Beyond The Walls — As winter melts into spring, the idea of “home” once again extends to the outdoors

March 2012 View more

Photo courtesy of C.B. Conlin Landscapes

There’s no scientific way to explain it, of course, but every Midwestern homeowner—regardless of exact location or available square footage —knows that the house incrementally shrinks as winter progresses. Call in an expert to measure the actual physical dimensions and you’ll probably get some very pointed disagreement, but that know-it-all will not have a tool or gauge in his bag to refute your unshakeable feeling that, logic aside, the living space is indeed smaller in late February than it was in late October.

That’s Winter For You

That’s winter for you. What starts out as a brisk change of pace and scenery and a welcome invitation to hunker down in a cozy nest eventually drags into a stifling state of confinement. No matter how many design changes one makes in an attempt to break out of the rut, it’s hard to escape those walls—both physically and psychologically.

But just as the return of spring warmth and renewal means breaking free of the parka and, wind willing, once again exposing bare flesh to fresh air, for homeowners it signals the prospect of again experiencing the backyard as a living, breathing space rather than just a cruel illusion on the opposite side of the frosted glass. Like any other place in the house, then, it also means that now is the time to think about just how to go about making it more functional, more livable, and more beautiful.

Here and Now

Even in the midst of a slowly improving economic atmosphere, the notion of making the most of their current space—as opposed to looking elsewhere—continues to inspire homeowners as they envision the possibilities in their outdoor spaces, according to several local landscape architects.

“The psychology these days seems to be ‘this is where we live, so let’s do everything we can to make it exactly what we want,’” says Eric Bruss, the third-generation owner of Bruss Landscaping, which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year. “Most people still seem to be leaning toward reimagining their present surroundings rather than considering a move.”

Barry Conlin has noticed a similar continuation of the “nesting” trend in his discussions with clients at 27-year-old Naperville firm C.B. Conlin Landscapes. Whereas several years ago a family may have been quick to put a house that wasn’t meeting its needs up for sale, more homeowners these days are thinking that perhaps their money would be better spent recreating the space they have rather than chasing down a new property and neighborhood.

“The focus now is on trying to make the existing home as comfortable as possible,” Conlin explains. “A lot of families are looking to transform their outdoor spaces into mini backyard paradises.”

Inside Out

One of the most consistently popular ways that homeowners and landscape architects are attempting to make those dreams a reality is by looking at the yard and patio areas as extensions of the home, rather than simply the place where the grill is stored or where the dog hangs out. The focus, says Bob Hursthouse of 22-year design firm Hursthouse, is on outdoor living—with the emphasis on living.

“It’s really the idea of extending the house out into the yard, whether that refers to dining or entertaining or relaxing or whatever,” he explains. “People are basically thinking that whatever we do inside, we want a functional, comfortable space to now do that outside as well.” In order to achieve this type of flow and continuity between indoors and out, Conlin says the landscape architect needs to approach an outdoor project with the sensibility of an interior designer.

“What we’re really trying to do in our designs is to blur the transition from indoor to outdoor, so that the patio and the garden and the yard really start to feel like additional rooms of the house that just happen to be outside,” he says. “That means thinking in terms of entranceways and transitions that allow you to move through the outdoor spaces just as you would through rooms in the house.”

Spring Fashions

When most people hear the term “outdoor rooms,” they most likely immediately think of the elaborate gourmet setups that have been popular for years now, with deluxe appliances and fine decorative appointments that give the kitchens on the other side of the door a run for their money. However, while these alfresco cookeries remain a focal point for many landscape plans, the trends in outdoor living have grown well beyond mealtime.

Conlin notes that “interiorizing” outdoor spaces through the use of walkways, arbors, hanging baskets and especially shade pergolas is becoming a popular way to create intimacy amid the grassy sprawl. Bruss also notes a movement toward more creative landscaping that often includes unique specialty areas like kitchen or pottage gardens, bursting with the latest blooming trends like Endless Summer hydrangeas and David Austin roses. However, demand for the tried-and-true backyard standbys remains strong, which is why he expects to continue to see plenty of work designing and installing eco-friendly paver patios and moderately-priced, lower-maintenance water features.

“Hardscapes will continue to be a big part of most landscape designs,” he says. “Permeable paving is one area that we really expect to keep growing, both from the perspective of new zoning regulations in many municipalities and the desire of homeowners for more sustainable landscape ideas.”

The Bottom Line

Regardless of which features or elements a homeowner chooses to include in a residential landscape design, the ultimate determinant of success or failure for the project will always be the degree to which it complements and enhances the family’s outdoor lifestyle. Hursthouse believes that one of the most meaningful reasons that many of his clients choose to pursue a landscape plan is to create sanctuary—a “touchstone” place where the family can pursue its special interests and make memories together.

“We worked with a family with five kids to create a fire pit area for these Tuesday-night summer story times that they hosted for the whole neighborhood,” he says.

More than the bump in resale value or the award-winning garden or the outdoor kitchen that can feed the Navy, these are the kinds of returns that both homeowners and landscape designers are most interested in seeing when the work is complete.

“It’s about creating functional, comfortable spaces for the family,” Conlin sums up. “I consider a project a success when clients call me and say ‘we spend more time outdoors now than we ever have before.’”

Best-Laid Plans

While dreams of landscaping makeovers may be enough to sustain a homeowner through the chill of winter, they won’t be much good in reality for that June graduation soirée unless there’s a clear plan of action in place—the sooner the better. That’s why, given the challenges of marrying a great idea to a firm design and a realistic budget, the pros all agree that now is the time to set those plans into motion.

“Spring is a really busy time for most good landscape firms,” says Conlin. “Getting started with the planning in March and April is the best way to ensure you’re able to actually get the project done and ready for those summer events.”

Noting the inherent difficulties in reconciling style and budget, Bruss echoes that sentiment. He also believes that allowing enough time to let the entire design process work itself out helps ensure that corners don’t get cut and decisions are made with a clear eye toward lasting beauty and utility.

“There’s no substitute for quality and long-term vision,” he says. “No matter who does a job, chances are it will look good the day that landscaper leaves; the question is, how will it hold up both in design and execution a year or two down the road?”