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Specialty Rooms: The Backyard

Specialty Rooms: The Backyard

Outdoor living is becoming a growing trend throughout the country.  Even if you live in a climate like ours here in Chicago, there are still enough nice days, that having a relaxing place outside to spend a few hours of your day or throw a barbecue party for your friends is something we all enjoy.  Whether you have a modest patio or an extravagant tiered deck, pool and outdoor kitchen, a designed outdoor space is an amenity to any home.  I realize many of you reading this may already have a designed backyard space, that's great.  Maybe you can pick out a few ideas to spruce up your design to enhance your outdoor experience.  For the rest of you who may be starting from scratch or want to tear down what you have and start over, below are some ideas on the foundations of backyard design and some extras that make each outdoor experience unique.

The Patio versus the Deck

There are different options to choose from when you are looking into designing your backyard.  Maybe the first one to address is the patio versus the deck.  Each has their own design qualities for similar functions, so which one do you choose?  The patio is typically lower to the ground, made of a hard surface material, such as concrete, pavers or stone, and integrates more into the landscape of the yard.  The deck is typically elevated off the ground (does not have to be by much), made out of a wood or composite decking material, and defined as a more separate space from the rest of the yard usually through transitions created by railings and stairs.  Your best option... what fits into your space and overall design goals.  Sometimes the two can even be used together to create a layered complex design that offers variety and versatility of the space.

First lets talk about the patio.  Poured concrete is one of the most common materials because of its economy and versatility of shape and design.  Concrete can be stamped, formed to look like stone, stained, or divided to create a pattern.  It is a durable material, especially in cold and wet climates, but is imperious and does not allow water to drain well.  A slight slope to the edge or a drain may benefit a large patio constructed out of concrete.  Brick or Stone pavers are another common material for durability and design options.   They offer a variety of material options as well as patterns when installed.  Keep in mind the area where you lie when choosing your paver material, some are better suited for cold climates and others for warmer climates.   When you go to select your material ask which ones are best for your local region.  Paver also offer better drainage in wetter climates, when laid with sand or stone chips the water is able to drain through to the ground below.  Gravel is also an option for your patio.  Now I am not talking about your boring filler gravel, but decorative made from stones and other materials offers a textured surface.  Gravel works well for paths connecting patios or for different surfaces of a tiered patio.  It also makes a nice decorative edging to keep grass and weeds from growing into the edges of your formal patio.

The deck offers an elevated defined space that can be a single level or tiered, tied into a patio or your backyard, or set apart as a distinct space.  The deck also offers the opportunity to transition from a story above grade down to your backyard from the outside of the house.  this is especially nice when you are working with a two story to split level home and want access outside from more than one spot.  When it comes to decking there are two main options: wood or composite.  Wood tends to be the more economical option, however typically requires more maintenance over the years.  When choosing a wood for outdoor use, select treated lumber or cedar for the best durability of material.  You want to make sure you select a outdoor grade wood to avoid mold and rot.  If you choose composite, you may pay a little more upfront for the product.  It tends to be more than traditional wood, but you do not have the same maintenance costs and concerns over the lifespan of the deck.

Something Over your Head

Creating a covering offers a protected area to enjoy the outdoors, even in inclement weather. Especially in an area like Chicago, it is nice to have a covered area to escape the rain or sun and enjoy the fresh outdoor air but in a more defined space.  This concept it treated more like an outdoor room.  The sides of the enclosure are still open and allow breezes to flow through the space.  Designing a space under a balcony or a second floor overhang creates an outdoor room right off the house.  Other options include a gazebo, a pavilion or a pergola over a patio or deck to better define the outdoor space.  Creating a covered space also protects the contents better from the elements, so your furniture and decorations will not be as affected by the sun and rain. 

All the Little (and Not So Little) Extras

There are many backyard extras that make the space an inviting and enjoyable place to experience.  While you do not need to include all of them in your design (and probably shouldn't unless you have acres of backyard to fill), I would suggest trying to include a mixture of these elements to add interest and variety to your yard.

The Pool

The pool is the backyard staple on a hot summer day.  Whether it is an in-ground, above-ground, or a kiddie pool, jumping into the refreshing water is a great way to spend an afternoon outside in the backyard.  If a pool is not your thing or you just don't have the room, I suggest not ruling out a water feature, sometimes a small pond or a fountain can add a tranquil feel to your backyard without being an overwhelming addition.

The Outdoor Kitchen

As spending time outside becomes more popular, moving traditionally inside activities to the outdoors is also on the rise.  The complete outdoor kitchen, with grille, stove, sink and sometimes even a mini fridge brings everything you need to create that perfect meal to the outdoors where you want to enjoy it.  The design of this area can be minimal or extravagant, depending on your budget and your desired level of cooking convenience.  With the cooler weather through most of the year in the Chicago area, a full outdoor kitchen may not be used to it's fullest potential unless you use it every day it is nice out.  My suggestion is to create a smaller cooking environment that allows you to grille like the pros without the whole kitchen.  Designate a specific grille area.  Set up your grille, whether it is a little smokey joe or a huge gas grilling machine, and make sure you have enough room to work around it.  If your grille does not have a shelf or side table, create a small counter area with a small outdoor quality table or shelf system.  This will be indispensable for plate, utensils and grille seasonings when you get into grilling mode.  If you like to keep some kitchen supplies outside, consider investing in an outdoor cabinet (one that is secured from critters and will stand up to the elements) and locate it near your grilling area, that way all your essentials will be at your fingertips.

The Fire Pit

Outdoor fireplaces, fire pits, or bonfires offer a wonderful additions to the atmosphere of your backyard.  Not only are they warm on cooler summer nights, but a great place to gather and entertain, and not to mention s'mores.  Before you commit to a massive fireplace, check with your local codes to determine what is allowed in your neighborhood.  Most places allow self contained units, such as a store bought fire pit, chimenea, or fireplace.  Many areas do restrict the size of any open flame and will not let you build a permanent fire pit or bonfire area in your yard for fear of it growing too large.  Just make sure to check before you over commit to the size of your fire.  Create a nice gathering space around your fire area with a stone or brick patio (this will also help keep flyaway sparks off your grass) and gather relaxing chairs or benches for people to sit and enjoy the fire.  Keep marshmallows, chocolate and graham crackers handy for those late night s'more cravings.

The Garden

Planting a home garden is not only a great hobby and an excellent source of fresh grown flowers or vegetables, it is also a nice addition to any backyard.  The plants add color and aroma to your outdoor space and make a very purposeful use out of your landscape.  Flower beds are great to plant all over your yard.  Use them as accents or edging to bring color to your patio or deck.  Defining the edge of your beds with landscaping stones or pavers creates a distinct definition between what space is to be used and what space is decorative.  That way your won't have people tromping through your beautiful flowers.  If you decide to grow a veggie garden, these are best set in plots (one or multiple depending on how much you want to grow) and set out of the way of common traffic.   Also if you are worried about critters eating your veggies, put up some chicken wire fencing around your plots to keep unwanted guests out but still leave them visually open.  If you are only growing a few plant, consider pots or planters.  With some of the larger pots you can grow individual plants in each one or create a herb garden with a few varieties all in one larger planter.  This is a great way to grow your own herbs and veggies even if you don't have a lot of ground space.

The Furniture

Lastly lets deck out your deck with furniture.  Table, chairs, lounges, stools, etc. are all great additions to your outdoor space, creating a place to sit and enjoy what you have created.  Look at your local home and garden centers to find outdoor quality furniture that will both look great and stand up to the weather conditions.  If you are furnishing a covered area, your items will be more protected, but should still be designed to be outside.  Also think of decorative accents to add to your outdoor space: lights for when it gets dark and the outdoor party is now over, torches and lanterns make a nice decorative and functional addition placed around the yard or hung from tree branches, a decorative outdoor rug or carpet can be a soft relief from the hard deck or patio surface, and even little things like candles, vases with fresh flowers from your garden, or lightweight outdoor curtains make your outdoor space feel more like a outdoor place.  Remember, you are creating your backyard to be an extension of your home, so bring in the little finishing touches that will make it extra special.

I hope you enjoy making your backyard just as inviting as your home.  With the holiday coming up and a few summer months remaining, there is still plenty of time to create the perfect backyard to enjoy the wonderful fresh air and summer weather.  So... get to work, and then kick back, put your feet up, and enjoy!

Written By: JoAnna Landers