The Sky's the Limit

Whether you want to surf the web, soak in the hot tub or see the forest for the trees, your outdoor options are endless. Really, these days when you head outside you can find just about anything—including the kitchen sink.

The grass doesn’t have to be greener across the street. Your lawn, yard, patio or decks can be a personal haven with all of the amenities of the indoors.

Just imagine it. A comfortable chair. Surround sound. Flat-screen TV. Wi-Fi. You’ve got everything—except four walls and a roof. It’s true. Outdoor living is becoming more and more like indoor living with a nice breeze and a pretty view.

“It’s getting to the point where it’s not any different from what you can do inside in your living room,” says Brad Thiess, president of Automation Arts, a specialty audio-visual and security company located in Middleton.

Once upon a time, outdoor speakers were a novelty. Now homeowners can watch the Rose Bowl from the hot tub or cheer on the Brewers from the pool deck. And it can get a lot more personalized than that. With remote-controlled patio lights and awnings on sun sensors, Automation Arts can put the perfect atmosphere at your fingertips. Thiess says the company even automated some tiki torches at a home. “They decide they want a party and they just hit a button on the remote and the torches come on,” Thiess says.

Larry Balousek, managing partner of Sugar River Landscape Group, a full-service residential landscaping company, agrees that outdoor living is the first thing on most clients’ minds these days. Just about everyone wants something a little more involved than lawn with a deck and some planting beds. “It’s just absolutely amazing how many people want a patio with a fire pit,” Balousek says. “And that’s just the beginning. It goes all the way up to outdoor kitchens.”

Dick Handschke of The Bruce Company agrees that outdoor cooking areas are gaining popularity. “They can be very simple or complex depending on the site, customer needs and budgets,” he says. “The grilling area with plenty of counter space is the biggest request, but amenities like a refrigerator, bar area with solid roof or pergola canopy, and fireplaces are also being requested.”

These are rooms—dining rooms, living rooms, kitchens—just under the stars instead of under the roof, says Brad Gesbocker, general manager of Unilock Chicago, a family-owned paving and retaining wall company. “Homeowners are no longer looking for just a kidney-shaped patio,” he says.

This is true even in Wisconsin, where summers are hot and steamy and winters are cold and harsh. Gesbocker adds that Unilock materials are formulated to withstand the temperature extremes of Wisconsin without losing color, form or function.

Also, prefabricated elements in a variety of design styles makes adding an outdoor living space not only possible but also
much simpler than some homeowners might think.

“Unilock has prebuilt outdoor fireplaces, pizza ovens, grills and bars that make it easy for homeowners to add functional beauty to their outdoor retreat,” Gesbocker says.

Alicia Szekeres, co-owner of Nature Stone of Wisconsin, agrees that outdoor rooms are in demand. She says clients like her composite stone flooring because the natural materials blend into the landscape, and it offers a more finished look than bare concrete. It also stands up well to Wisconsin winters, so ongoing maintenance isn’t a worry for homeowners.

She also sees her share of outdoor kitchens, and notes that Nature Stone is a popular choice for outdoor kitchen flooring. FDA-approved, Nature Stone is safe enough to eat off. Although most people won’t do that, especially outdoors, Szekeres says many clients appreciate the safety of the product. “If you wanted to, you really could eat off it,” she says. “And with no VOCs, it benefits the environment, inside or out.”

While pools and outdoor kitchens can have high price tags, not all outdoor projects have to delay your retirement. Sometimes breaking a project down into phases can make the cost more manageable.

While hardscaping projects, such as patios, driveways or outdoor kitchens, are best done in one fell swoop, much of landscaping can be done incrementally over time. “Fortunately, landscaping a back yard isn’t like remodeling a kitchen,” Handschke says. “We can start and stop wherever is convenient, and we don’t have to do the entire thing at once.”

Balousek says Sugar River Landscape Group works with many clients who pursue projects in stages as they have time and money. For some clients, Balousek helps develop a plan, and then the client decides what to pursue independently and which portions to hire out. Plans include not only what to put in, but also what to remove. Restoration is a big part of Sugar River Landscape Group’s business, and strategically removing or cutting back overgrowth takes time and effort, just as planting and growing does.

Regardless of whether you are planting or pruning, an expert can offer valuable help before you start to dig or snip. “Many people really have no idea where to start or what to do,” Balousek says.

The plan is also a great tool for the do-it-yourselfer who might have the time and energy but not the design skills or landscaping knowledge. For some this shared approach is essential. They get to reap the rewards but with a smaller price tag.

Thiess at Automation Arts also consults on plans and sells equipment to do-it-yourselfers. It helps, he says, to work with clients to determine technical requirements and to design projects that will stand up to weather, yard work and other exposure. Yet homeowners can stretch their audio-visual budgets a little further if they’re willing to run some of the wires and install products on their own.

Other strategies to save money include buying smaller plant stock, Handschke says. “If a homeowner is willing to be a bit more patient, they will still end up with a highly desirable space without expending the money,” he explains.

Balousek says he can also pass along some of his bulk-buying discounts to clients who work with him on planning and other projects, even if the clients do most of the planting themselves. He and the other experts agree that it’s worth a consultation to find out what the optimal breakdown of services is for each project, as that varies based on site, materials, plant stock and other factors.

Of course, swimming pools and complex wiring for outdoor electronics are often best left to professionals, especially for homeowners with little do-it-yourself experience. Also, products like Nature Stone require expert application.

– Jennifer Garrett


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