Ahhhhhhh, summer! After the cold, wind and snow of our Midwestern climate, what better way to spend the lazy, hazy, crazy days than to sit in our own backyards, dining alfresco and entertaining friends.
But unlike those simpler days when one sipped soda or beer and munched on pretzels while sitting on a lawn chair, today's backyard has become a furnished retreat in the midst of hectic lives.
"It's using the outdoor space to expand the size of the house so that you can flow from inside to outside and feel at ease," said Neil Kristianson, co-owner of Crimson Design and Construction Inc. in Naperville.
There's no right or wrong way to construct a backyard oasis. Components and configurations, as well as costs, are as varied as the homeowners who want them.
"Typical components are paver or natural stone patios, retaining walls, steps, planters, seat wall, pergolas, gazebos, grills, side burners, refrigerators, refreshment center, brick ovens, sinks, fire pits, fire places, lighting, and water features," said Nathan Filip, co-owner of Premier Outdoor Environments Inc. in Elmhurst.
Price ranges are wide, depending on how elaborate the homeowner wants the space to be. Filip noted that a typical installation starts around $6,000 and rises to more than $100,000. Typically, homeowners look for a patio with a dining area and a small place to entertain. Budget often dictates what can be put in place.
So what happens if you can't afford an elaborate setup? Be honest with the contractor. Most will come to your home, assess your yard, then assess your wants and needs. The latter is crucial in creating an environment that you will enjoy. Depending on the situation and type of installation, some homeowners start small and add on slowly, getting extra seating and the like, as the years pass. For some applications, however, like a built-in brick oven, that approach isn't as feasible and may not work at all.
"I generally tell customers the pros and cons of every option," said David Berryhill, owner of Archadeck of Northern Chicagoland in Palatine. "You can get a concrete patio for a few thousand dollars, which is something we don't recommend, but if they're on a tight budget, that's something a customer may want to do.
Obviously, one of the most important elements of backyard living spaces is the base itself. Brick paver patios are the most popular, followed by decks and screened porches or sunrooms. Paver patios are often combined with a screened feature, offering a location for the grill and cooking area, while providing a sheltered place to relax and eat.
"You want to sit outside, but you don't want to get eaten up by bugs," Berryhill said.
Paver patios are popular because they are elegant, relatively economical and are low maintenance, particularly when applications are included to prevent weed growth.
"I usually tell my customers to expect cost to range between $10 and $15 per square foot, although those aren't hard and fast numbers by any means," Kristianson said.
Although a person may prefer a patio, that may not always be the best application. Attention to the yard's grading as well as a number of other factors dictate what is appropriate.
"We really try not to sell you the product of the moment," Berryhill said. "We ask how you want to use it. We look at the aesthetics and material, how much maintenance you're willing to do, and your budget."
Neither should homeowners be quick to get rid of their current deck. Berryhill often asks prospective clients whether they've ever had an established deck pressure washed and stained. If they haven't, he suggests doing so before considering replacement.
Today's decks aren't just made out of wood. A composite material that requires virtually no maintenance is a popular choice; however, it does come with one major drawback. Berryhill notes that the final cost is about 40 to 60 percent higher than that for traditional wooden decks.
Another major component of outdoor living is the food preparation area. Here's where components can become pricey, particularly if they are custom built into the landscape. At EdgeBrick Outdoor Kitchens in Chicago, a typical installation includes a gas or charcoal grill, sometimes both, an outdoor "viewing" fireplace, refrigerators, and oven/smokers. These kitchen groupings average 100 to 400 square feet, and cost averages $3,500 to $10,000 depending on the chosen components. The stainless components themselves can run $5,000 to $6,000 in a $10,000 grouping.
"I make sure that they (the client) realize that because we live in a harsh climate, the EdgeBrick Outdoor Kitchen product is going to include a foundation that must take the Midwest frost line into consideration and that the outdoor kitchen structure itself will be made of brick or stone, and mortar," said Timothy Rouke, EdgeBrick owner. "We also insist on working with component makers that offer a lifetime warranty on their grills, fireplace inserts and ovens, as well as refrigerators and beverage components.
Winterization is an important consideration for the culinary portion of the backyard oasis. Premier Outdoor Environments, for example, builds the base components of their kitchen items out of compressed aluminum as the company has found the metal to withstand weather better than cement board, which retains water and eventually falls apart due to the local freeze and thaw cycle.
Rourke indicated EdgeBrick's installations should be tuckpointed on a regular basis of approximately five-year intervals. Grills should also be inspected and cleaned periodically. Warmer climates allow for inclusion of dishwashers and outdoor dishes that continually stay in the unit.
"In the Midwest, this type of feature would not last with the freezing we have, but there are outdoor kitchens that include elaborate lighting, TVs, pole-style roofing, and stereo systems to provide functionality and mood. Bar-style seating and serving capabilities have also been designed into the outdoor kitchen configurations.
An outdoor focal fire feature, whether it be a tall outdoor fireplace, or more commonly a fire pit, has gained in popularity over the past several years. Fire pits are easy to install into the design of a brick paver patio.
"Everyone seems to want one right now because it's a nice gathering place," Kristianson said. "The nice thing about it is it isn't that expensive if you are doing a paver patio. It only adds about $1,000 to the overall cost."
Of course, fire pits may be upgraded with gas logs, but keep in mind that in doing so, additional cost to run power and gas lines out to the area will be required. That same cost factor should be kept in mind when determining whether the outdoor kitchen should be built in permanently.
While many people are perfectly happy with outdoor dining sets purchased from stores, another option is to construct low-maintenance permanent seating such as stone or wood benches. These are often add-on elements that homeowners want once their backyard living area is in place and they realize that they don't have enough seating.
A hot tub or spa, whether a portable one or built into the ground, is another option. Small water features or fountains invite an air of tranquillity.
With a plethora of "hard" features such as decks, patios and the like, a backyard living area should also include some softer features in the manner of raised flower beds, potted plants or retaining walls with vegetation.
"You have all of these hard features and you need something to soften it up," Kristianson said.
Remember, outdoor living is supposed to essentially be comfortable and should complement the existing home.
"People are taking pride in their backyards," Berryhill said. "While our projects have been smaller over the last few years, we're starting to see a turnaround, with some of the bigger 'I've been waiting to do this' projects making a comeback."