Nip in the Air? Time to Take The Party Outside. Really.

Chimineas and ovens that use wood or propane to warm up the patio can cost as little as $100.
Chimineas and ovens that use wood or propane to warm up the patio can cost as little as $100. (Bigstock Photo.com)
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By April Fulton
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, October 30, 2008

Just because the weather's getting colder doesn't mean outdoor entertaining has to end.

When Julie DeVol moved into a brand-new home in Spring Valley, she and her husband, Tony, decided to start holding Christmas Eve parties in front of a roaring fire on their back patio. Seven years later, with the guest lists sometimes topping 50 friends, neighbors and family members, the couple's children won't let them stop. So DeVol hauls out holiday decorations, lights dozens of candles, finds extra chairs and lots of cozy blankets, and cranks up the copper fire pits for an evening of singing, dancing and s'mores cooked over the fire for dessert.

"We love the fresh smell [of the fire] and that crisp air in the cold," she says. "We have white lights wrapped around our pergola year-round, so it's festive."

DeVol says the experience has created great memories, such as the delight her father showed when, just months before he died, it snowed on Christmas Eve for the first time in many years. Another year, "we got a piano guy to come and he played. He brought his own piano," she says.

The key to creating an all-season outdoor space is, obviously, making it warm enough to keep guests from freezing.

"Especially in the wintertime, people have been cooped up for months," says Robert Groff, who owns Groff Landscape Design in Fairfax Station. "So when you get a sunny day, this gets rid of the whole cabin-fever thing," he says.

Outdoor heating options range from chimineas, Mexican clay ovens shaped like gourds, which cost between $100 and $200, to custom-built fireplaces, which can run $10,000 or more.

Between those two price points are tall propane heaters, such as those used by restaurants on their patios, which start at about $200 and throw heat out in an eight- to 10-foot radius. "The heat lamps allow you to have an indoor temperature while enjoying the atmosphere of the outdoors," says Tracy Morris of Tracy Morris Design in Georgetown.

Other options include large, bowl-shaped, copper or iron fire pits, which start at about $300, says Betsy Owen, the owner of Maison et Jardin, a home and garden store in Great Falls. DeVol's model burns wood; others use propane-fueled lava rocks ringed with granite. Owen's shop carries a bar-height version with a ledge just right for holding drinks and providing an elbow rest while guests converse.

Build-your-own outdoor fireplace kits can be ordered online, starting at $2,000. You and your neighbors can put one together in a day or hire a professional to install it, Groff says.

(If you do install it yourself, check with your local building inspector to make sure you meet safety requirements for chimney height and distance from the house, Groff says. "You want to make sure the smoke isn't just going to swirl on top of the patio and there are no embers to catch on your wooden shingles," he says.)

Groff and his crew recently installed one such fireplace for a D.C. couple with a typically narrow rowhouse back yard, a project that was featured this month on the DIY network show "Indoors Out."


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