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Outdoor Kitchen Panels vs Modular vs Prefab Kits: Which is Best of the 3?

By Daniel Cdebaca

June 17, 2022

three images of different types of outdoor kitchen kits avaiable to purchase

If you’ve spent any amount of time researching an outdoor kitchen project… (And you’re leaning toward a kit…)

You’ve quickly realized there is a dizzying amount of information (and options!) out there.

What should be a fun and simple process… Often turns into a source of brain-busting frustration.

Thankfully, navigating this sea of information does not have to be so complicated.

We’re going to break it down for you.

While there are many aspects of your project to consider… Let’s ease into things.

The first thing you’re likely to look into is the construction method.

So let’s start there.

three images of different types of outdoor kitchen kits avaiable to purchase

There are three main ways to construct your outdoor kitchen without starting completely from scratch. You may choose a modular cabinet package, a prefabricated kit, or consider a new system with outdoor kitchen panels.

So, which kit construction method is best?

Your search ends here. But first, we need to go back to where it all started.

Quick Links:

History of Outdoor Kitchens

a vintage style outdoor summer kitchen still in use

If you go back far enough… What we know as outdoor kitchens were simply known as, well, “kitchens”. (Although, some would refer to them as “summer kitchens”!)

But there’s more to grill island history than jumping straight back to the caveman days.

Grilling first came onto the scene as a pastime in the 17th century. Although, the proteins were generally roasted over an open fire… Not exactly the way we think of grilling today!

And of course, the modern concept of a backyard barbecue really hit its stride in the 1950’s and 60’s.

But even still… Full blown BBQ islands didn’t really jump onto the scene until the 1990’s.

Why?

At the time… Appliances designed to be built into a BBQ island didn’t exist. So your only option was to modify appliances for an unintended use. (That’s risky business!)

As a result, construction methods for an outdoor kitchen were underdeveloped.

Seeing as there wasn’t much for the burgeoning grill island industry to take hold…

What changed?

The 90’s introduced the advent of the outdoor kitchen frame system.

Quick History on Outdoor Kitchen Frames

vintage outdoor kitchen frame system

Early BBQ island frames were constructed from lumber. They were sheathed in plywood and finished off with stucco.

Access to the island was accomplished using wooden cabinet doors.

While a great advancement, these kitchens suffered from poor construction. Not surprisingly, few of these grill islands exist today!

Eventually… The wooden frames of old were replaced with metal. Plywood sheathing was upgraded with cement board.

This forms the basis of how early outdoor kitchen kits were constructed. (Seeing the progression yet?)

Overall… The BBQ island industry has evolved rapidly over the past 30 years.

There are now three primary methods you can choose for your grill island kit.

Let’s discuss.

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Construction Methods

Building an outdoor kitchen is no small feat.

So the easier the construction process can be… The better the experience will be for you.

Let’s see how these three methods stack up.

Prefab Construction

prefab outdoor kitchen with bar seating and built in grill

Most prefab BBQ islands are built using the classic frame method.

This means there are quite a few layers to the project.

You’ll start with metal frames. These will form the “bones” of your outdoor kitchen.

From there, cement board is attached with cut outs for the appliances.

Appliances are dropped in… And then the finish is applied.

The finish can be done with a variety of mediums. Stone veneer, stucco, brick, and tile are most common.

Now… The prefab aspect of this means the kitchen has been prefabricated.

So when you order a prefab outdoor kitchen… You’re ordering a completed (or nearly completed) product.

Some kits will only require you to install the appliances and countertop. Others will arrive as pre-finished panels you need to install yourself.

Either way… That means minimal labor on your part!

While this method may seem like the clear winner… There are some strong disadvantages. (We’ll get to that later.)

How do modular bar and bbq grill islands compare?

Modular Construction

Frame for an outdoor Kitchen being Welded together

Modular BBQ islands got their start in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

A company by the name of Danver is the originator of this method. If you’re not familiar, they are sheet metal fabricators with a varied product line.

In addition to manufacturing home office equipment and stainless steel home products… They were making custom access doors for grill islands back then.

After a while, they created a solution for a complete stainless steel BBQ island. (This is no small feat!)

Around the same time… A company called Werever began making outdoor cabinets from high density polyethylene.

Today, there are dozens of companies making these cabinetry-style grill islands. Powder coated aluminum, stainless steel, and high density plastics are the mediums most often used.

Found at big box stores and specialty retailers… There are also a plethora of sources online.

While often made with high performance plastics, aluminum, or stainless steel… The way modular BBQ islands are constructed remain the same.

The simplest way to think about it?

How it All Comes Together

stainless steel modular outdoor kitchen_

Modular outdoor kitchens are individual cabinets arranged together.

With these methods… It’s easy to arrange a more personalized layout.

You pick the units you want to create your design!

Pretty straightforward.

So… What’s the work on your end?

It depends.

Sometimes, the cabinets will arrive fully configured. So you simply have to arrange them.

Even if they arrive fully configured… Many brands don’t sell modules with the outdoor kitchen countertop. So this will require a bit more effort on your end.

In some cases… The modules will arrive in pieces. So you’ll have to assemble and configure them yourself. Of course, this will take a bit longer.

Overall, pretty painless!

Finally, let’s review panelized construction.

Outdoor kitchen panels Construction

Consider panelized and frameless outdoor kitchens the “remastered” method.

It combines the best of all construction methods… And enhances them to a new level.

While only in existence for just about a decade… They have made serious waves in the grill island market.

Why are outdoor kitchen panels so popular?

As you know, skilled labor has been on the decline for quite a while now. This means there are fewer skilled builders available to construct a BBQ island.

Further… The demand for outdoor kitchens has grown (and continues to grow!) every year.

Panelized construction offers an efficient and no-nonsense way to obtain a BBQ island. (No need to hire a contractor, either!)

So, how are they constructed?

It’s quite simple, really.

A Familiar Twist

outdoor kitchen kit assembly 2

If you’re familiar with SIP construction for homes… You’ll get the concept quickly.

SIP construction involves panels that slide into place. This creates the structure of your home, with insulation in the center.

Concrete panels for outdoor kitchen operate in a similar way.

You begin with monolithic concrete panels.

What we mean by monolithic is… The finish is fully integrated into the outdoor kitchen concrete panel. You’re working with a single, solid piece. (This means each panel is both self-supporting and structural.)

BBQ island appliance cut outs will be accounted for as well.

To assemble, attach the panels to create the perimeter of your outdoor kitchen.

From there… All you do is drop in your appliances and countertop.

That’s it! You’re done.

Start to finish, this process can take as little as two hours!

Not bad for completely upgrading your outdoor space. (The convenience is nothing to scoff at, either!)

Now… These construction methods may all seem fairly straightforward.

The differences and value really come out with materials.

Ready to discuss?

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Material Comparison

A BBQ island is only as good as the medium used.

In the purest sense… It truly is, “you get what you pay for”.

So, how do outdoor kitchen materials between these methods stack up?

Great question.

Prefab Material

a graphic showing the layers of traditional outdoor kitchen construction

Interestingly… The issue with prefab materials isn’t actually the materials themselves.

The problem is with the layers these materials create.

What do we mean, exactly?

Well, when you’re building a prefab grill or bar island… There are 3-4 layers of material involved. (A familiar example would be a Bull outdoor kitchen.)

The metal frame, the cement board, the cladding material (if required), and the finishing material.

That’s a lot of room for things to go wrong!

More Layers, More Problems

outdoor kitchen falling apart

Do you live in an area of the country with frequent inclement weather?

Chances are, the answer is “yes”.

Whether you have snow, ice, hail, frequent downpours, or humid ocean air…

All of the above will spell trouble for a prefabricated outdoor kitchen build.

Why?

Rapid changes in temperature and moisture will cause the layers to expand and contract.

This leads to the issue of delamination. The layers of your BBQ island quite literally come apart!

This could show up as cracks, tiles popping off, or pieces of your finish chipping away.

Aside from being unsightly… Left too long, it will become a serious structural issue!

The metal frame will begin to rust or corrode.

And at that point?

All you can do is replace your island.

With all the time and money you’ve already invested in your project… That’s a painful concept.

How does the durability of modular fare in comparison?

Modular Material

As alluded to earlier… Modular outdoor kitchens can be made with a few different mediums.

Most often?

You’ll see stainless steel or powder coated aluminum cabinets. Brands such as New Age or Challenger are known for these options.

Select brands will provide a high performance plastic option as well.

Let’s break down each offering.

Stainless Steel

sheets of stainless steel used to build an outdoor kitchen

Stainless steel can be okay for building an outdoor kitchen with grill island… But definitely not preferable.

Why?

Most importantly… The grade of steel used matters.

304 stainless steel will be the most resistant to rust and corrosion. Unfortunately, most modular brands aren’t using this grade of steel.

What does this mean for you?

After a couple seasons of inclement weather… Your BBQ island is highly susceptible to rust or corrosion damage.

Not fun!

Additionally, heat absorption can be an inconvenience.

Under the hot, beating sun… Stainless steel cabinets and countertops can get searing hot.

While not necessarily a deal-breaker… This can make your outdoor kitchen uncomfortable to use!

Let’s move on to aluminum.

Powder Coated Aluminum

aluminum tubing used for outdoor kitchen frame system

Offered in a wide array of colors… It’s no doubt that powder coated aluminum can make a nice outdoor kitchen finish.

It’s also a cost-effective option for those working on a budget.

Unfortunately, the benefits end there.

Powder coated aluminum simply isn’t built to last.

Yes, this material is considered corrosion resistant… But the second that coating chips off?

You’re in big trouble.

Another consequence of aluminum is it isn’t as durable as stainless steel. So your cabinets will be more susceptible to dings and dents.

Overall?

If you want a metal finish… You’re better off with stainless.

HDPE & PVC

hdpe plastic sheets used for outdoor kitchen panels

These high performance plastics can be okay… But you have to be extremely careful when shopping.

There’s a lot of sneaky descriptors out there!

Many companies will offer HDPE or PVC for their outdoor cabinets.

While it’s true they won’t rot or rust… They can be susceptible to warping and color fade.

This can be problematic! Color fade can make your BBQ island unsightly… And warping will make it plain unusable.

That’s an outdoor kitchen buying mistake if we’ve ever seen one!

And if you prefer to keep your products environmentally friendly… HDPE or PVC won’t be the right choice for you.

So… What type of polymer can be okay?

Well, we’d actually recommend marine-grade composite products over HDPE or PVC.

While tough to find… These modular outdoor kitchens do exist!

Alright. Enough about modular!

Let’s wrap up with panelized.

outdoor kitchen panels Material

At this point, you may be feeling a bit confused.

Thus far… We haven’t had anything good to say about the material offerings.

Well, until recently… There really wasn’t a great option out there!

So, what are outdoor kitchen panels made from?

Great question.

Considering that we are the only company that offers a panelized system… The answer is quite easy!

Concrete Panels

As we alluded to earlier… Panelized outdoor kitchens utilize concrete.

But we didn’t specify the type of concrete.

We use high performance concrete panels for our outdoor kitchens.

What does this mean… Exactly?

Our concrete mix is reinforced with proprietary fibers.

This ensures your DIY outdoor kitchen will be able to withstand whatever Mother Nature throws at it… And look great while doing so.

The same goes for our countertops. Not only is the mix combined with fibers… We further reinforce the countertop with composite rebar.

Your panelized outdoor kitchen isn’t going anywhere, anytime soon!

Even better?

A Superior Offering
RTA outdoor kitchen kit assembly

Compared to the materials listed above… Concrete is more environmentally friendly and involves less waste.

Panelized outdoor kitchens aren’t cut to size or have sections removed for appliances. They are poured with these cutouts already accounted for. This leads to virtually no waste in the manufacturing process.

Further… It’s worth mentioning that our concrete panels are rated for 100 years. They don’t just sit there and look pretty. They provide formidable structural integrity to your investment!

Alright. Now that you understand the materials used in each method… You’re wondering…

What are the pros and cons?

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Pros and Cons

No matter what we do… There are going to be both advantages and disadvantages to a particular method.

However, you can be aware of them before making a regretful decision!

We’ll begin with prefab.

Prefab Advantages

prefab outdoor kitchens invasive delivery

Prefab is as close to “set it and forget it” as you can in the world of outdoor kitchens.

You select your design… Order it… And it arrives at your home completely constructed.

This method requires the least amount of outdoor kitchen planning.

Compared to modular… You’ll also have more finish varieties at your disposal. Consider stucco, brick, tile, or stone to create your unique look.

Prefab Disadvantages

outdoor kitchen tile countertop falling apart

Where prefab outdoor kitchens suffer is the lack of innovation. Frame style outdoor kitchens are a convention that’s long established.

Unfortunately, the obvious option isn’t always the best solution.

For the vast majority of US residents… Prefab outdoor kitchens aren’t engineered to perform for the long haul in most climates.

After a harsh winter or two… You’re going to be pulling your hair out trying to repair the damage!

We’ve seen it all.

Tiles popping off, stucco cracking, stones falling off, destroyed cement board, and worst of all… Exposed frames.

Trust us, it’s just not worth the trouble!

Even if you live in a dry, arid climate like Nevada… Prefab can still be problematic.

Why?

Prefab outdoor kitchens arrive fully constructed. More often than not, this means a crane has to drop it into the proper location.

If access to your backyard is limited… This will be extremely difficult (or even impossible)!

To say it’s a logistical nightmare is an understatement.

Another disadvantage is the lack of custom outdoor kitchen options. With prefab… What you see is what you get.

If you’re looking for flexibility in design, prefab is not the solution for you. This is weird having this under a title of “logistics challenges”

Modular Advantages

a big box store with pre packaged outdoor kitchen kits for purchase

A great advantage to modular is simply how available they are!

In most areas… You can find a ton of options at the local big box store, specialty retailer, or online retailer.

There are also many brands offering modular. So you can afford to be picky with the company you choose.

Many homeowners are also fond of the “plug and play” design style. It’s easy to choose the units you want and arrange as desired.

The low price tag also makes modular options quite palatable.

As far as design goes… Modular tends to fall in the modern outdoor kitchen aesthetic.. If this is your preference, modular should be a strong consideration!

Modular Disadvantages

prefab outdoor kitchen frames rusting

What’s enticing about a modular outdoor kitchen is also a huge disadvantage!

What is it?

Quality.

You already know that you get what you pay for. The same is true of modular outdoor kitchens.

Being such a budget-friendly outdoor kitchen option… Something has to give. And what gives is material quality.

Unfortunately, modular BBQ islands just aren’t made to last the long haul.

Generally speaking… You can only expect to get a few years out of your outdoor kitchen.

Considering most homeowners are looking for their investment to last a lifetime… This is disappointing!

Another drawback is aesthetics and design. Modular outdoor kitchens are available in limited finish styles.

Further, there are only so many layouts you can create. Modular solutions aren’t able to create a highly customized design.

If you like what is available… Great! If not, you may want to consider another option. (Especially if you’re looking for a life-long solution.)

outdoor kitchen panels Advantages

An RTA Outdoor Kitchen after 3 winters.

The primary benefit you will receive with panelized construction is… Durability.

Modular outdoor kitchens aren’t built to last… And prefab kits crumble under most conditions.

Our panelized system couldn’t be more different. Remember, our concrete is rated for 100 years!

If that’s not built to last, we don’t know what is.

The nature of our panels also means that delamination is not a concern. There are no layers to get peeled back and damaged… It’s one solid piece, through and through.

So not only is maintenance a breeze… Repairs and replacements won’t even be on your mind. It’s just not going to happen.

Outdoor kitchen panels are also more easy to maneuver. They’re easy to lift and hand-carry to the needed location. (Even up the stairs!)

Finally… Panelized grill islands allow for more customization than other kits. Our free online design tool is an excellent example of the flexibility that’s possible.

Overall?

You can have peace of mind that your outdoor kitchen will look stunning (and blemish-free!) for years to come.

So… Wondering what the disadvantages are?

outdoor kitchen panels Disadvantages

installing outdoor kitchen panels

Although panelized outdoor kitchens are our pride and joy… We have to be realistic.

Our method comes with disadvantages, too.

First, our solution does require light assembly. For most homeowners… This won’t be an issue.

If desired, you can hire someone to help you with the install.

However, some of you don’t want to be involved in any assembly. Period!

We understand! In this scenario, panelized construction may not be the best solution for you.

Another drawback is finish options. While we do our best to accommodate all aesthetic preferences… We can’t do it all!

You may not be able to find a finish that perfectly matches your needs. If so, you may want to pursue other outdoor kitchen ideas for inspiration.

All that said… Which build option is the best?

Best Overall Kit for Your Outdoor Space

You probably have an idea of what we’ll recommend… But we assure you, it’s for a good reason.

Two of the methods you’ve seen today are a result of convergent thinking. It’s just more of the same… Doing what’s already been done.

We took the opposite approach with outdoor kitchen panels.

Rather than re-creating the same old solution… We genuinely contemplated the problem with current outdoor kitchen options.

At its core, conventional construction methods are inefficient. It’s more labor-intensive, material-intensive, and cost-intensive.

It doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Through comprehending the issue at hand… It was possible to come up with a truly innovative solution. And one that actually solves all your problems!

That’s what our BBQ island panel system offers you.

It’s the peace of mind that you’re choosing the best option available on the market.

An option with efficiency in mind… From every angle.

One that is easy to assemble… Customizable… And built to last.

You simply won’t find these qualities anywhere else.

So… Wondering how to get started with our system?

Next Steps

person using free 3d design tool software on their laptop

To understand our frameless and panelized system at a deeper level…

This is a great opportunity to experiment with our online outdoor kitchen design tool. See what’s possible… And create your dream outdoor kitchen layout in minutes.

From there?

You’re probably going to have some questions. This is a great time to schedule a call with one of our Design Experts! Our designers will guide you through every exacting detail of your outdoor kitchen project.

If you’re not quite ready to jump into a phone call… That’s okay!

You can learn everything you want to know (and more!) about outdoor kitchens through our Learning Hub.

We can’t wait to help you achieve your outdoor living dreams!

Need help getting started?

We have the best outdoor kitchen experts in the industry. Book a call with one now to get your outdoor kitchen project in motion!

FAQ

Modular outdoor kitchens are comprised of cabinet units.

Essentially, you choose the units you desire… And combine them to create your layout!

Some brands will offer pre-designed layouts as kits. The modules can be easily adjusted to create a slightly different design.

An outdoor kitchen can be framed with wood, concrete, or metal. Far and away, framing with metal is most common.

Some outdoor kitchen brands will offer a kit that has already been framed for you.

Others will offer the pieces pre-cut. In this scenario, you have to bolt the frame together yourself.

If you’re choosing to pursue a full DIY project… You’ll have to measure and cut your own pieces to create the frame. From there, the cement board will be applied.

Technically… Yes. Although, it’s not recommended.

The outdoor elements are harsh! Indoor kitchen cabinets simply aren’t designed to withstand such unforgiving conditions.

If you do choose to put kitchen cabinets outdoors… They won’t last very long.

The best way to protect your outdoor kitchen is start with high quality materials! This is your best insurance against the harsh environment.

Regardless of what your outdoor kitchen is made of… Purchasing an island cover is always a great idea. This will provide protection from UV rays and harsh weather conditions.

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