack and split with exposure to weather and time



Virtually maintenance-free


Environmentally friendly, as it is generally made from reclaimed wood and plastic


Comes pre-colored in flat or wood-grained finishes


Limited color choices


Will require occasional pressure washing


No splinters


Resistant to moisture, insects, and rot


Still has treated lumber frame


Costs about 15 percent more than wood

Choosing the Right Sunroom





No painting or staining required


Limited color choices available


Best insulator, as vinyl doesn’t conduct heat or cold


Lowest-cost option



Can paint or stain any color


Generally offers a more “architectural” look than vinyl


Requires regular maintenance to prevent rot, insect infestation, and moisture damage


Highest-cost option


Inner Space

At Home in the Office: Creating Your Own Work Place

by Paula Deimling, Contributing Writer

Whether you need space for telecommuting, a home business, or a household office, you’re part of a national trend. And that means there are more choices than ever before.

One out of 10 U.S. homes has a dedicated home office, according to the National Association of Home Builders. The association expects that number to grow in the next decade.

But before rushing out to buy a lot of furniture and equipment, create a plan, says Stephanie Denton, immediate past president of the National Association of Professional Organizers.

Three steps Denton recommends for getting started:


choose the space that the office will occupy;


rid the space of items you won’t need;


think through exactly how the office will be used

These days, use of technology can dominate that home office planning process. In many ways, the home office has become a media center, says Office Depot’s divisional merchandise manager for furniture and accessories, Kirby Salgado. Traditional office products and high-speed Internet technologies work side by side.

One person who blended the high-tech and the homey is Dallas-based Lisa Kanarek, home office expert, founder of HomeOfficeLife and author of Home Office Solutions: Creating a Space that Works for You (Rockport Publishers) and Organizing Your Home Business (Socrates Media).

Kanarek designed her own home office with French doors and windows looking out into the back yard, a window seat, and white oak furniture. The office provides quiet working space and yet can be used as overflow space when she and her husband entertain. Her home wired with a high-speed Internet DSL connection, she can work anywhere in the house — even on the patio overlooking the family swimming pool.

Even though she doesn’t always work in her office, Kanarek says it’s still important to have a designated place for work items and files.

Dr. James Davis has turned his whole house into what he calls “an Internet café.”

A researcher with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Davis has an office at the Center, as well as a room in his home designated as the office. But usually (and especially when visiting colleagues stay at his house), the family room and living spaces become “the office.” He and his wife and visitors each work at laptop computers, using a wireless router connected to the cable that comes in through the basement.

The secret to your home office success is to take ideas from experts like Davis and Kanarek, but make an office that fits your style and personality.

Once you’ve created a plan, here are some ways to get started.

Designing the space

The exciting part about creating a home office is not having to follow the rigid, one-size-fits-all rules of the corporation, says interior designer Christopher Lowell, who hosts the Discovery Home Channel’s Christopher Lowell Show and Wall to Wall. “Make a home office a reflection of who you are,” says Lowell.

Lowell says that to decide on the look of your office or work area, analyze how you’ve arranged the rest of your house. “Seven Layers of Design,” detailed in his book of the same title, will work in the home office:

1. paint and architecture,

2. installed flooring,

3. upholstered furniture (especially a comfortable office chair),

4. accent fabrics,

5. non-upholstered furniture (your desk),

6. accessories,

7. plants and lighting.

Lowell recommends choosing a design theme for the office. That will eliminate a lot of choices and you’ll be guided by what fits the theme and what doesn’t.

The main goal should be creating an inspiring atmosphere, says Lowell.

Not sure what colors to use in your office? Go to your closet and take out all your black and white clothing. What colors remain? That’s a clue as to whether you prefer warm or cool shades.

Paint your walls with rich deep color. It can be calming. And don’t paint your ceiling white, but rather a medium shade of the room’s main color. When in doubt about paint color, go darker.

Beautiful and functional office furniture and accessories is a growing trend in office design. Fashionable accessories in bamboo, wicker, tin/metal, leather and suede add texture and interest to a room.

Window treatments add luxury. Place mirrors at opposite ends of the room, and they will stubble the light. Sales representative Joan Wright of Perry Park, Ky., notes that a mirror also serves as a reminder to smile while doing business on the phone.

Lowell recommends finding one style of picture frame that you like. The crown molding of the frame will add elegance. Four wall-mounted frames across and four frames underneath with cherished photos is one suggestion. It also keeps extra picture frames from cluttering the desk.

Another clutter-busting idea comes from Idaho author Don Aslett, who recommends mounting special souvenirs on the wall.

If you have only a small amount of money to spend on a home office, focus on accessories, lighting and color, says Lowell. Track lighting with halogen bulbs will cast pools of light into the room. A matching pair of lamps on a desk can add character to an office.

Furnishing the office

The desk will generally be the office’s largest focal point. Peruse the wide variety of desks sold at department and discount stores, and office supply stores.

A full pedestal desk has a wide flat top and drawers on both sides of the knee space. Workspace can be added to some desks with a connecting unit to create an L-shaped desk. A U-shaped desk can be created from three or four pieces, but this configuration generally does not work well in small spaces.

Joan Wright made one of the desks in her home office using two filing cabinets and a hollow veneer door that had a defect on one side and cost about $15. If a door has a doorknob hole already drilled in, combine a piece of plywood, epoxy glue and a small glass to create a pencil holder. One of Wright’s later desks cost $2,000. The “door desk” and expensive handmade desk worked just the same, says Wright, who has worked for a number of major companies from home offices in Maine, Kentucky, and Ohio.

Susan Shanbar and her sister, Marjorie Rubin, operate a promotional products and apparel company, Plentyfull Presents, from home offices that are about 60 miles apart on the outskirts of Boston. Shanbar just upgraded from a personal computer to a laptop.

“I got rid of the tower ... and all the wires. ... It’s wonderful,” she says, marveling at the extra desk space that resulted.

Because of laptops, writing desks have come back into vogue in some home offices. Still, office furniture manufacturers are building in grommets for cord and cable access.

“Furniture evolves as the technology evolves,” observes Salgado from Office Depot’s Delray Beach, Fla. headquarters.

Another evolution has been in the aesthetics of office furniture. People want a more residential look to office furniture in their homes, both functional and beautiful. An example of this is the Christopher Lowell Office Collection, sold exclusively at Office Depot. Lowell has actually created four collections, each with a specific theme and color palette: Town, City, Country (pictured on pg. 22) and Shore. At a glance it looks like heirloom furniture, but it can be disassembled, just as the plain utilitarian computer desks that proliferated in the 1980s with the introduction of personal computers.

Denton recommends buying an L-shaped desk. This allows you to work in one area, and have your current or forthcoming projects within easy reach. An L-shaped desk can be created by buying modular units to add to a desk.

Another desk option is a computer armoire or a credenza with a hutch. With many furniture lines, matching pieces — credenzas, bookcases, storage cabinets, lateral, and upright file pedestals — can be bought to coordinate with a desk or at a later time.

If you already have a desk, but aren’t happy with your office, consider rearranging the room. Sometimes making a U-shaped arrangement of existing furniture or adding more bookcases will enable you to use the space more efficiently. If your home office is in a corner of a room and you want additional privacy, design some sort of physical separation. A portable folding screen or a drapery between the desk and the rest of the room are possible approaches, when space is limited.

A place for everything

The experts agree: Assign a place for specific items in the office.

“If you have a place for an item, it takes five seconds to find,” says Don Aslett, author of The Office Clutter Cure (Adams Media).  If you know the general vicinity of an item, it may take five minutes to find. If the information is in one of numerous piles, it can take hours.

Jim Davis, like most scientists he knows, tends to use piles as a means of organization. One day, acting on an idea suggested to him by an administrative assistant, Davis bought a literature organizer, much like the kind you see in school offices, with three-inch-high slots for 81⁄2x11 pages. The unit he bought has about 20 slots that he labels and uses to store papers for current projects. “That changed my life,” he says. “Wow, where did you get that?” colleagues said, as if the cubbyholes were some miraculous invention.

Georgetown, Ky., professional organizer Sue McMillin suggests a formula to her clients: For every hour in the office, spend about a minute organizing/putting things away. Thus after a 10-hour day, you need to spend about 10 minutes of maintenance.

“You have to be even more professional than someone in a corporate office,” says Kanarek, mentioning how even small things, like unnecessary noise in the background, can create the wrong impression.

One time Kanarek had an appointment with a graphic designer whose office was at the back of the house. The route to the office did not look very business-like. She remembers asking herself, “Will my work get mixed among the clutter and children’s toys?”

A successful home office flows from good choices of design, furniture, technology and storage, and a multitude of factors. Foremost, though, is the attitude that you bring to it.

“It all comes down to organization and work ethics,” Wright says.

But also, ENJOY.

As Christopher Lowell says, “Give yourself permission to enjoy the space.”

Paula Deimling, of Cincinnati, is a former editor of Writer’s Market and writes on lifestyles and history topics for national and regional publications.

Home Office Hints



• Choose a theme


• Use mirrors and window treatments


• Pay attention to lighting


• Hang photos and souvenirs on the wall



• Consider a versatile, space-saving laptop computer


• L-shaped desks provide two work surfaces


• If space permits, rearranging furniture into a U-shape can increase efficiency



• Have a place for everything


• Put project piles in multi-space organizers


• Spend one minute organizing for each hour of work



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