Living It Out

Take advantage of the season with destination spaces that turn yards into gathering places, recreation spots and family connection centers

What are you waiting for? Winter hardly showed up and summer is right around the corner. Spring really is here, so it’s time to get the lawn, patio, deck, landscaping and other outdoor features ready to go before Memorial Day. But given the way Mother Nature has been handling things lately, chances are that summer—or at least summery weather—is not going to wait that long.

For a lot of homeowners, that means adding or renovating existing landscaping features. Before you roll up your sleeves or get out your wallet, you need to decide what you’re going to build or buy. As you ponder, keep in mind that many area experts urge homeowners to begin by thinking less in terms of specific landscape elements and more in terms of living spaces. In other words, rather than ask how you want your lawn to look, ask yourself what you want to do in your yard, how you want to entertain on your deck or how you want to feel when you’re outdoors but still at home.

“People are looking for ways to make their outdoors more livable,” says landscape architect Steven Swenson of The Bruce Company, a full-service landscaping company in Middleton with horticulturalists and landscape architects on staff as well as a 500-acre nursery in Verona. Popular ways to increase a home’s outdoor functionality include fire pits, grilling stations, water features and even outdoor kitchens.

“Your home is much more than the house itself,” says Tony Callies, a sales representative with Madison Block and Stone, which provides stone plus design and installation services for a full range of interior and exterior applications—everything from granite countertops and slate tile floors to stone patios and masonry projects. “We’d like people to understand the value of outdoor living areas and landscapes. They are more than something that looks good. The true value is in enhancing the living experience.”

So, Callies explains, the fire pit isn’t just a place to burn tree branches blown down in the last storm. It’s where parents, kids and grandchildren tell stories, reminisce and roast marshmallows. The outdoor bar is where you and your friends spend Friday evening complaining about—or recovering from—a hectic week at work. The grilling station is where you grill brats for your buddies who wouldn’t miss a single Badger or Packer game. These “outdoor rooms stimulate personal connections with family and friends,” Callies explains, “by providing activity-driven focal points.”

Rene Huston agrees that our outdoor spaces are about more than just aesthetics or recreation. The co-owner of pool-and-spa retailer Patio Pleasures says pools serve as fun gathering spaces that foster relationships. “What we do goes beyond just selling something,” Huston says, noting that she hears over and over from clients who love the impact of their pools on their lives. “[Pools] are a great way to bring family and friends together.”

Patio Pleasures sells and installs complete aboveground pool systems, which, Huston notes, have evolved tremendously over the years. No longer just a more economical alternative to their in-ground counterparts, aboveground pools are also easier to install and take up less space. Plus, Huston says, many accessories and enhancements once available only for in-ground pools are now choices for aboveground pools.

“Waterfalls, fiber optic lighting, elaborate decking and landscaping can all be incorporated to enhance the beauty of your pool,” Huston says, adding that wall and liner options let homeowners further customize their pools to their tastes.

While most homeowners aren’t equipped to install a pool on their own, there are many landscaping projects that they can tackle. Swenson and Callies both encourage do-it-yourselfers to ask a lot of questions when purchasing materials.

Swenson recognizes that cost is a factor for all clients, and that is why it is important to plan and install properly the first time. That, he says, prevents expensive repairs down the road. Cost sensitivity is also a reason why The Bruce Company will develop phased plans with a la carte pricing and divided duties so that homeowners can pick and choose what they will do this year and next. Clients can also maximize their investment by having the landscaping crew do the heavy lifting—things like excavation and retaining walls—and saving the plantings and smaller projects for themselves.

“Think before you build,” Swenson says. “That would be my slogan.”

Madison Block and Stone also sells to weekend-warrior homeowners, who get a lot more than raw materials. They also get the value of the company’s experience and advice over the course of the project—not simply at the point of sale—which is often difficult if not impossible to find at big-box home-improvement stores.

“We sell to both contractors and do-it-yourselfers, and we’ll use our expertise to help you navigate through the decision-making process and installation,” Callies says. “Many times we make material and design recommendations on the front end and assist with hints and tips during the installation. Most times our do-it-yourself clients get to know everyone here pretty well and are very proud of their work when it’s done.”

As wonderful as summer is, we all know it won’t last. That doesn’t mean you have to stay indoors once the temperature drops. Huston says a hot tub is a popular way to make year-round outdoor living a real option for Wisconsinites. Plus, she adds, hot tubs help alleviate stress, promote health and strengthen bonds with children.

“People are working harder and, in most cases, working in more stressful environments. The idea of starting or ending your day in soothing 104-degree water is very desirable,” Huston says. “It’s also a great way to connect with family and loved ones. My kids and I have some of our best conversations while in the hot tub. There are no distractions, everyone is relaxed and our focus is 100 percent on each other.”

-Jennifer Garrett

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