Landscaping and outdoor remodeling
America’s home improvement industry is bouncing back from a tough economy according to a new Metrostudy report. The report, which was issued in February, showed consumer spending on home remodeling increased by nine percent last year, making 2013 the industry’s best year since 2008. Locally, this means “an amazing amount of people have a pent-up demand,” says Travis Ganser of the Ganser Company.
“They haven’t contracted any remodeling jobs because they didn’t want to spend money, and most were putting it away and saving it,” says Ganser of consumers. “There are people that are in their houses now—they like their neighborhood, their schools, they want to keep those things—but they want to live in a house that feels new.”
One of the most effective ways to make a lived-in home feel new is to remodel the exterior, which can include everything from a full exterior face-lift to landscaping and the creation of fresh outdoor spaces. Replacing an old roof with a metal one is a greener choice and will last three times longer than fiberglass or asphalt roof—although the latter now has more shingle profiles to choose from than ever before. In addition, a new product for windows radiates heat back into the home, and new siding composites emulate wood but resist weather and hold their deeper, richer color.
“Interest rates are low, product availability is high, and a lot of the bad contractors were weeded out by the recession,” says Ganser. “With customers having savings and a confidence that things are moving in the right direction, I don’t think there’s a better time.”
Before you get started
Landscaping is a terrific way to freshen up a home, whether with a day project or a complete overhaul. But before you start digging, it’s important to have a plan to not only keep you safe, but to save money, time and headaches.
“MG&E spent 385 hours last year removing conflicting trees and shrubs near pad mounted transformers. While that may not sound like a lot, improperly placed shrubs and trees impede our ability to respond in an emergency or perform system maintenance safely,” says Scott Nelson, a system forester with Madison Gas and Electric. “Our arborists and crews come across many well-intended, poorly placed trees and shrubs. A simple adjustment to a landscape plan prior to planting can make a big difference when it comes to potential conflicts, including [with] power or communication lines.”
Of course, you’re not expected to be an expert in the field. MG&E offers free resources, such as Diggers Hotline and the “Tree Choice and Care” online database, to help you take into account the purpose, size, potential for conflict, seasonal interest, maintenance and disease-resistance of plantings you are considering, along with information on safety issues, potential fines and other practical guidelines.
“Customer education is a high priority,” says Nelson. “MG&E guides customers in making wise landscape decisions both in-person and on our website.”
Creating outdoor spaces is all about telling a story, inspiring a mood, and supporting a family in relaxation and recreation alike, say experts. It’s about extending that feeling of home to the outdoors, especially when certain seasonal times are so precious.
“Anyone who lives in Wisconsin treasures the outdoors during the nice weather months,” says Denise Quade of Denise Quade Design. “Especially after winters like the one we just had.”
A transitional room off the kitchen—a deck, patio, screen room or covered porch—is a great way to connect the inside to the outside and create a food-focused gathering space for family and friends. Wide bi-folding exterior doors that allow maximum opening from the main house to the adjoining outdoor room can make each area feel larger.
“Outdoor kitchens built into stone or concrete housings are also fast becoming a must-have,” says Quade, “especially as more people entertain and stay at home.”
These kitchens allow at-home chefs to work without missing out on the fun, with the help of built-in grills with burners, beverage centers, refrigerator drawers, wine storage, ice-makers, pizza ovens and stainless cabinetry for under-counter storage. Outdoor fireplaces or fire pits provide warmth, and ceiling-mounted heat lamps also allow these spaces to be used during more than just the summer months.
“There are so many options now in regard to product textures, colors and even cooking elements,” says Stephanie Schipper, Wisconsin sales representative at Anchor Block Company, which manufactures concrete wall and paver systems. She cites “products that make an impact, like freestanding or seating walls, pavers that look like real stone, and even outdoor fireplaces and pizza ovens.”
Schipper says large-scale contemporary paving elements that complement natural stone and landscaping not only create welcoming, long-lasting spaces, they increase property value significantly.
“We are the exclusive North American manufacturer of Rinn™ paving elements, widely recognized by industry experts as the preeminent German manufacturer of high-strength, high-quality paving elements that withstand harsh climates and will look beautiful for years to come,” says Schipper.
When beginning an outdoor project, Schipper encourages homeowners to think carefully about how they will be using the space, today and ten years from now. And she advises that homeowners choose landscape contractors with good references to help personalize the space and avoid common missteps, whether building driveways, walkways, fire pits, patios or walls.
“A common mistake when building a retaining wall occurs when the build is started at the wrong end,” says Schipper. “A wall should start at the lowest elevation. When excavating for a patio, it’s common to over-excavate the area.”
Brad Gesbocker, general manager of Unilock, a paver and retaining-wall design and manufacturing company founded forty years ago, sees a trend in outdoor living spaces toward vertical features: fireplaces or, perhaps, built-in seat walls that contain the patio and provide a natural border separating the patio from the rest of the yard. Gesbocker reports an increased interest in larger-scale shapes and patterns, too.
“When I started in this business in 1995, people were doing kidney-shaped patios and paving stones that were smaller and simpler, replicating cobbles or brick,” he says. “Today the hot trend is contemporary, a bit more straight and geometric; larger slabs and more linear patterns are used.”
Gesbocker says Unilock is a professionally installed product, and partners with authorized contractors to provide free estimates and consultations to offer customers guidance on projects. Unilock’s patented Enduracolor technology—an engineered combination of concentrated color and special, wear-resistant aggregates and materials—creates an attractive, durable, stable, natural-looking product with a lifetime guarantee.
“We’re four times stronger than ordinary concrete,” says Gesbocker. “With this technology and the very wide array of sizes, colors and textures available, we can provide options, ideas, and the best solution for your needs.”
Bringing new life to old decks
Decks are one of the most common outdoor home improvement projects. But a deck, as it ages, can also become a home’s most noticeable eyesore. Many homeowners put off deck projects because they think they have to demolish the deck and start from scratch, but Jim Teela, of Marling HomeWorks, says that’s not necessarily the case.
“If they have an existing deck and they don’t want to change the structure, we can strip off the old decking and railing. If the structure is in good shape—and typically it is, unless it wasn’t built right to begin with—we can put on a new floor, rail system and skirt board,” says Teela. “So you don’t have this massive tear-out, just the flooring and the rail and then bingo, you’ve got what looks like a brand new deck.”
Some homeowners remain committed to real wood—Teela included—and they’re willing to put in the required maintenance to wash and seal their decks each year because it’s worth it. But for those who want a lower maintenance option, readily available composite decking looks close enough. It’s also weather resistant, contains hidden fasteners, and comes with a warranty. To finish off the deck, LED lights with wires hidden along the rails and posts create a soft, warm glow.
Beyond the swimming pool
Water features, outdoor lighting and recreational swimming ponds—these are the top three trends the Bruce Company’s Shane Wagner sees this year.
“For people in a smaller, residential subdivision, we’re doing a lot of small ponds with waterfalls, maybe 150 square feet with a couple of nice little waterfalls and a stream,” says Wagner. For those desiring less maintenance, “pond-less waterfalls” empty into beds of gravel. “People just love coming home after a long day and relaxing next to the soothing sound.”
Low voltage lighting throughout a home’s landscaping is also increasingly popular, and it’s a great way to highlight—literally—your outdoor projects. Soft lighting to accent water features, uplighting trees, and lining walkways with lights can add curb appeal and enhance safety.
In a break from traditional swimming pools, many homeowners are opting to install recreational swimming ponds. For around the same price, Wagner says, they’re getting ten times the size—and creating a little slice of beach-day vacation at home anytime they want.
“This isn’t a dirt pond with cattails around it,” says Wagner. “We always use pond liners so there’s no mucky bottom, and there are natural bacteria treatments to keep it clean and clear. We line it with stone and water plants and people can fish, swim, and sunbathe on their own sandy beach at home.”