Creative ways to make the most of your outdoor living spaces.
Spring was a long time coming this year, but now that we’ve finally said goodbye to snow, it’s time to head outside and soak up the sun.
If you want your outdoor living area to be an inviting and attractive escape to enjoy this summer and beyond, it may be time to consider installing or updating a porch, patio, deck or other structure. Here’s the lowdown on the latest trends in backyard beautification.
The shift toward outdoor living that first gained traction on the West Coast is now fully embraced by Midwesterners, despite the shorter season here. “We’re finding people are using more outdoor furniture, sofas, outdoor sitting areas, loveseats — almost creating a mirror image of their interior outdoors,” says landscape architect Gene R. Grant Jr., CEO of Grant & Power Landscaping in West Chicago.
“It’s amazing to see how the focus on the outdoor living concept has grown in the last five to 10 years,” acknowledges Matt Haber, design director for Naperville-based Western DuPage Landscaping, who has observed soft seating areas becoming as popular as outdoor dining areas.
Haber attributes some of the popularity to the shift in home sizes. “As people gravitate toward smaller homes, the concept of outside/inside has become more important. People are looking at it as an extension of the back of the house and the family room and kitchen area.”
Rooms to Enjoy
Screen porches or screen rooms help facilitate the blurring of lines between indoors and out, as do structures such as pergolas and pavilions.
Mike Kinane of TimberBuilt Rooms in St. Charles says screen rooms, which are one of the company’s specialties, are a great way to get the appeal of being outdoors but without the annoyance of summertime pests. The rooms, which are situated on a reinforced deck and attached to the house, feature post and beam construction built with western red cedar.
Grant says homeowners are also enamored with pergolas, because they lend an area a bit of shade but also provide an outdoor room effect. “People like pergolas with TVs, fans, fire features or even a full outdoor kitchen,” he says. “It really brings the entertaining area outdoors.”
TimberBuilt builds pavilions and pergolas, as well as a hybrid structure that they have dubbed a “pavola.” These are popular to provide coverage for outdoor kitchens and grill areas. “They are like miniature pavilions,” says Kinane. “They can have a solid roof or a glass roof, and they offer some protection from sun and rain.”
When designing an outdoor space, it’s best to take the same approach that you would for an interior room — that is, beginning not with particular materials or items, but with careful consideration of your lifestyle and how you want to use the area.
For example, if you love to entertain and cook for guests, you may want to create a built-in grill, a pizza oven or even a full outdoor kitchen. If you have a large family or typically host big gatherings, you’ll need to include plenty of seating options. Or you might want to replicate the comfort of your family room in an outdoor setting, with space for a sectional, an outdoor fireplace and entertainment options such as a television or audio system.
“When we start a project, our primary goal is to get a good sense of the client, their family and their goals,” says Haber. “Materials are secondary.”
Grant agrees. “Understanding your lifestyle is most important,” he says.
When it comes to materials to use for a patio, the choices have greatly expanded in recent years. “There are many more options than there used to be,” says Haber. “Bluestone, limestone and flagstone are always popular, but there are other, newer stones, and a wide array of concrete products that mimic stone materials.”
"We’ve been doing a lot more natural stone, and we can get product from all around the world,” says Mark King, president of King’s Landscaping in Hinsdale, whose customers have been gravitating to materials like flagstone and Colorado granite.
Though the modern, clean look that is popular in many interiors is extending to the patio and often favors materials such as concrete or larger stone pieces, interlocking clay pavers are still favored by some homeowners, especially in more traditional communities.
As far as patio shapes, Grant has observed that designs combining clean lines and curvilinear arcs are taking the place of more rounded or free-form configurations. He’s also noted that clients enjoy more than one type of space, for example, a kitchen area, a seating area and a dining area. “People are less apt to have one big patio, and are instead going with more segmented areas separated by plantings,” he says. “It’s a softer effect than one big hardscape area.”
Though patios are preferred by many, decks are sometimes needed to bridge the drop between the house and yard or to extend outside a screen room. In some cases, particularly for homes with sloping lots or walkout basements, a deck with a patio underneath is a popular choice.
Cedar is still a sought-after decking material, though many homeowners now favor composite products for their low maintenance.
In addition to the sights, scents and sounds of Mother Natures, adding unique elements to make the outdoor space enjoyable is essential to any project. Task and ambient lighting should be part of your plan from the beginning.
And don’t forget the flora. “Plants can make a nice patio great,” says Haber. “People get so focused on the hardscape — the paving and walls — that they forget about plants. You need that seasonal interest and variation of color and texture, or the space may feel cold.”
Fire features are hot, from built-in fire pits to outdoor fireplaces. For an appearance that mimics what you would see indoors, fireplaces made of whole stones or faced with stone veneers have become favored over brick paver blocks.
Those features provide a warm glow, but natural gas heaters are another option that can make spaces usable even when there’s a chill in the air. “We can even mount them in the ceiling of a pergola and supply heat to the area so you can extend your season,” says King.
Water features are also in vogue. “We are seeing a lot of outdoor fountains,” says Grant. “People like vases and things that recirculate water because they provide the relaxing sound without the upkeep of a pond.”
Five Tips for Designing Outdoor Spaces
1. Pay attention to base preparation. Work with a professional to ensure that the base material is sufficient to support features such as a fireplace or pergola or, in the case of a patio at grade level, prevent stone from shifting over time.
2. Account for proper pitch and drainage. Pooling water can damage materials and dampen your enjoyment of your patio.
3. Plan ahead. If you think you may want to add a feature later, make sure you work with your landscaper to include it in the plans from the beginning. For example, create space to run a gas line or wiring for outdoor speakers or lighting. “You don’t want to do something today that you have to rip out tomorrow,” says Gene Grant of Grant & Power Landscaping in West Chicago.
4. Don’t supersize. Mike Kinane of TimberBuilt Rooms in St. Charles advises keeping the size of your screen room in check to allow for other outdoor amenities. “What ends up happening is that people want big rooms, but they forget they also want a deck, outdoor space for a grill, and room for a kiddie pool,” he says.
5. Do your research. If you want an outdoor kitchen, for example, you might want to check out the types of products available, such as refrigerators, smokers, grills, etc. and allow space in your budget for the items that top your wish list. “Start looking into appliances ahead of time — there is a wide range of product and the cost really varies,” says Mark King of King’s Landscaping in Hinsdale.Edit Module