Air Conditioning: Creating a healthy and comfortable environment for your home

When we think of air conditioning, we think of cooling our home during our hot, humid summers here in Hampton Roads.  It’s interesting to note that cooling has been around in one form or another for thousands of years. Early civilizations such as the Romans and others circulated water from their water sources within the walls of their buildings in addition to several other methods to help cool their buildings.  Needless to say, modern air conditioning has been one of the major advances in science and technology that has allowed us to enjoy the comforts of living in our modern world.

In light of the above, when we think of air conditioning we think of cooling.  But the more accurate meaning of air conditioning is an integrated system which includes the implementation, maintenance, and control of heat, cooling, humidification, de-humidification, ventilation, and the removal of dust, micro-organisms, and other unhealthy bodies from your home.   Ultimately, air conditioning should address affordable comfort and health.

Proper air conditioning for your home starts with system design, which includes an accurate calculation of the heat and cooling requirements, air distribution (ductwork) and ventilation requirements and the cost of the various types of systems available. One note is that ventilation is becoming a very important requirement in today’s homebuilding world as houses are becoming tighter and tighter due to modern construction techniques and energy codes. Also the use of germicidal devices such as UV (ultraviolet) lights are lethal to mold spores, bacterial, and other micro-organisms and help provide for a healthy indoor environment.

Fortunately whether you are building a new residence for your family or remodeling your existing one, you have a variety of options from which to choose depending on your home’s design. Naturally, the higher the energy efficiency rated system you select, the higher the cost.  Though the air distribution system usually remains the same, the higher efficient equipment costs more.  A state licensed, experienced builder or state licensed, experienced HVAC contractor can help you choose the proper system for your needs and pocketbook to help you create a healthy, comfortable home that you will enjoy for years to come.

Without fully describing each type of available system, here is a brief explanation of some that are available in today’s marketplace:

  • Split System Cooling – These systems consist of an indoor cooling coil which is connected to an outside mounted condensing unit and require a separate source for heating your home, such as a gas or oil furnace.
  • Standard Air to Air Heat Pump System – This is one of the most prevalent types of air conditioning used in our moderate climate. This is also a split system which uses a reverse cycle for heating and cooling your home. Air to air heat pumps require some source of backup heat such as an electric heat strip because the system efficiency drops as the outside air temperature drops.
  • Hybrid Gas/Heat Pump – This option uses a split heat pump system in conjunction with a gas furnace. When the heat pump becomes less efficient, the heat pump shuts down and the gas furnace heats the home. This is an extremely efficient combination and gives the best comfort and lower energy bills.
  • Mini-Split Ductless Systems – This option gives you the benefit of not requiring ductwork. Mini-Splits can be floor, ceiling or wall mounted. One outdoor condensing unit can serve several indoor units thus giving you the opportunity to have zoning for separate rooms or areas. These come as either cooling or heat pump systems.
  • Ground Source Heat Pump (My Favorite) – The ground source heat pump uses the ground you walk on to heat and cool your home. It is the most efficient type of air conditioning system available. In our area, the earth’s ground temperature below approximately six feet is about 60 degrees year around. In the winter, through a series of horizontally or vertically installed pipes, heat is transferred from the earth and, in conjunction with a heat pump, heats your home. In the summer, the heat pump reverses its cycle and removes the heat from your home and transfers it to the much cooler 60 degree earth. Also available is an option that can provide an abundant supply of domestic hot water, virtually free in the summer months. A major plus to this type of system is that there is no outside piece of equipment that is subject to our harsh sea coast environment.  And guess what?  There is no outside equipment noise.

As one can see, there are many options from which to choose.  Plus, there are numerous products manufactured today that can help you create a healthy home while increasing your leisure time, such as remotely operated programmable thermostats that allow you to control the temperature in your home from anywhere. And there are numerous manufacturers of electronically controlled zoning systems that allow you to control the temperatures in individual areas using only one central air conditioning system. In addition to the UV light mentioned earlier, very efficient filtering systems are available for your health and comfort. Many of today’s homes are built so tight (energy efficient) that outside air is required. The installation of a central, energy efficient ventilation unit can provide you and your family with clean, fresh outside air while exhausting the stale inside air to the outdoors creating a healthy indoor environment.

Last but not least is the proper maintenance for this healthy, energy efficient system you have just purchased. Proper care not only helps maintain the efficiency of the system but will increase the lifetime of the equipment, giving you a long lifecycle for your investment. Proper maintenance should include tasks such as cleaning the indoor and outdoor coils and cleaning condensate drain pans and installing algae tablets in the pans to prevent algae and slime buildup in the drain pans. Filters should be changed on a regular basis, normally every 90 days depending on your indoor environment. Electrical components should be inspected and temperature readings should be taken and recorded for future maintenance tune-ups and proper cleaning.  Fans and other mechanisms should be checked for proper amperage draws and all major components should be inspected and cleaned. Professional tune-ups and cleaning is a must for maintaining an efficient operating system.

Remember, an efficient air conditioning system is one of the best investments one can make. Some highly efficient air conditioning systems have paybacks within anywhere from three to five years. Where else can you make a basically risk-free investment and get a 20% to 33% return while at the same time provide your family with a comfortable and healthy home?


Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, serves as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, contact or go to




Putting the ‘room’ in ‘mudrooms’

The term mudroom is a bit of a misnomer nowadays because, while these hardworking entry spaces see a lot of action, mud is seldom part of the picture.


Originally used to stash muddy boots to prevent tracking into the main part of the house, mudrooms now most often function like a secondary foyer. Here are some thoughts to help make your mudroom look more like an appealing room in your home and less like a utilitarian passageway.

Typically located just off a home’s back or side entrance and used by family and close friends, mudrooms come in many shapes and sizes. Some are true rooms and are often combined with laundry facilities, while others are more of a pass-through space in which family members grab and go. The pass-throughs generally fall into one of four categories: hallway, nook (e.g. under the stairs), corner or closet. If a closet, many homeowners like to remove the door and attractively style the interior.

Layouts largely depend on how homeowners intend to use the space, of course, but also whether the mudroom was part of the original architectural design. Regardless, mudrooms tend to need the following: hooks and clips, cubbies, containers, seating and lighting.
Hooks are versatile in terms of both function and placement, as they can hold coats, scarves, handbags, backpacks, umbrellas, keys and much more. And they can be arranged in straight rows, both low and high, or placed on a wall in an artistic manner.


Cubbies generally refer to a custom or purchased contemporary “hall tree”-type divided unit with an open front – often vertical in a mudroom application and often in the popular locker style. However, unless carefully designed with restraint, built-in cabinetry can easily look bulky, heavy and a bit claustrophobic. Whether your compartments are closed or open – and perhaps labeled, if possible – a variety of baskets and bins will keep items neatly separated for easy retrieval. But, even though baskets may look nice on top of your unit, how likely is anyone to climb up there?

Benches, with either floor storage or contained storage underneath a lift-up top, are very popular and practical seating choices for mudrooms. They tend to be long and shallow, so they work particularly well for small, narrow spaces and multiple users. But, there is no rule that says a chair or stool is not perfectly acceptable for a mudroom. It might be just what you need.

Lighting – though perhaps not the brightest lighting if dog fur, dirt and dings to the baseboards are an issue – is an important consideration not only for practical purposes, but for creating the ambiance your desire.

Other features that are not essential, but nice to have include a mirror for a last check and to bounce light while enlarging the space; a charging station for cellphones and such; and a wall clock, so you needn’t check your phone as you dash in and out.

Styles run the gamut, but whatever the style of your mudroom, it should certainly complement the rest of your home, even if it is a bit more rustic or informal.

If your mudroom is going to take a beating, consider hard-wearing surfaces like tile on the floor and perhaps board-and-batten wainscoting instead of drywall. An indoor-outdoor rug that you treat as an annual purchase will reduce the chance of someone slipping, while adding color and texture.

You can also incorporate art and family photos, pillows, glass canisters with snacks and dog treats, message boards and general decorative items like floral arrangements and ever-popular painted signs.

Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, serves as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. Contact or go to

Summer Newsletter

Derby Brackett has enjoyed a long love affair with Virginia Beach. Originally from Richmond, she spent many summers, weekends and holidays at her family’s oceanfront cottage on 62nd Street. As an adult with a family of her own, she continued making trips to Virginia Beach. When Derby’s mother passed away in 2010, the 62nd Street cottage was left to her and her brother. They decided to sell the property but Derby knew she couldn’t stay away for long.

She and her husband, Doug, spent a year looking for the perfect lot to build on. They discovered a gem on Atlantic Avenue between 59th and 60th streets, a mere block from the ocean and less than 3 blocks from the original family getaway home. VB Homes owned the lot and once she and Doug met with Chris Ettel and his team, it was easy to choose both the lot and VB Homes.

Must-haves for the new home included a central kitchen and open plan on the second floor, as well as a porch and deck on this level. Derby and Doug also wanted flexible living and sleeping space on the first floor to accommodate their large family of 6 children and 6 grandchildren.

Outside of the layout, Derby had another heartfelt request. The original 1960’s vacation home on 62nd Street was designed with 2-inch thick heart pine floors and pine doors with door latches instead of knobs. VB Homes salvaged some of the pieces and used them on the new home’s second floor. “The house now has the soul of the old home and the heart of our new home,” said Derby.

Completed in August, 2014, the final result was a 2,900 square foot home designed with an ocean blue Hardie plank exterior framed in white trim, and three levels of space that fit the Bracketts’ lifestyle perfectly. An open second floor lets Derby cook and entertain simultaneously and features a deep copper sink as the focal point for the kitchen design. The third floor master bedroom is a cozy escape with calming blue walls and a deck offering ocean views. The incorporation of the 62nd Street home’s floors and doors is a wow factor for guests.

Derby and Doug now live in Virginia Beach year-round. The Bracketts quickly embraced the North End preference for bikes as the primary mode of transportation. Thanksgiving has become a traditional hosting holiday for Derby and Doug, with all 18 family members joining them in 2016. Derby said, “I never thought we would be settled so quickly here. It is definitely the right spot for us.”


Entryway tips for putting your best facade forward

An attractive front entrance to your home creates a first impression not unlike a smile: It is welcoming and revealing of what’s inside.

Sometimes, small, DIY-type solutions are all that are needed to spiff up this focal point of your home’s facade, but sometimes a more involved, contractor-driven solution is desired. Here we offer a few tips on both, as well as considerations for the front door itself.


Entryways: providing the big picture

1. One of the quickest and simplest ways to punch up your front entry is with a color that contrasts with siding and trim. You can go bold with, say, orange or simply go with something unexpected like a springy green. But if you aren’t one for color, a glossy black can create a similar pop.

2. Walkways – concrete, pavers, stepping stones and so on – lead visitors to your front door and should ideally be about 3 to 4 feet wide and kept clear of overgrown plantings so that they can accommodate two people side-by-side. Most important, though, is their aesthetic compatibility with the colors, materials, style and visual weight of your front entrance. A substantial or grand front entryway, for instance, would overwhelm petite stepping stones.

3. Potted plants add personality and softness or structure, depending on the type of pots and plants selected, while just the right welcome mat – or rug on a covered entry – is like wearing the perfect piece of jewelry with an outfit.

4. While potted plants are fun and easy to layer, change and move, avoid overlooking the surrounding hardscaping. Given the cost of higher-end pots and plants nowadays, sometimes addressing steps and other architectural features is not substantially more expensive. Interesting tiles on the step risers or the addition of style-compatible brackets, railings, moldings, columns, awnings, and trim can pack a lot of design punch. If they can repeat an element from elsewhere on your home’s facade, all the better to establish a harmonious look.

5. Speaking of jewelry, house numbers, doorknobs/knockers, light fixtures, and mailboxes (if you aren’t required to mount yours at the curb) easily provide the polish that many entryways need. A wide range of styles and materials is available, so choose one that is perfect for your home’s vibe.

Entryways: focusing on the front door

When it comes to style, it probably goes without saying that the front door and the overall style of your home’s architecture should be compatible. Yet one of the mistakes homeowners make, in an understandable attempt to dress up the appearance of their house, is to choose a door that is too formal for the style of their architecture – for example, dark, rich wood tones and etched glass on a simple brick ranch. The unfortunate result is akin to being overdressed for a function: It looks out of place and inappropriate. And there’s no need to go wrong given the dizzying array of styles available today.

But there is much more to choosing a front door than issues of style. Also consider function, durability and safety, as doors take a beating from the elements of sun, wind and rain, not to mention from would-be intruders.

Here are a few tips to keep in mind if you opt for a new door, which can be a substantial, worthwhile investment:

1. Doors nowadays generally come pre-hung (with hinges and framing) in one of three materials: wood, metal, fiberglass-composite or a combination, each with its own set of pros and cons.

2. Wood looks rich and historic, yet it can warp, crack and, if laminated, delaminate. And wood doors are fairly pricey. On the plus side, they can be planed or cut if needed to fit an existing opening, unlike metal or fiberglass.

3. Wood doors, often a hardwood veneer over an engineered wood core, are sold in a range of types of hardwoods or paint-grade softwoods. If you choose a veneer, avoid one thinner than 1/16 inch. Glossy polyurethane-coated wood doors are thought to offer the most protection against moisture absorption, but be sure top and bottom edges are also coated.

4. Steel doors are both durable and secure. Cracking and warping are not issues, and an auto body repair kit will solve dent and ding issues.

5. With inner frames made of wood or steel, steel doors are filled with high-density foam insulation.

6. A range of finishes offers varying degrees of durability, but keep in mind that heat buildup between an aluminum storm door and a steel entry door can cause some finishes to peel.

7. Insulated aluminum doors have a baked-on enamel finish – smooth or woodgrain – that won’t rust, doesn’t require repainting, and allows manufacturers to offer 20-year warranties.

8. Fiberglass-composite doors and frames are a smart choice for our humid and other harsh climates. With wooden stiles and rails and polyurethane-foam insulation, they typically come with long warranties. And their embossed woodgrain pattern is quite convincing, provided, as with steel doors, you make sure that the patterns run vertically on the stiles (vertical members) and horizontally on the rails (horizontal members).

Carefully selecting your front door for decades of lowered maintenance and improved safety, security, energy efficiency, and appearance pays off big over time, while an all-round enhanced entryway offers a boost in curb appeal for your neighborhood and a more gracious welcome for you, your family and friends.

Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, serves as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, go to and reach Chris at

There’s an outdoor shower for every “body” and budget

If you loved running through the sprinkler as a kid, the kid in you is likely to find the same pleasure in an outdoor shower. Or if you longingly associate showering outdoors with watching the sun set over the sound and savoring a book during an afternoon storm from the cocoon of a screened porch—in other words, vacation—we can help extend that off-duty relaxed feeling long after the sunburn fades.74th St Outdoor Shower


Don’t have a pool or live at the beach?  No worries?  The chlorine-saturated and sand-coated no longer have exclusive rights.  If you exercise outdoors, do lawn work, have dogs to bathe, or simply want to feel a little freer and more in touch with the natural world, alfresco showering may be perfect for you.  And there is an outdoor shower for every budget and every style. An outdoor shower can be as simple as a garden hose run between a spigot and a showerhead fixture.  And there are plenty of DIY models on the market.  But if your sights are set a bit higher, here are a few tips to keep in mind:

Prospective pool and spa owners should think S-L-A-M before jumping in

If warming weather has you fantasizing about the ultimate in backyard pools and spas, before you jump into the deep end, we have compiled a list of considerations to both help you make a splash and prevent you from getting soaked. Though any licensed pool contractor or landscape architect can help prospective pool owners wade through the design and installation process, we encourage you to inform yourself about some of the basics, both practical and aesthetic. As you wade in, just think “S-L-A-M,” as in your beautiful backyard retreat will be a slam dunk.


Site: A pool can be built on virtually any site, but the cost may be prohibitive if the property isn’t naturally suitable for construction. Issues to consider include soil composition, water table, elevation changes and accessibility. Generally, the heavy equipment needed for pool construction requires at least 8-foot- wide access.

SHAPE: If you are determined to have a pool, there is probably a shape that will work for your application, even if it isn’t exactly what you had imagined. For example, a long narrow rectangle is ideal when space is limited.

STYLE: Though it probably goes without saying that your pool and surrounding area should complement the style of your home and landscaping, be it classic, rustic, sleek, modern or whatever, there is another possibility. What happens if you are dead set on a hip South Beach-style escape that seems completely at odds with your Tidewater Colonial? All may not lost be lost, as a top-notch designer will likely be able to create a transition from one world to the other through expert selection and placement of landscaping and hardscaping materials, not to mention the design of the pool itself from tropical lagoon to urban plunge pool.

LIFESTYLE: Before you take the plunge, get crystal clear about your lifestyle and how your new pool will fit into it now and over time. Do you want the pool for exercise, leisure sports, cooling off, entertaining, or ambiance? Your pool design should work hard to afford you the lifestyle you have worked hard to achieve. Most people spend more time looking at their pool or dwelling around its edges than actually swimming in it, so consider the likes of wading areas for young children or for adults in lounge chairs, a tanning ledge and, for the ultimate in resort style living, an in-ground spa. Consisting largely of some type of seating and jets, spas are as varied as pools but should visually harmonize. The newer “spools” combine a larger spa with a smaller pool.

LOCATION: Virtually every city government website hosts an exhaustive list of zoning and building laws related to pools, decking, fencing and insurance, including in relation to their location on your property. Work with your contractor and designer to ensure that you are in compliance to avoid a costly misstep.

LINER: There are essentially three types of pool liners: concrete (gunite), vinyl and fiberglass. Each has advantages and disadvantages related to initial cost, installation, durability, maintenance, appearance and more. Carefully study the pros and cons to make a selection that is the best fit.

LIGHTING: Since pools are valued as much or more for ambiance as they are for swimming, you will want to enjoy your pool even as the sun sets. Consider lighting both in and around the pool. Most experts will agree that LED lighting is the brightest idea for creating the desired mood. For the pool itself, LED lights can be installed in the coping or in pipes within the walls, casting a soft glow across the water, even one that can be programmed to change colors. Around the pool – for both aesthetic and safety enhancement – low-voltage lighting is generally the preferred type. Because of the presence of water, however, special considerations come into play. Let an expert guide you.

AMENITIES: Think of your project as a poolscape rather than simply as a pool. Design the entire space holistically, even if you build it in phases. Amenities to consider include a pool house, outdoor kitchen, loggia, pergola, gazebo, cabana, firepit, fireplace, outdoor shower, play area, and other sun and shade options. People typically want to both sit and lie beside a pool, so consider a variety of seating options, including lounge chairs for a resort feel, but also hammocks and daybeds. Features and focal points that make your space even more deluxe include rock waterfalls in a more naturalized setting, water spouts or deck jet water features for a sleeker and more contemporary context, a swim-up bar, underwater benches, shallow beach-style pool entries, or even a dry recessed lounge area within the pool.

MATERIALS: Concrete used to be the material of choice for pool decking, but it is prone to cracking and is complex to repair. Also, growing eco-consciousness related to run-off makes a more permeable decking more desirable. “Unit paving” as opposed to poured slabs, addresses both concerns and options now abound. Three main considerations should drive your decision besides appearance and budget: heat absorption, feel on bare feet and anti-slipping properties. Some options include unglazed tile, cast concrete pavers, stone, wood (including exotics like ipe), brick and rubber.

MAINTENANCE: Though all pools have different maintenance needs, the key is regular and routine care in these areas: skimming, vacuuming/brushing, cleaning the filter, professionally servicing the heater if applicable, maintaining water level and pH level, chlorinating the water, locating and repairing leaks, and winterizing.

Now, go on, get your feet wet and enjoy a year-round staycation.

Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, serves as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, go to

Enjoy 3 seasons of al fresco dining at home with a thought-out custom kitchen

Those of us who reside in Coastal Virginia are fortunate to enjoy three growing seasons, which translates to three seasons of cooking and dining outdoors. A grill and a prefabricated portable food prep station are just about all it takes. However, if you covet a more custom kitchen, there are at least seven S’s to consider.

Create an outdoor space for dining al fresco

Sympatico spaces. Start by asking yourself some basic questions about how you cook and entertain indoors, how you imagine yourself doing the same outdoors, and how you want your indoor and outdoor spaces to relate to each other. Though outdoor cooking and dining open up new possibilities for how you entertain, you aren’t liable to become a dramatically different cook or host when you step outside. And unless your outdoor kitchen is fully outfitted and independent, these two hardworking spaces will need to function in tandem. So, think also about the distance between them as well as the navigable route between them. Will the outdoor space be attached to your home or detached? Remember, no matter how appealing, if your outdoor cooking space isn’t easily accessible and easy to maintain, you aren’t likely to use it.

Style. Though most homeowners think visually when they imagine al fresco entertaining, the truth is that style should be secondary to durability. Hire the best contractor you can afford, for Mother Nature is especially intolerant of shoddy craftsmanship.

In general, sleek lines and polished finishes look more contemporary, while irregularity, texture and matte finishes impart a more classic, rustic or traditional look. The choices of layouts tend to be a straight line, often against a pre-existing edge, border, or wall; an L- or U-shape; or an island. Incorporating bar seating as a casual dining option for a few people is a smart choice, even when a dining table is nearby, as outdoor cooking areas tend to become hubs. With food prep, cooking, and dining all in close proximity, dual level counters are nice in order to separate functions.

Surfaces. As for counters, experts agree that homeowners’ best choices are natural stone (including less expensive stone veneer), properly installed concrete or outdoor-rated tile. However, if a manufactured countertop like quartz or recycled glass is a key component of your dream kitchen, seek the advice of the manufacturer to ensure that the pigments and any epoxies or fillers will hold up during outdoor use over time without changing color from UV rays. Porous stones – marble, soapstone, slate, limestone, and bluestone – will likely stain over time, while granite performs well in the elements, is less prone to absorbing stains and odors than other stones, and is unlikely to fade. Don’t discount corrosion-resistant stainless steel or some less frequently seen options like brick, stucco, sealed teak, or virtually maintenance-free marine-grade polymer. Regardless of the material, darker colors and metal will absorb more heat.

As for flooring, stone is appealing, of course, but it is fairly expensive and can absorb oil, leaving stains behind. Stained and stamped concrete is an excellent choice, but you only need look around at driveways to know that considering a base adhesive is a smart move to help the concrete withstand the freeze-thaw cycle without cracking. Likewise, if tile is your choice, you need only think of your cracked ceramic planters to know that a frost-proof, unglazed product, preferably protected with a penetrating sealer, and a grout with the proper additive is worth the extra cost. In all cases, consider the most slip-resistant version of your preferred material.

Shelter and shade. Enjoying a meal outdoors is hard to beat. But complete exposure to the elements is not necessarily desirable. Consider a pergola with a slatted or lattice roof for ventilation, an electric or manually operated awning, or even an umbrella in a sun-resistant fabric, which works for both portable and built-in kitchens. For the latter, a hole in the counter to accommodate the umbrella post is ideal. Shade trees may sound like the perfect protection for your outdoor paradise, but when their leaves start to drop, paradise may transmute into perdition. To extend the outdoor cooking and dining season in more extreme temperatures, consider portable butane heaters and dual-use fans, perhaps with built-in misters.

Splurges and necessities. It is helpful to think of your outdoor kitchen in terms of hot, cold, wet and dry zones. For longevity and optimum performance, make sure that your hot and cold appliances are not placed immediately next to each other, and choose only appliances rated for outdoor use. In the hot zone, most everyone would agree that a grill is the centerpiece. Hybrid or dual grills allow cooking with gas or charcoal, with the latter making a comeback. If the grill is close to the house or under an enclosure, a range hood or other proper ventilation is paramount. Of all the “extras,” many homeowners find that a side burner is all but essential.

Other “hot” zone items to consider include a dedicated gas line instead of propane, a wood-fired pizza oven, a smoker, and a deep fryer. Frying outdoors is much less hassle than indoors. In the cold zone, ask yourself how critical are an under counter refrigerator, a wine cooler, a kegerator with two taps, and an ice maker.

For the wet zone, don’t let your first dinner party be the first time you realize that you didn’t consider cleanup. Sinks and even dishwashers may be more indispensable than you would have thought.

In the dry zone, think “2 x 3.” Thirty-six running inches of 24-inch deep counter space is considered by most experts to be a bare minimum of prep space. Some kind of undercounter storage is handy, perhaps with a seamless rain gutter around door and drawer openings to prevent water and dirt from getting inside. Infuse it all with music – say, with an iPod-compatible marine-grade sound system. Or just plan to bring your waterproof Bluetooth speaker outside with you.

Seeing. As with indoor kitchens, their outdoor counterparts require a blend of – preferably dimmable – task, accent and ambient lighting, most of which should likely be rated for wet or damp locations. Typically, appliances and lighting should be on different circuits. A bright clip-on grill light or standing lamp can provide adequate lighting for work areas while ambient lighting might take the form of all-weather string lights or rechargeable LED tea lights. If your kitchen includes a covering, pendant lights are pretty and practical over bar areas, while a ceiling fan with a light kit will provide lighting over a dining table and help keep mosquitoes moving at the same time. For safely moving between indoors and out, “garden” style fixtures on short posts along paths, riser lights on stairs and wall sconces or an overhead lantern near the entrance to your home should do the trick.

Safety. Lest your outdoor kitchen investment go up in smoke, position your grill at least 15 feet from combustible materials to include wood siding, deck rails and tree branches, and always keep a fire extinguisher stored nearby. An insulated grill jacket and vent panels aren’t glamorous, but are essential components of your outdoor built-in kitchen’s structure. If yours is a gas kitchen, check the line for leaks. And, if electric, GFCI outlets will be required. Also, you should use only extension cords, fans and lights that have Underwriters Laboratories outdoor ratings, because they stand up to UV exposure and extreme temperatures.

Now, tie on your apron, light some candles, and embrace the other two all-important S’s: spring and summer.


Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, is a past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, visit

Better design the key for great outdoor spaces on any budget

There is nothing wrong with a backyard grill and a couple of Adirondack chairs. However, if you are at a point in your life where you want your outdoor spaces to feel more like your indoor spaces, consider our tips for better design regardless of budget.

Ettel Home evening May 22 2014

First, decide on the extent of your transformation. Do you want a simple patio or deck, or is a series of outdoor rooms more to your liking? If the latter, yet your budget is tight, consider creating an overall design that can be installed in phases for a result with cohesive flow.

Regardless of the size of your project, consider how you want the outdoor spaces to function. Is it for dining, cooking, conversation, lounging, recreation? How will they connect to the indoors visually and physically? How will they connect to each other and relate to surrounding areas.

Outdoor spaces that aren’t easily accessible, regardless of how beautifully appointed, are not likely to get much use. So consider the inside-to-outside transitions from both the interior and exterior perspectives.

Zones can be established in a number of ways like shifts in hardscaping materials from, say, concrete pavers to brick, or defining boundaries through the placement of planters and plantings. Regardless, moving between zones should feel seamless.

Traffic patterns can be established in similar ways to create spaces that unfold into each other through simple openings or down more formal walkways. If the latter, a curve to help create a sense of discovery is nice.

Always consider the “borrowed landscape” or what lies beyond the areas you are developing, taking advantage of attractive features and views and minimizing or camouflaging those that aren’t, like your neighbor’s shed.

With your plan mapped out, next consider focal points for each area, including sources of fire and water. A full-size fireplace will draw people to it outdoors just as it will indoors, or perhaps more so. But so will a more flexible and affordable fire pit if your space or budget is restrictive. Just be sure to consult building codes in relation to fire safety. Water features, whether an extensive pond or a tabletop fountain, provide both beauty and soothing sounds. Other focal points might include a specimen tree, a garden wall or trellis, or a piece of sculpture.

Provide a variety of seating options for people of all ages: low, high, stationary, portable, rigid and upholstered. Maybe even a swing or hammock. But coordinate colors, styles, and materials and limit the number to avoid a cluttered look. For upholstered furniture, invest in fabrics that can take a beating from the sun and that dry quickly. Overhead, consider some protection from the sun in the form of pergolas, umbrellas or awnings.

And lastly, have some fun decorating your spaces to engage all of the senses and create visual interest in support of your focal points. Be thoughtful in your selection of shapes, colors, and textures in both manmade and natural materials: accent tables, candles and outdoor-rated lighting, throw pillows, rugs, planters, decorative objects, rocks, and plant materials, including some with scents.

Whether your outdoor areas have a kicked-back Parrothead vibe, country-cottage charm, or sleek South Beach sophistication each should be a function of your personal style combined with the style of your home. Outdoor spaces can offer surprise elements perhaps not found inside your home, but generally a few repeated elements, colors, or motifs ensure a more satisfying and harmonious look and feel between indoors and out.

If an outdoor kitchen is in your budget, be sure to read next month’s column. The considerations are many – materials, location, appliances, storage, work surfaces, and ambiance – and we will get you cookin’ outdoors in comfort, safety, and style.


Chris Ettel is founding partner of VB Homes. He serves on the Tidewater Builders Association board of directors, serves as past chairman of the TBA Remodelers Council and is a longtime board member of the Virginia Beach Public Schools Education Foundation. For more information, go to