Waterscapes and Outdoor Living

By Russ Smith

Have you ever been really fuming mad, and had somebody tell you in a sanctimonious tone "go to your happy place?" It probably made you want to sock the condescension out of them, but it's actually pretty good advice. Visualizing an environment that makes you happy and puts you at your ease can help you keep calm under pressure, and regain your cool when you're on your last nerve.

For many of us, our happy place includes the peace that only nature can bring. We visualize a space with a babbling brook, with a comfortable seat, and vibrant green life. For some, that vision is more than just a mental exercise, it’s a driving need.

They may not know it, but you can help them make that happen. An outdoor kitchen or living area can be the enticement a client didn’t know they needed to engage with their landscape on their own terms. It can be a bridge to a place where the air is fresh, and the land is alive.

People asking for this want to be closer to nature, but they don’t want to go camping. They want the joys of their environment alongside a fire pit, in the shade, with the ball game and surround sound. There are good reasons for you to offer that to them, and it only starts with money.

“There’s really good margins in outdoor living installations, because it’s mostly custom work,” said Ben Wiese, owner of Stanley, Kansas-based Pinnacle Lawncare, Inc. That customization makes each job a little different, and Wiese says he likes the creativity it requires. “Different settings, different colors, different custom design for each situation,, and each residence,” he said. “We don’t have a cookie-cutter, everything’s-the-same approach; it’s all different.”

Of course, whenever you’re dealing with aesthetic matters and customer choice, there’s always the risk of encountering a clash. Weise says that one of his biggest headaches is when a customer signs off on the job, you place the order for materials, and then they decide that they’d really rather have brick than concrete. Still, even that has its upsides. “There’s always more money in change orders, too, so there’s a good side to that as well,” he said.

Weise takes satisfaction in meeting the technical challenges often found in outdoor living designs as well. “I’m talking about using product in a manner it wasn’t necessarily designed for, to achieve the desired aesthetic. Making the adaptations so it will work. Creating a cooktop out of retaining wall blocks, making countertops out of natural stone, things like that,” he said.

A client doesn’t know the internals of patio or counter construction, they only know what they want. They’ll say, “I want this kitchen design, but I want it made out of the stuff from this picture, with the granite top from the image you showed me earlier.” They don’t know that the “stuff” they’re pointing at may not be strong enough to support a granite slab, or how you’ll have to modify the layout to make it work.

You also need to take the larger view into account when making design recommendations. An outdoor living space has to look like it fits alongside the house and the landscape both. A traditional wooden pergola in a stone-paved courtyard that would look perfectly natural outside of a ranch house may look out of place behind a three-story Victorian. Ultimately though, customer preference is king.

Although different clients will, of course, want different features, there are some requests that pop up more than others. In Katy, Texas, Renee Connors is the director of operations for Your Great Outdoors, and according to her, customers are very clear about what they want.

“The top-requested items would be outdoor kitchens, covered patios, and pools,” she said. “Pools are very popular in the spring, not so much in the winter, but people will start thinking about it in a couple of months.”

The common thread of most outdoor space customers is so clear, you may have already overheard the mantra that lists them: fire, water, and shade. Whether they want a ‘great room’ to entertain guests, or make their landscape more conducive to solitary relaxation, one or more of those three elements will help.

Which is not to say that every design is the same. Some customers are envisioning a pool with a nearby lounge area, others are imagining being able to prepare, cook and serve a full meal outside, while still others dream of catching the big game in the fresh air, without the sun’s painful glare. Outdoor living spaces are a literal dream come true for many, and getting the nuances of a client’s desires correct almost requires taking the top off their head and peeking inside.

Jeremy Montano, landscape architect with Designs by Sundown in Englewood, Colorado, does so regularly, interviewing customers and turning their wishes into reality. “You see a client a certain way throughout the interview and design process. Then, after a project is complete and they’re able to start using the space, it’s like they’re wearing a perma-grin,” he said. “They’re so excited and ecstatic to be able to use the space. It’s hard for them to see light at the end of the tunnel when they’re going through the process.”

Montano has a lot of environmentally-conscious customers, and so he tries to incorporate vertical growing structures into his plans. His clients eat it up. “They’re not only appealing to look at, but functional. You can grow vegetables in them,” he said. Trellises and arbors can offer increased shade, a windbreak, more greenery, and even a bite to eat, all at the same time.

Edible components are not the only ecofriendly technique up Montano’s sleeve. “There are more and more recycled materials that can be used for patios, and composite decking for outdoor living spaces,” said Montano. He uses a composite recycled material made from a blend of sawdust and plastic bags. That choice diverts wood and plastic waste from landfills, and upcycles it onto residential landscapes, a popular choice with many consumers.

When designing an outdoor space, you also have to take your changes to the landscape into account. Any time you put down an impermeable surface, that increases runoff, and you may need to fold some drainage measures into your plans.

“We made a courtyard once that was like a walk-out, walk-up basement and outdoor living area,” said Wiese. For a situation like that, drainage isn’t just an environmental consideration, it’s a design necessity.

“It was like Louisiana, and here you are, trying to pump the water out of it,” said Wiese. “We had to make sure all that drained, so it had an independent sump pump just for that area.” Of course, most designs aren’t quite that extreme.

For milder slopes, Wiese says a French drain will do the job. A French drain is simply a sloping ditch with a pipe at the bottom that is lined with erosion-control fabric and then filled with gravel. Running from a downspout off of the property, this is a useful technique for safely and invisibly removing excess water.

Some projects ease drainage in a more direct fashion, by employing permeable surfaces. You can do this by setting pavers apart from one another and filling the space between with some aggregate. Another common option is to use pavers that are, themselves, permeable. Some of these are quite attractive, and a simple demonstration of their effectiveness with a pitcher of water can really wow a customer.

That’s the beauty of outdoor living, the almost magical effect it can have on people’s lives. There are plenty of luxury goods out there that a successful person can spend their money on, but at the end of the day most of them are just that, goods. They’re objects, and can only bring so much value to a person’s life, even a devoutly-desired object.

A usable outdoor space can bring decades of rich experiences to a household. “What an outdoor living space means to us,” said Connors, “is a place where families can gather around, enjoy each other’s company, and make memories.” This kind of emotional fulfillment is the payoff for most clients. To them, the added property value isn’t even a consideration.

The public at large generally doesn’t know what it takes to care for a landscape well. As a result, the pride that landscape contractors take in their work is often an invisible thing. It is the quiet smile at the end of a long day. Building outdoor living spaces can offer the rare chance to share that experience, that love of nature, with a customer. Don’t just tell someone to go to their happy place—build it for them.