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Outdoor living areas are great places to spend time with friends and family or simply relax, and they can add beauty and value to a home. These southern-Wisconsin landscape and design specialists share their thoughts on popular outdoor living products and features, favorite projects and creative ideas for homeowners to consider.
Tom Ball, president and owner of Ground Affects Landscaping Inc., speculates that the growing enthusiasm for outdoor living space may be due in part to the variety of products and options that are available. “More and more, outdoor cooking areas have not just a grill or smoker, but also a seating area, and often incorporate a water feature or fire feature of some sort,” he says.
Ground Affects provides comprehensive residential and commercial landscape services in southeast Wisconsin, including Dane County. The company offers design services, planting and installation of landscaping, and installation of “hardscapes”: the built portion of a home’s outdoor area, including walkways, steps, patios, pool accents, fire pits, fireplaces and outdoor kitchens.
Outdoor kitchens and dining areas can be as simple as a grill and sitting area, says Ball. “Or they can go all the way to a full-out outdoor kitchen, including, literally, the kitchen sink.” A custom-designed kitchen might, for example, incorporate a raised sitting area and bar, a gas grill or an installed charcoal cooker, a pizza oven and a refrigerator.
One nice thing about an outdoor kitchen, says Ball, is that homeowners can use it year-round. “It used to be, you had to pull the grill out of the garage … it was a bit of a production.” Especially in the winter. “But if the grill is installed,” he says, “you can just go out and turn the switch. Although, yes, you have to bundle up a little bit.”
Fire features—in an outdoor kitchen or in a seating area—also offer year-round enjoyment. Ground Affects builds fire pits that run the gamut from simple in-ground fire rings that burn wood to one-of-a-kind architectural pieces. Even more dramatic are
custom fireplaces that can be built freestanding or into a wall.
The short days of winter mean that all of these outdoor spaces can be better enjoyed with well-designed lighting. But outdoor lighting is not just for winter, says Ball. “You can uplight trees or artwork in the yard, or spotlight the house.” Patios and walkways can be illuminated for safety and beauty, and bed lights can highlight paths and low plantings.
Night or day, the planted landscape is an integral part of the outdoor living area’s design. “Softscaping” helps blend elements together and adds interest, Ball explains. “Any time we draw up a plan for a hardscape, we add plant material, too.” Well-chosen plants offer privacy as well as color throughout the seasons—particularly perennial shrubs and decorative trees. “The hardscape and the plants complement each other,” says Ball.
Top Hat in Madison and Baraboo offers products and services for heating and cooling in both residential and commercial settings. Its hearth products include wood stoves and conventional fireplaces as well as gas and electric units, plus outdoor fire features and grills.The company installs simple brick-ring fire pits, custom fire pits and tables, pre-built fireplaces and custom fireplaces built from scratch, says Top Hat’s Kyle Mjelde, The National Fireplace Institute master hearth professional. He notes that outdoor fireplace designs often incorporate a place for wood storage—to keep fuel handy and dry—as well as a raised hearth that offers extra seating even when the fireplace is not in use.
Mjelde and his colleagues find creative, custom projects especially satisfying, such as a recent residential project with a custom L-shaped fire table at bar height, with separate dining spaces. Or a “fire garden” they built at a Wisconsin Dells resort, incorporating 13 fire pits.
A relatively new offering at Top Hat is the Napoleon line of grills. “Napoleon is less well known in the U.S.,” says Mjelde, “but in Canada they are the premium grill on the market.” Because Top Hat’s business was, since the outset, built on premium products and services, it only made sense when they entered the grill market to choose the top of the line. “There’s a reason for their reputation,” says Mjelde. “They take pride in what they do and their products are great.” Top Hat offers Napoleon’s full line of built-ins, all of which have a lifetime warranty.
Mjelde says he chose Napoleon products for his own home after replacing a different brand of grill three times in six years. “I stopped using disposable plates years ago,” he says. “Why would I want a disposable grill?”
At showrooms in Madison and Baraboo, Mjelde says customers can look at the grills, turn them on, and “see what makes them a better value.”
In addition to offering a variety of grilling and fire-feature products, Top Hat, true to its roots, continues to provide maintenance services for outdoor as well as indoor fireplaces. Top Hat’s certified chimney sweeps perform cleanings and inspect chimneys outside and in, using video technology, and the company recommends that the cleanings and inspections be done annually.
Steven Swenson, a landscape architect at The Bruce Company, works with clients from start to finish on residential landscape projects—“from inception of the idea to its execution; I then follow up as the years go by to see how the project is holding up, and whether the space is being used as the owners had anticipated.”
What is the hallmark of a well-designed project? A lot of it has to do with material selection … and with simply “getting it right,” Swenson says. The architecture of the home, for example, typically influences the project design. “If a house has all natural stone on the exterior, you’re going to incorporate that somewhere into the landscape,” he says. “The materials start relating to each other, and the design is more cohesive.”
The hardscape design is always the first consideration, says Swenson, and then the plants come later. “The hardscape is like the bones of the project; it holds the project together, aesthetically and structurally. The plants are kind of like the ‘fluff’ that beautifies it.” Large plants do lend some structure, he notes, adding that one of the tests of a good design is how it looks in the wintertime. That’s when the bones or structure are evident: evergreen trees and shrubs; trunks of trees, single- or multi-stem. “But I never start the design thinking about where to put a tree. That falls into place after you get the other program elements in place, such as a patio, walkway, outdoor kitchen or fire feature.”
The most popular elements? “Fire pits are hands down the most requested element to incorporate into a residential patio,” Swenson says. The popularity of water features, which for a time were in great demand, has waned because of the maintenance they often require. However, pondless water features operate by recirculating water from an underground reservoir instead of a body of water. This alternative is safer, with shallow water depths, and offers lower overall maintenance.
Recalling favorite projects, Swenson describes one that was a commercial job at a Madison-area office building, which incorporated many of the same elements that homeowners request for a residential space. There were relaxation zones, pergolas, a fire pit, outdoor eating areas and WiFi connectivity—all for employees to use throughout the day. “We also included meeting areas in the landscape: smaller garden spaces that employees could reserve to hold a meeting instead of being confined to a conference room on a nice day,” Swenson says. “It’s a reminder that not only can these landscape features be done in a residential setting, but they can be extended into the work place, making the work environment more enjoyable.”
Sometimes construction of an outdoor living space calls for additional modifications to the home itself. For example, it might be time to add a patio door that visually connects the home’s interior with the outdoors, while also improving energy efficiency, says Marc Ganser of Ganser Company. Options include Infinity by Marvin, swinging French doors or conventional sliding doors.
Additional windows that overlook your outdoor living space can likewise bring the outdoors inside. Ganser suggests an awning window in a spot that frequently affords a backyard view: the window above the kitchen sink. Awning windows, hinged on the top to swing outward, are easier to open than double-hung windows, especially over the sink, Ganser says, and they offer an unobstructed view.
While Ganser Company is perhaps better known for interior remodeling and exterior home products such as windows, roofing and siding, Ganser notes that the company also regularly builds residential decks. For decking material, they use Trex Decking, a wood-alternative composite that’s made of 95 percent recycled materials. “It looks like natural wood that’s been painted or stained,” Ganser says, “but it requires virtually no maintenance.” In addition to the deck planks, the company offers deck railing, hand rails and gates in a variety of styles, colors and finishes. Also available are pergolas, stairs and lighting accessories.
Ganser explains that in order to carry out a comprehensive outdoor living project, Ganser Company often collaborates with other companies that have expertise in additional aspects of landscaping. “We bring everyone together to come up with a quality project,” he says.
As much as we enjoy relaxing outdoors, nature can sometimes seem uncooperative, offering up rain, wind or other distractions—things that make us wish our outdoor environment could be as easily controlled as interior spaces. To some degree, perhaps it can.
At Kool View, Alan Anderson says, “We often see a progression in people’s outdoor living areas.” Homeowners often begin by building a simple deck—a place that affords an elevated view of their yard and landscaping.
“But then they realize it’s really hot, and they want some shade.” Kool View offers several solutions, including a pergola, which provides dappled shade, or roll-out awnings, which could be attached to the house and rolled in or out at the push of a button. A retractable canopy is another alternative, says Anderson. “It’s a cross between an awning and a pergola.” Or, he notes, instead of the pergola-and-fabric combination, homeowners can choose a pergola whose rafters open and close, like mini-blinds.
Later, Anderson says, many homeowners want more weather-proofing. “You’re on the deck, your furniture is getting wet,” he says. To these customers, he suggests a patio cover—essentially a more substantial roof, with a rain gutter and perhaps a skylight.
The next challenge, he says, is insects. “When you’re having a bug problem, the easiest way to fix it is with screens.” One solution is the Life Room, which, at its most basic level, is a patio cover supported by posts, but can incorporate many options, including motorized screens. “When the bugs come out, you hit the button and the screens go down.”
“But screen rooms are like vacuum cleaner bags,” Anderson notes. “Dirt blows in, but it doesn’t blow out.” And in the winter, furniture must be stored away or covered with tarps. To address this, Anderson often recommends a wall system that can be opened or closed. The space can still be used as a screened room, says Anderson, but “once you enclose the room, you can get nicer furniture and you can leave it out there year round.”
A step up from an enclosed room with single-pane glass is an insulated glass room with insulated flooring—a four-season room. “It gives you an outdoor living experience without having to go outdoors,” says Anderson. The room has abundant glass and windows that open. “So it feels like outside,” he says. “And if it’s elevated or on a deck, we can extend the glass all the way to the floor for a better view.”
After 45 years in business, Kool View continues to add new products and solutions for homeowners, including windows, doors and basement remodeling. New this year is the Stone Age Deck, a deck surface made of 1-inch-thick paving stones available in a variety of colors and sizes, allowing for creative and unique designs. They’re unsurpassed for durability, and they are low maintenance, affordable and attractive. “When you see a deck done that way, it’s really eye-popping,” says Anderson.
A new, edgy retailer in Middleton’s business park district is helping customers mark their homes and offices, inside and out, with their own unique style. Brown and Beam specializes in urban, reclaimed and industrial-styled furnishings, including one-of-a-kind pieces and accessories.
Brown and Beam’s warehouse serves also as a showroom and studio where customers can enjoy the benefits of a physical store; in April, the company’s online shopping site will be available as an additional option. Brown and Beam also offers complete design services and a price guarantee on all of its products.
Products include furniture for every room in the house and for offices, plus lighting, flooring and décor items. Starting this spring, says owner Lora Brown, the showroom and website will have an expanded offering of furniture suited to outdoor living.
Brown and Beam design services are also growing this year. Brown says homeowners who build a new outdoor room, patio or sun room can get not only furniture and décor from Brown and Beam but also design advice and help in selecting the pieces that will work best in their new space. “People often have rough plans and a general idea of what they want with regard to furniture, accents and lighting,” says Brown. But by bringing those ideas along with project dimensions to Brown and Beam at an early stage in the project, homeowners can get some guidance in narrowing their options and can order pieces for delivery by the time construction is complete.
“More and more, people want their home to have an outdoor living area,” Brown says. Well-designed outdoor spaces are especially good for entertaining. And, she says, “it’s just relaxing to be outside.” She speculates that our long winters increase the appeal of outdoor time in the summer. “We don’t have the warm weather year round, so we want to take advantage of it when we have it by spending time in an outdoor space that feels good.”
Trex: An Attractive Alternative for your Deck
What if you could build a new deck from materials that were environmentally friendly, durable, and low-maintenance, in the color of your choice? It might be easier than you think.
Trex decking, a wood-alternative composite, is 95 percent recycled material–reclaimed wood and film plastic. The remaining 5 percent is a virgin-plastic coating that protects against stains and fading, and is available in multiple colors.
“We’re pretty proud of the recycling effort they make,” says Ryan Chandler, branch manager at the Sun Prairie location of Amerhart Ltd., a wholesaler that distributes Trex products to retailers.
And homeowners can be proud of a product that will look good for years. It’s warranted for 25 years against fading and will never splinter or chip.
“It just needs a yearly wash with mild detergent,” says Chandler.
Initially, Trex costs more than wood, but homeowners avoid maintenance costs that add up over time. Plus, you can’t put a price on the hours you’ll spend enjoying your deck instead of repairing it.
Find Trex decking and accessories at your building supply retailer.