June 16 2011 12:00 AM

If you work in the residential market, opportunity abounds. With the economy trying to ease out of the doldrums, and the price of gasoline keeping families off the road, what a perfect time to look at the great outdoors of your client’s own backyard.

Great rooms and outdoor living spaces began to take on a different meaning as families spend more time at home. Landscape contractors working in the residential area strive to build amenities that will make the outdoor living space versatile as well as comfortable.

Enjoying the outdoors

Fortunately, the demand for outdoor amenities is still a high priority for residential clients. Whether it be an extensive outdoor kitchen, a splashing water feature accentuating a spa, or a simple bench tucked away on a garden path, the stresses of modern life make people want to decompress outdoors.

“In this economic climate, people have really cut back on a lot of the extras,” says Cameron Scott, owner of Exteriorscapes LLC, in Seattle, Washington. “But we have seen a greater demand for firepits and gathering spots. This leads me to believe that people are staying home more and entertaining at home.” Exteriorscapes mission is “to connect people with nature,” and they have been doing it since they were established in 1994.

In Tucson, Arizona, New Desert Gallery, Inc., has been providing clients with the opportunity to enjoy outdoor living for more than 30 years. Owners John and Barbara Stropko note that, “People have a desire to stay home now. Travel times are longer, due to increased regulations and crowds, and many are tired of traveling. People want to be able to be home, relax and be with family.”

In boom-and-bust Las Vegas, Nevada, home of some excess in the past, the ‘survivors’ are hunkering down for the long term.

“Because of the change in the housing market, more people look at their home as something they’re going to be living in for a long period of time, rather than as a short-term investment,” notes Norm Schilling, president of Schilling Horticulture Group, Inc., in Las Vegas, Nevada.

“In the past, landscape was sometimes seen as an empty space to fill (usually with plants),” says Schilling. “Now people look at it more as an area to use, to create an environment suitable for a ‘staycation,’ with the result being a greater focus on useable space such as patios. Therefore, there seems to be a general upswing in the use of hardscape areas created from flagstone or pavers.”

Sure, Arizona and Nevada offer outdoor opportunities just about year ’round. And in verdant Seattle, the sheer beauty defies the damp reputation. But you don’t normally think of Fargo, North Dakota, as a beacon of outdoor living.

You’d be wrong. Stan Hoglund, owner of Hoglund Landscape since 1974, has been wowing his clients with extensive water features, outdoor decks and patios, garden structures and other ways to take advantage of the brief, but beautiful, temperate weather when it arrives.

“Designing and installing an outdoor entertaining area can be life-altering,” Hoglund notes. “If done right, there’s nothing more enjoyable than a soothing water feature or a cozy fire pit. In most cases, it’s just nice to be outside in the fresh air—the sounds of birds and maybe a cottonwood singing in the background with a cooling breeze.”

Amenities can range from a modest pair of chairs to a complete outdoor environment. “Our company specializes in creating resortstyle (easy to live in) outdoor environments, with state-of-the-art, easy-to-use controls for pool and spas, along with automation,” says Strokpko. “These are not inexpensive systems, and can easily add well over $10,000 to the cost of a yard. It’s been our trademark since the late 1970s.”

“It seems to be the trend overall, but it’s more ‘normal’ in the yard spaces we’ve been building over the years,” Stropko continues. “There was a time when it was an option, but now clients expect them. Our customers expect these things not as upgrades, but as necessary for their family to be able to enjoy the outdoors. Many of our clients are very busy. Time is of the essence, so anything that can be ‘immediate’ is an added value.”

For the most part, water and fire are two of the most requested amenities. “People seem to want much more natural-looking features or classic features rather than ‘Vegas’ crazy stuff these days,” Scott notes.

But even in Vegas, Schilling says “the sound of running water is often desired by clients.” Gazebos are especially popular in areas with more inclement weather. “Being in the Northwest, we do get a lot of requests for outdoor spaces that stay dry, where people can sit out and enjoy their coffee and listen to the rain or use their barbecue year ’round,” says Scott.

Hoglund agrees. “Gazebos are a wonderful addition, especially if you only have a short period of nice weather. You can use them all year if they are fitted right. Trellises and trellis arbors are great, too. Sometimes we’ll build benches or storage areas and gates for trellis arbors, to add dimension and practicality.”

These days, you can’t pick up a homeowner design magazine without seeing something on outdoor kitchens. “Yes they’re all over and we love installing them,” Scott says. “We find people will grill much more often if it is just tied in and ready to go, rather than having to go out and ‘set up’ the grill and such.”

Stropko agrees. “When it’s easy to be in these spaces, people use them. I remind my clients that as a kid, we had an outdoor kitchen in an old adobe home in Tucson in the late 1960s . . . and the home was built in the 1940s. Outdoor kitchens are the rage—again.” To stock those kitchens, vegetable gardens are gaining popularity with clients. In addition, “Water harvesting and storage is becoming more popular,” Stropko notes.

Although there are a number of new plastics and other materials for decking, overheads and trellises, natural materials are still the number-one choice. “For decks, we highly recommend the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified tropical hardwoods,” says Scott. “Their carbon footprint is much lower and they last 40 to 50 years without a problem. They’re very smooth and stable. They don’t get nearly as hot as the plastic decks; they don’t stain from food oils like plastic decks, and they look much better, in my opinion.”

Stropko opts for a different palette, to the same end point. “Exposed aggregates, integral colored concrete, sandstones, cantera stone and mixtures of various materials give you textures and designs that are not only functional, but artistic.

Sculptural metal with rust-like finishes or other metal-type finishes work for overheads. It is used on custom-fabricated trellises, light fixtures, entry gates, doors, downspouts, etc.,” Stropko explains.

“The ‘look,’ in a lot of our steel work projects, is ‘rust finish,’ with or without a sealcoat.”

Light it up

For years, landscape lighting has been touted as a profitable “addon” for landscape contractors. With the new emphasis on outdoor living, there are more lighting opportunities than ever.

“Probably half of the new installs and renovations we do include lighting,” says Schilling. “While we don’t consider ourselves ‘lighting specialists,’ we do focus on how to tastefully include lighting effects, using moonlighting, shadowlighting and backlighting. We only use high-quality products, and make sure they’re installed properly,” Schilling continues. “We’re careful not to ‘overlight’ a property. Done well, we believe that night lighting almost gives the user a second, very different and unique garden, other than that which is experienced in daylight.”

“LED lighting is the way to go,” Scott explains. “No more changing bulbs. They are also much better with colors, and power consumption is much lower than it used to be. We have been leading clients to more natural lighting, such as put ting them up in the trees to shine down, creating natural ‘moonlight’ shadows and such.”

“Lighting is critical in one’s outdoor space,” says Stropko. “A great yard needs great lighting, and once again, as the client is introduced to a higher level of design and implementation, they will choose it if they can.”

Selling the job

In this tight economy, are there any special sales techniques that can help a client make a sound decision? Not really. Any sales professional will tell you that the key to success is in the relationship.

“We try to be very open and transparent with our clients. We explain that we will not be the cheapest estimate they will get, but we tell them why,” explains Scott. “So much of proper landscaping is unseen, so even though two different companies may look the same on the surface, the differences become apparent after a few years.”

“We show them our work and walk through yards and explain exactly what we had to work with, going over any obstacles that we faced using ‘before’ photos, materials used, etc.,” says Stropko. “We’re able to have them experience firsthand what the spaces feel like, how the amenities were incorporated and how it works. They are able to see the level of detail of design and construction that is involved and accomplished. We work closely with our clients to make sure they understand the design and what they will be getting.”

“I just listen to the customer first,” says Hoglund. “But they are always interested and excited to hear your ideas. I strive to bring a finished design, along with a written proposal, within 24 to 48 hours, depending on the size of the job— the sooner the better. Being the first one to get back to them is a big plus.”

Employee training is also critical for customer satisfaction. “We are constantly training. I take my crews to train with master stone masons every year; they get trained in rainwater harvesting, and they receive training on decking,” Scott says. “I feel it is one of the most important things an employer can do to ensure the best quality and the least amount of callbacks.”

Schilling agrees. “Before we undertake any new type of work, we make sure the crew leader is professionally trained to install the work correctly,” he says. “For instance, before we laid our first paver, two of our crew leaders became certified through the ICPI (International Concrete Paver Institute).”

“Our employees are cross-trained for all we do,” says Stropko. “We bring on long-time partners when we do not have the expertise or the specialized equipment.”

The principles of sound business still apply.

There is no way around the old saying that, “You get what you pay for.” If you cut corners, especially with kitchens, barbeques, or furniture, the outdoor elements will take their toll and in a very short time, they will have to be replaced.

“Our value is our hand-holding, our attention to detail, our exterior concierge services,” says Stropko. “Being there when the client needs us anytime—being there before they need us, knowing they can count on us, and knowing they will have a truly beautiful environment which they can enjoy for many years.”

With outdoor living enjoying renewed interest among homeowners, are you getting your share?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Helen M. Stone is a horticultural freelance writer based in Las Vegas, Nevada, and Hayfork, California.