In March 2020, only a week or so into pandemic mandates, Peter Fineberg’s phone blew up with requests from clients to open their swimming pools. “People want to get outside as soon as possible— and stay outside as long as they can,” says Fineberg, owner of Ted’s Pools in Newtown Square.
COVID-19 has inspired a wave of home projects that allow people to spend more time in the open air. They’re gathering around firepits, putting up pergolas, grilling in outdoor kitchens, tilling vegetable gardens and more. “We even had one family who swam in their heated pool until December,” Fineberg says.
Cocktail pools—also known as plunge pools—are a trendy way to get in the swim. Starting at around $45,000, they’re small, typically around 12 feet by 15 feet. The water is usually around chest high, and the design often has a shallow shelf on the perimeter where bathers can sit. In the off-season, the pool can be heated and enjoyed as a spa.
Homeowners are investing in firepits and other outdoor infrastructure they’ll continue to use long after the pandemic ends. The entry-level price for a masonry wood-burning firepit is $5,000. Gas versions with electronic ignition start at about $10,000. “No waiting, no dealing with ashes,” Fineberg notes.
Creating an outdoor kitchen can be as simple as mounting a grill in a masonry enclosure with a mini-fridge and countertop. An insulated built-in ice tub (with a drain) is a popular alternative to an automatic icemaker. “It’s a lot less expensive, maybe $2,500, and there are no electronic parts to wear out,” he says.
With more people working from home, patios and shade pavilions are doubling as alfresco office spaces. “People want to get out of the house, and it’s so nice to be outside and be able to enjoy the outdoors while you’re on a Zoom meeting,” says Laura Miller, partner, and principal landscape architect at Wallace Landscape Associates in Chadds Ford.
In addition to crispy crusts, brick pizza ovens provide a source of heat. One local family served Thanksgiving dinner in front of a wood-burning outdoor fireplace. And long after the pool is closed, homeowners are hanging out in pool houses equipped with outdoor TVs. “We even had a request for a golf simulator from a client who wanted to get more use out of his pool house,” Miller says.
When days grow shorter or entertaining stretches into the later hours of the evening, outdoor lighting is essential. “It’s become a part of every project we do,” Miller says. “Lights in pergolas, uplights on stone walls, lighting along walkways. Uplights positioned in trees in the distance are beautiful.”
Some homeowners are enhancing their connection with the outdoors by planting herbs and vegetables. “Kitchen gardens are popular in raised-bed planters, plots outside the kitchen door, or even pots on the deck,” says Miller, who’s fond of combining flowers with various shades of basil ranging from green to purple in planters and window boxes.
As people become more in tune with nature, there’s a growing interest in native plants, including indigenous species of winterberry, redbuds, rhododendron and azaleas. For inspiration, Miller suggests a hike through a local preserve. The meadows at Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square can be translated into a nature-friendly swath of tall undulating grasses at home. Chanticleer, the celebrated garden in Wayne, is home to both an expansive vegetable plot and a stone folly that could be an ideal feature at a historic home with lots of acreages.
“We were investing in outside amenities long before COVID,” says Lea Anne Welsh, CEO of Korman Communities and president of AVE luxury apartments.
At Welsh’s high-end rental properties, pools with sun decks, comfy lounge chairs and outdoor kitchens are the norm. “Granite slabs with grills built in; fridges for steaks and burgers before you cook them. We supply the utensils, as well as frequent cleaning,” says Welsh. “Even when it’s chilly, we see people bundling up, going out and grilling.”
In warmer months, residents of AVE’s Malvern property can shoot pool and play ping-pong outdoors. There are open-air yoga classes and regular visits by food trucks, with plans to add a dog park and a putting green to the grounds. Club chairs surround a firepit, “so people have their privacy and maintain their social distance, yet still feel part of a community.”
The pandemic has prompted more people to explore their front yards, where they can greet passing neighbors. “If your house doesn’t have a front porch, create a patio with a bistro table, or perhaps a coffee table and a few chairs where you can enjoy a sunny day, sort the mail and wait for the kids to come home,” says Danilo Maffei of Maffei Landscape Design in Kennett Square. “Put the same thoughtfulness into your outdoor spaces as you do with your rooms inside.”
Maffei designs stone walkways bordered with flowers, grasses and small shrubs that lead from the street to the front of the house. The goal is to bolster a welcoming feeling and enhance access to the front yard. “You don’t have to walk down your driveway to get to the street. You can have an attractive walkway that’s also convenient and allows you to enjoy the front of the house,” he says.
In planning an outdoor space, Maffei matches people with plants. If you aren’t keen on gardening and don’t want to hire someone to do the heavy lifting, stick with hardy ornamental grasses, forgiving ferns and rugged perennials like lavender, coneflowers and yarrow. Maffei’s mother planted rosemary “that’s going gangbusters” in a sunny spot near her driveway. “Millennials are thinking about what’s green and easy to care for,” he says. “Annuals need constant attention, lots of watering and might bloom for only a few weeks, while aloe and cacti need water once a week and reward you constantly.”
Getting the lay of the land is essential. When planting shrubs, be mindful of prevailing winds and low walls that provide shelter. Blueberry bushes like acidic soil and provide dainty white flowers in spring, in addition to fruit in summer. Maffei recommends planting notoriously invasive mint in pots, “so it can’t escape.”
Incorporate plants into the landscape that will draw you outdoors in the winter months. Great options include red-stemmed dogwood, winterberry holly and red chokeberry. Hamamelis × intermedia, an exotic variety of witch hazel more commonly known as Arnold Promise, unfurls clusters of vibrant yellow blossoms. “They bloom late in February and March and smell heavenly—so lovely that you’ll be glad you came outdoors,” Maffei says.