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Create Your Own Outdoor Oasis

From perfect pergolas to welcoming ramadas, your backyard never looked better

Now more than ever, our own backyards have become our retreats. With a pandemic waging war on our ability to escape our own homes, creating a backyard sanctuary has never been more appealing or more needed. 

Andy Vande Hey, president of Vande Hey Company in Appleton, says creating spaces that allow homeowners to relax and unwind outdoors is good for their mental health, even if it’s for just an hour a day. 

“People can just go in their backyard and take a breath and enjoy that hour of peacefulness,” he states. “It can make a big, big difference.”

Trending Structures: Pergolas and Ramadas

When creating a space in your backyard, that white, wooden two-seat gazebo has been replaced with larger, upscale structures made of easy-to-care-for materials. Steve Tuma, landscape designer with Lowney’s Landscaping in Appleton, says two of the most popular stand-alone structures trending for their clients have been pergolas and ramadas. As the next level in outdoor relaxation and entertaining, the open-air ramadas and pergolas surround outdoor bars, kitchens, dining areas and even pools. While pergolas have the open-air feel as a stand-alone structure, ramadas offer more shade with roof systems in place. 

“[The ramadas] are more of a covered, four-sided open outdoor structure that people are enjoying endlessly, to be honest, because it offers them so many advantages for more outdoor living in their backyards,” Tuma explains.

Each style of structure can include lighting and fans, creating a special ambience in the backyard and allowing the homeowner to better enjoy the outdoors, furthers Tuma. And, as Vande Hey states, the outdoor spaces can be built to mirror what already exists in the home’s aesthetic, or it can be designed to reflect that “backyard, up north” feel.

“People don’t want to maintain two properties, so this is their ‘up north,’” he says. “So, we’re creating a different experience for them [from their existing home], which means we can make it a little more natural. Everyone’s different, but we’re seeing a little bit more of that, as people sell their cottages and invest in their backyards.”

Add In An Outdoor Kitchen

Dale Laurin, owner of Natural Encounters in Appleton, custom-makes concrete countertops for outdoor bars and kitchens. He says he’s seen the trend of outdoor kitchens evolve over the last 10 years, and grow by leaps and bounds in the last five years. He believes it started when people began investing in their existing properties during the poor economy in the late 2000s, instead of buying new properties or relocating.

“It’s very typical,” he says. “It’s a very common type of feature, to have an outdoor kitchen in your backyard now.”

Materials for outdoor applications matter; concrete countertops, like those Laurin creates, are a popular choice for the outdoor kitchens and bars because of the durability and the color and texture choices available to homeowners. Texture wise, the countertop surface can take on a more clean aesthetic, with an industrial-style appearance, or it can be polished down to show more of the aggregate, giving it a terrazzo-style look. Laurin says at Natural Encounters, he can also include five different types of recycled glass in the countertops, and two-color veining is an option as well.

“We can make a countertop with approximately 30 to 35 different color choices to choose from,” he explains. “And our coloring that we use is 100 percent all-natural coloring that is impregnated into the concrete, so the whole countertop is the same color on the bottom as it is on top.”

The concrete also has four different water- and stain-resistant applications, impregnated in the concrete, which makes it an ideal surface for outdoor applications. The countertops can also be reinforced to easily support cut-outs for grills, for example, or to accommodate overhangs for bar stools.

“We work directly with homeowners and make it specific for their wants and needs,” he adds. “They get to create their own unique style.”

Challenges & Price Range

Challenges homeowners may face with outdoor spaces and rooms include how the design will blend into the existing architecture of the home, how the construction may affect the views in the yard, the physical size of the structure, and upkeep of the surrounding softscapes.

“Some of these structures can be large, and it becomes a big budget item as well, depending on whether it’s roofed or an open-air pergola style,” Tuma says. “Permits can be necessary depending on the township as well.”

Drainage can also be problematic, explains Vande Hey. 

“That’s part of the planning that’s important,” he says. “You might want to put something up in a space, but if you don’t take into consideration the watershed and the topography of the land in the design process, you could have issues.”

When it comes to price, like anything else, it will vary depending on the extent of the project and materials chosen for the project. Lowney’s recent projects have run the gamut. Simple projects, like vinyl pergolas, range from $5,000 to $12,000. 

“When we get into ramadas and more custom-type pergolas, that can range from $20,000 on the simple end, to the $80,000 range,” furthers Tuma.

While creating your dream outdoor space may seem like a large undertaking, Vande Hey says it’s best to avoid being penny wise and dollar foolish. Even something that seems like a simple project, like a fire pit installation, can lead to problems down the road if not done correctly.

“I encourage people, if they don’t think they have the budget to do it all, to get that game plan together,” states Vande Hey. “Probably 20 percent of our work is redoing things that were designed improperly or installed improperly. Maybe it’s even 25 percent — it seems to be growing. 

“Get a professional who can design the outdoor kitchen and spaces,” he adds, “and then work with them over time, to get it done properly.”

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