When it came time for a home improvement project, Virginia and David Mandell debated between a media room and a backyard makeover.

Virginia Mandell knew their three kids would play video games on a screen the size of a toaster oven so she voted to overhaul the backyard, which was little more than a grassy patch overlooking marsh. "I wanted us to be outside," she said.

So the Mandells enlisted the help of Jody Smith, owner of Coastal Rock Productions, to transform their yard into an outdoor living space the family could enjoy year-round.

A banker by day, Mandell is a hobby gardener, so she was eager to jump in and help Smith with the design and plant selection.

Half the yard is sunny and the other half is shade. Plus, a portion of the yard had to be left as is because of its proximity to the marsh.

With those stipulations in mind, Smith and Mandell created a roughly 1,000-square-foot space filled with plants appropriate for the setting, a stone outdoor kitchen complete with grill, sink and Big Green Egg cooker plus a stone fire pit and plenty of seating.

Smith laid each stone by hand for the paths, seating and kitchen areas.

The project took about six months and since its completion, the Mandells have used the stone bench as the backdrop for their Christmas card, and the kids like to set up a tent for close-to-home campouts. When grandparents visit, they gather around the fire pit to simply hang out and talk.

"It feels like home," Mandell said.

Mandell even added a small kitchen garden with strawberries, basil, mint, tomatoes and an heirloom black diamond watermelon.

It's just big enough for Mandell to manage, and the kids have learned just how much work and time go into growing food.

"You really appreciate those six strawberries," she said.

Trend in outdoor rooms

That idea of creating backyards that become well-used and well-loved spaces for families is exactly the trend Katy Wood is seeing among her clients.

A Charleston area landscape designer, Wood said homeowners want an inviting and friendly garden, a usable extension of their home.

Gone are the days of creating a pristine and highly manicured backyard that's only admired through a window, Wood explained.

"There's a desire to get back to the basics," she said.

Homeowners are adding vegetable gardens and turning to more native plants that attract butterflies, bees and birds. As a certified master naturalist, Wood works with clients to create those spaces that are inviting to people and wildlife alike, carefully balancing a blend of ornamental and native plants.

She encourages clients to add seating in areas they might not normally use so they're taking advantage of every nook and cranny in the yard.

Plus adding fire pits and fireplaces - highly popular backyard additions - gives people the option to enjoy their backyard at all times of the year, Wood said.

Even national landscape architects are finding demand strong for attractive landscapes perfect for entertaining and relaxing.

A 2014 trends survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects found continuing popularity for both sustainable and low-maintenance design.

The survey also reported the most popular design elements include outdoor living spaces (kitchens, entertainment) along with seating and dining areas, fire pits/fireplaces and grills.

A 'homey' space

Vera Ivanchuk added a small herb garden, fruit trees and a 15-foot-by-20-foot patio to the backyard of her Summerville home, all with the goal of creating a space she and her husband could enjoy with their four children as well with friends and neighbors.

They hired contractors for framing and roofing the patio. Then Andre Ivanchuk drew on his construction background to finish out the three pillars of the porch with stone and add crown molding to the patio's tray ceiling.

Next, he's adding a slate floor and they'll stain everything in a natural cedar color.

They've been working on the project for a couple of months and by doing some of the work themselves, it keeps the costs down.

Plus, Vera Ivanchuk had fun coming up with the concept.

"I see ideas in a magazine or on TV, but then I always have my own ideas," she said. "It feels more 'homey' if you do it yourself. When it's your idea and you put some work into, it just feels better."

Now their yard, which backs up to protected wetlands, is their outdoor oasis. With a large wooden play set for the children, a breezy, open patio and wildlife always on display, the Ivanchuk family is ready to spend their summer relaxing in their new backyard.

"It's one of the best investments we've made," Vera Ivanchuk said. "Frienwds come over and we have coffee in the morning and drinks in the evening."