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Airdrie House & Home: Upgrade BBQ season with an outdoor kitchen this year

The unmistakable smell of food grilling on the barbecue and warm nights spent in good company are often some of the best parts of summer.
The unmistakable smell of food grilling on the barbecue and warm nights spent in good company are often some of the best parts of summer. And as pandemic-related restrictions limit social gatherings and vacation plans, take this year as an opportunity to up your grill game with a backyard kitchen.

From full-service units with attached bars, seating, counter space, sinks and built-in grills to smaller prep counters, there's an option for any yard. Specialty features such as pizza ovens, wine chillers, wet bars, fireplaces, smokers, roasting pits and even dishwashers will make your barbecue space the envy of the neighbourhood.

Before designing the outdoor kitchen of your dreams, consider what you want from the space. If you prefer to complete prep work inside, you won't need as much counter space outside. Those who hate to step away from guests may be more inclined to install a full kitchen with a refrigerator, warming drawer and cabinets for storage. If entertaining is the goal, an attached bar will let the conversation flow as guests relax and chat with you as you work to create a culinary delight.

If you have a smaller yard or want the space to be a kitchen one day and, say, a volleyball court the next, a mobile unit might be the solution. These kitchens-on-wheels come pre-built in various sizes and options, and can be as simple as a grill island to a more complex modular unit. For a simple DIY option, consider re-purposing a serving cart with shelves and a countertop to create a prep and storage space that can sit next to the grill. With a little elbow grease, you can transform an old sewing cabinet into an outdoor bar – check out for a handy tutorial.

Once you know what you want in your outdoor kitchen, determine the best location for it. If you'd rather not haul food and supplies across the yard, the ideal spot is about 15 to 20 feet from the home. Just ensure the grill is positioned at least 10 feet from wood siding, deck rails, tree branches and other combustible materials, and have a fire extinguisher nearby.

Keeping the kitchen close to the home means a shorter distance to run utilities, saving on installation costs. If electrical appliances will be used, a nearby power source is required. Use ground fault circuit interrupter outlets that automatically shut off power at the outlet when an electrical fault is detected. Consider having the kitchen on its own circuit, accessible from your home's control panel.

Building the kitchen on a pre-existing paved patio area or deck can help cut costs. If you have an awning, pergola or covered deck, putting your backyard cooking space under it will provide shade and protection from the rain. Attaching the kitchen to an outer wall of your home provides structure at no extra cost.

Other location considerations include ensuring the unit is on a strong, level foundation and determining common wind direction, so smoke from the grill is blowing away from your home.

Wherever your outdoor kitchen is located, Airdrie's unpredictable weather will need to be considered. Ensure the materials used can withstand the heat, hail and cold winters associated with the city, especially if the kitchen isn't enclosed or under a roof. Keep in mind, materials don't perform the same when left outdoors and may not have the durability and ease of maintenance they have when installed indoors.

While the grill is the star of an outdoor kitchen, the island is usually the biggest component. These come prefab or can be custom-made to suit your specific needs. You can build an island around an existing grill or create a larger space with bar seating. The design options are boundless, but what is most important is safety. If you're using combustible materials, install an insulated grill jacket to prevent the surrounding island from warping.

If you have a natural gas grill, ensure your island has proper grill and outdoor-kitchen ventilation. Vent panels should be placed four to six feet apart and as high as possible, because natural gas rises. Installation of ventilation is a task best left to a licensed contractor as a precaution to avoid gas leaks.

There are plenty of options for the finish of the island; cultured-stone veneer, brick or stucco are relatively easy to install and look great. Cultured-stone veneer is light-weight, easy to cut and can be mortared to wood, concrete block, or precast concrete. It looks like natural stone and lasts just about as long as the real stuff; however, it is the priciest of the three finishes. Brick is affordable and easy to maintain, but requires careful prep and can be tricky to cut, so some masonry skill is necessary. Stucco is inexpensive and can be troweled onto wood, concrete block, or precast concrete. It comes in a range of colours, is durable and flameproof. The drawback comes down to personal preference; it may not look as luxurious as other options.

When selecting cabinets, look for weather-resistant materials. While stainless steel remains a popular option, it becomes incredibly hot in direct sunlight and is very reflective. The benefit of the material is it cleans up easily and requires minimal maintenance, though it may still show some wear when continually exposed to the elements. You will need to pay attention to how the pieces are connected. Look for welded corners along with hardware and drawer pulls made of the same material. Also, keep in mind how windy it gets in Airdrie and consider investing in wind chains to prevent the stainless-steel cabinets from being blown open.

Polymer is another option for outdoor cabinets. The synthetic, plastic-like material is resilient to water, doesn't rust or deteriorate, resists fading and is easy to clean.

Some wood will work outdoors, though not all kinds are suitable. Varieties typically used for decks – such as teak, Brazilian walnut and cedar – are good options to withstand the elements and offer a warm, classic look. However, they can fade and require a fresh coat of clear sealer each year.

Weather-resistant materials such as granite, quartzite, porcelain and ultra-compact surfaces are great for outdoor countertops. While slate and stainless steel are more common, they aren't necessarily the best option.

Slate, like stainless steel, will heat up in the sunlight. While some slate is durable and stain-resistant, performance characteristics vary widely. Slate may stain, scratch, crack and cleave, according to, an online consumer resource guide for countertops.

The big drawback of stainless steel is cost, according to the resource guide. The skill required to fabricate countertops from the material means not many can do it, which pushes the price up.

A favourite material of Countertop Specialty is granite. It is so preferred, the resource guide uses it as the standard when comparing all other materials.

“Granite countertops are tough to beat for all-around ease-of-use, maintenance, colour choices and unmatched durability for outdoor countertops,” the resource guide states. “Granite can handle the weather and all the fancy barbecue recipes, food, drinks, fun (and sometimes chaos) of outdoor dining and entertaining.”

The material won’t etch, discolour or lose its shine, and many varieties are dense enough that a sealer isn’t required. However, Countertop Specialty recommends sealing the stone to prevent staining.

Another great option is quartzite – not to be confused with quartz, which is an engineered stone. Quartzite is a hard and durable natural stone with essentially the same qualities as granite.

“Quartzite will make an excellent countertop for your backyard kitchen,” states Countertop Specialty. “It will last a long time with little fuss.”

Available in a large variety of colour and pattern options, though not as many as granite, the colour pallet tends to lean toward white and greys. However, the stone often has veining in rust, brown, black or even pink, red, blue, yellow and green.

“Overall durability and performance are on par with granite and quartz countertops,” the resource guide states. “Which is to say that you can’t really get any better, but no surface is perfect.”

Porcelain is a highly durable, low-maintenance countertop that won't fade, according to Countertop Specialty. It won't etch or stain, is scratch-resistant (except to ceramic knives) and doesn't require sealing.

“Chips can occur, but they are rare,” states the resource guide. “Any repair will be visible, though.”

Dekton is an ultra-compact surface and is similar to porcelain, according to Countertop Specialty, that combines elements of porcelain, glass and quartz to improve durability.

“The knock on both porcelain and Dekton is that both are more difficult to fabricate and install, so finding a fabricator can be difficult,” states the resource guide.

Once the key components are in place, you may want to add lighting, seating and outdoor heating to keep the fun going well into those summer nights.

When fall arrives, winterizing the kitchen is as simple as cleaning and covering the grill, turning off appliances and unplugging them, and shutting off the water supply and flushing any remaining water from the pipes.

Whether a luxury space containing a full-scale cooking area or simply a cart or counter to prepare food, a backyard kitchen will transform your yard into the best barbecue spot on the block.

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