It used to be the patio and charcoal grill were standard fare for backyard areas. But as an increasing number of Americans spend more time at home, they're enhancing their outdoor areas, transforming them into elaborate cooking and clean-up areas.

Sinks, refrigerators, and even dishwashers, are becoming quick companions of the grill. And it's not just the grilling that's taking center stage - entertainment and relaxation features are, too.

These outdoor living areas are popping up in increasing numbers as homeowners continue to pour money into home improvement projects, resulting in outdoor areas that are more sophisticated, homier, and a more popular area of the house.

In response, manufacturers are answering the call with stylish, full-featured hearth, patio, and barbecue accessories.

The result? The backyard patio has blossomed from an area graced with a fire pit, barbecue, and patio furniture to a fully furnished, thoughtfully constructed living space. Some outdoor rooms include a built-in eating and cooking area, complete with grill, refrigerator, sink, and dishwasher, as well as furniture that hugs a central fireplace. Decorative lighting, candles, patio heaters, and plush furniture are frequently used as accents.

"The outdoor room has matured to a cohesive setting including elements of the family room, dining room, and kitchen," said Carter Keithley, president and CEO of the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association. "The only differences between the outdoor room and the great room are the walls, and the sun or start overhead."

In addition to fireplaces and cooking and dining amenities, small pools are popular. In fact, the number of smaller-sized pools is on the rise, according to the National Spa and Pool Institute.

Smaller lot sizes play a role. But the trend toward integrating a pool into the backyard setting - rather than having a large pool overwhelm the back yard - is popular.

"With everything happening on the national and international news, people are opting to vacation in their own back yards," said Jack Cergol, NSPI chief staff executive.

Designers say you should strive to make the outdoor living space an extension of your home.

"The interior and exterior of your home should be a complete package," said Skip Phillips, an NSPI Certified Professional Builder.

Leisure Living Pools, Inc. of Frisco, Texas, won a gold medal in the NSPI 2001 International Awards of Excellence competition for a small pool that company owner Tom Moneta designed as part of a pretty and practical outdoor living space.

Multiple leisure areas include not only the shallow activity pool but also an attached spa and a cabaña with a see-through fireplace.

A covered area spans the space between home and pool. And the cabaña, with its two-sided fireplace, a wet bar, a bathroom and a sitting area with a television, is just steps away, Moneta says. The owners can sit in the cabaña or in the spa and enjoy the fireplace, he points out.

This pool is outfitted with a wraparound recessed step, an attractive vanishing edge and a sun ledge with a comfortable contoured lounge. The spa sports a fountain. There's also another water feature - a dry creek bed and a rock formation near the pool make it appear as if the pool is fed by a spring. In reality, of course, the water is simply re-circulating beneath the creek bed.

And the outdoor room isn't limited to the warm summer months - many are spending time in this cozy area, grilling and snuggling around the fire, well into the winter and cooler months of the year.

And what's the cost? Some of these lavish outdoor rooms - not including the pool - cost upwards of $25,000. But industry representatives say they can be created for budgets less than an interior room remodel. Some of the higher-ticket amenities include a pool, spa, pool house, deck, cocktail bar, brick and pizza ovens, storage supply for wood, and built-in sound system.

"The beauty of today's outdoor room is flexibility that accommodates budget, space availability, and family lifestyle," said Keithley. "There is a wide range of luxurious products, no matter the customer or the size of the wallet."

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