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Outdoor Living Roundtable

Spring into outdoor projects with some help from the pros. We asked local experts to share their ideas for gardening, landscaping, hardscaping, pools, and more.

At The Table: Tom Astram, Gault; John Gedney, Wagner Pools; Roger Haggerty, Haggerty Pools; Steve Johnson, Sam Bridge; Janice Parker, Janice Parker Designs; Cheryl Russ, Glen Gate Pool and Property; Cynthia Saxe, ABC Stone; Megan Smith, Gault; Jon Tibett, ABC Stone; Kate Hogan, editor; Amy Vischio, creative director.

Amy Vischio How do you plan an outdoor living space? What’s the first step?

Janice Parker As landscape architects, we like to come in first, during the initial planning stages, to understand all the parameters and restrictions inherent in the site. People will have some idea of what they want, but they may want to site a pool or a garden where it can’t be. So you need to know the setbacks and the feasibility of the project.

John Gedney We recommend landscape architects as the first step when approaching a project. It’s a smart investment for the homeowner to hire a landscape architect. We love working with them because the jobs are just so professional.

Steve Johnson You need to look at the big picture: the pool, the house, the driveway, the tennis court.

Jon Tibett Even with the selection of the stone and the hardscape, the landscape architect will have a good understanding of what the planting will be on that project, where certain stones that are highly reflective may not work well with some of the plantings.

Megan Smith Each house is unique. It goes back to the landscape architect’s plan to create a space that’s designed as an extension of the home. People spend a lot of time designing a great room on the inside of the home. Now we’re finding that people want to take that great room concept into the great outdoors. Architects are developing plans in phases. So maybe in phase one, we’ll do the patio and the fire pit. Then, next year we’ll add on to that. A lot of the architects are offering advice on phasing up front, and that has been very helpful.

Janice When you’re doing phasing, you have to remember to back your way out of the site. What you want to do last on your list, you might have to do first. Landscaping is construction, but it’s also destruction, and you really do need to rehabilitate a site every time you come in and out of it. The access and logistics need planning too—not just design. 

Roger Haggerty But sometimes there is no doing it in phases. When you look at the big project, you realize you really can’t, because either you’re going to do it, or you have to take things apart in order to go back to square one.

Janice Well, that’s the old line, that you build a pool and get a road for free.

Which landscape and outdoor-living investments really add value to your home?

Roger It all depends on what people look for in their houses. Sometimes real estate agents will say that the pool or the outdoor living and entertaining space isn’t a big deal when it comes to selling houses. But if someone likes it, they’re going to buy it.

Megan Given the state of the economy and real estate—the market is flooded with inventory—some outdoor elements can be a real differentiator. If you’re comparing your average four-bedroom, two-bath Colonials, what makes one stand out from the crowd? For some people, it may be the pool or the patio or the built-in barbecue, but there has to be some sort of differentiator in this market.

Steve Large trees give your property a mature, lived-in look. Trees give life to the property: a place for gathering, a place to hang a swing, shade for a patio. Trees and shrubs are elements that really benefit from time and being able to grow into a space. The best day to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

Janice Landscaping and exterior spaces take in the strengths and the weaknesses of the existing house. Whatever plays down the weaknesses and pulls up the strengths will always be a good investment. Whether it’s the front yard, the back yard, the pool, it’s something that really enhances what’s really strong about the lot.

Tom Astram Curb appeal is the main thing. People’s initial reaction to the property has got to be good. Then you go in and figure out what the people want:  Do they want a pool? Is that their lifestyle? Do they want an outdoor kitchen? Do they want a patio, a gathering place to bring their friends? That’s often the first thing people want: a place for parties. I’ve been supplying stone for 30 years, and it seems like every job I go to, it’s about the party. There’s always a party. As in, “We’ve got to be done because we’re having a party.”

Cheryl Russ I agree that curb appeal is very valuable—the first thing a potential buyer sees. Determining a palette of plant material that is not too overwhelming or underwhelming while creating an inviting approach to the house adds great value. Outdoor living rooms create an extension of the interior and allow additional usable living space. Many of our clients like to create outdoor rooms adjacent to their pool incorporating a fireplace, so they can enjoy the space later into the season. Also, the combination of water and fire creates such an inviting and relaxing ambience. 

Jon Here in the Northeast, we have only a three- to four-month season and people want to make the most of it. We happen to have some of the most beautiful real estate in the New England area. There’s a value in putting any kind of construction into the house, when people are less likely to go on vacation. They can spend the time around their own pool and turn their home into a resort. People just want to be outside, eat outside, and swim. What’s extending the season is the patio heater.

How long can you extend the season? Will you get out in April instead of May?

Megan Absolutely.

John A couple of months in each direction.

Cheryl It also depends on how temperate the season has been. A few years ago, we were installing sod until Christmas.

Megan Stand-alone patio heaters used to be popular only at restaurants. But now people are incorporating them into their own patios. That in conjunction with a fireplace or fire pit is adding the extra four- to six-week period, which people love.

Jon The fire pit has been a big, new, popular item too. It seems like you have to have a fire pit.

Megan Fire pits used to be only masonry constructed, unless they were the copper bowl from Home Depot. Now paving companies have developed do-it-yourself fire pit kits. Very affordable, they look like masonry fire pits. That made it accessible to more people. In the next three to four years, fire pits are all going to be propane. You can pipe it in through a gas line. Neighbors complain about the smoke from wood-burning pits, and this eliminates that problem.

Janice There are some steel pits that can be used with wood or propane—you can do both. That is one of the most terrific new products I’ve seen. The fire pit or fireplace has to be part of the outdoor terrace work, part of the design. You can design beautiful outdoor rooms but unless they can be furnished well, they’re not very useful. We always try to start with a furniture plan early on to ensure a great flow. You need to be able to define the layout of the furniture, how people are going to use the space and the access to it. That’s key. About the fire pits: They can be put off in the distance for the beauty of the flames at night. It’s so much more beautiful than outdoor lighting. A fire pit can be a focal point. The fire is beautiful, and it draws you outside.

Any other trends you’re seeing?  

Megan We’re getting a lot of requests for cooking outside—pizza ovens, outdoor ovens. They’re wood-fired, so the pizza tastes great.

Cheryl It’s very important to make sure that the structure of an exterior space (shrubs, masonry, wood structures) is timeless and created from materials that have and will be around for a long time, without the chance of them going out of style. I think the trends should be incorporated through new plant material varieties, artwork, etc., that can be easily changed if the trend happens to pass.

Steve We have been incorporating a significant amount of perennials into our designs. Perennials will die back to the ground in fall and return each spring. They provide continual change in the landscape by adding contrasting color and variety. Ornamental grasses have also grown in popularity. They are low maintenance, come in a large variety of sizes from six inches to 12 feet tall, are deer resistant and also provide dramatic movement in the landscape. Knockout roses also provide a great display of color. Flower colors include blush, pink, red, and yellow, and some come with double flowers. Knockouts require minimum care and provide color from June until Thanksgiving.

Janice Everyone has the Restoration Hardware catalog, which has a huge outdoor section, out on their coffee tables. They do some terrific, smart knockoffs. People want what’s in there, only a bit different. Hotels and resorts are a frame of reference for clients. Hotels and ski areas are doing a lot of outdoor elements and fire pits. People are doing incredibly creative stuff with stone.

Jon A lot of people go away on vacation and come back with lots of ideas. They have time to think; they take tons of pictures. The vanishing-edge pool is the flavor of the month—it’s a cool look. In addition to that, people are looking for something different or unique for the interior of the pool, like a stone or glass or mosaic tile.

Any new hardscape materials our readers should know about? 

Jon In addition to your typical bluestone, there are so many more materials. People are gravitating toward beige, warmer colors that are easier on the feet. There are great materials available from the Pacific, from Asia, granites that are very light in color. There’s a whole line of sandstone now from India—beiges, whites, gold. Materials out of France, Germany, and Spain give that romantic European look. Everyone seems to want something different, some level of novelty.

Roger Bluestone is so readily available. That’s the first thing people ask about. The next thing they ask is, How hot does it get? You need shade or you can’t stand on it. We’ve had one or two jobs where people have installed sprinkler systems to wet down the bluestone around their pool.

John The heat can be controlled using misting and fogging systems, which we’ve done around pools and pergolas. 

Roger We’ve seen an increase in popularity in Chinese granite, lighter colors with grays and greens—and Sahara, a tan look. Also, a salt-and-pepper—white sand they call it—and rosebud.

Tom I’m finding that people are looking for the warmer, earthier tones. Many people like that natural look. They’re trying to pick something a little different but still within the budget. One of the granites that Connecticut Stone does is called Venetian Buff; it has some tones in it that people like. People are sourcing out stones from all over the place, seeing what’s out there. Some of them haven’t been time-tested. You start getting a pool deck that’s $50 to 60 thousand, and you can’t pick a material that you don’t have a history on. You need to have the history for stone to be used for a deck.

Jon You have all these new materials. There’s not any specific data. Having been doing this as long as I have, I’m a true believer in historical references. Unless you can show me a five-year history, I’m not interested in being a guinea pig. 

What’s the worst patio material?

Jon Concrete; it’s not stone.

Tom It cracks.

Jon As Janice pointed out earlier, people are drawn to the fire, drawn to the water. Well, we are all drawn to stone in some way. There’s a certain connection between us and stone. So the worst type of material is one that won’t work in the application (for instance, too hot on the feet). Or a material might be too loud.

John Sandstones, limestones.

Tom Every problem I’ve ever seen with a patio or a pool deck has been with limestone; typically Indiana limestone. I would never put limestone on a deck.

Janice It does fail.

Tom People think they’re going to build a masonry patio and that it will last forever. But masonry has to be maintained.

Jon There are some dolomitic limestones that will perform as well as granite long term. They’ve been around for eons. Most sandstones are very durable and good for exterior. Indiana limestone has given a bad name to a lot of the mason yards that got caught up in using it as a paving material. In their own handbook, they say, “Absolutely do not use this material for paving.” Dolomitic limestones work perfectly well, they last forever, they’re beautiful, they’re white, they’re from France and Spain. When you go to Europe, you see how those materials have been installed for hundreds of years. Some limestones are soft on the feet, like suede. What you have to be careful about: pools that are not being maintained using chlorine. You have all these salt pools, and the salt has a very aggressive, negative effect on certain limestones.

John That happens with bluestone and flagstone too.

Jon Salt and masonry are typically not a good fit.

Roger People think they’re getting a saltwater pool. But there’s generally not as many parts per million of salt to say, “I’m in salt water.”  You shouldn’t be able to taste it.

John We don’t offer salt due to the destructive property. We offer ozone and ultraviolet.

Roger Ozone is a great system.

If someone has an older pool and wants to update it, is it easier to build a new one, or can you resurface it?

John You can do a world of things to improve an existing pool. It’s a big job.

Roger What people don’t understand about renovating a pool is that it can be more costly than building a new pool, depending on how far you take it.

John There are new finishes: pebble, quartz, glass finish, traditional tile and mosaics. Design wise, vanishing-edge pools and spas are very popular, as well as wet-edge, where there is no edge, just water all around. It can be great if you have the right setting. There are tons of new things that can get incorporated into a pool to make it state-of -the-art.

What about green features?

Cheryl We include rain gardens in our plans, especially when dealing with wetlands issues, because they are self-sufficient gardens that don’t require irrigation (as long as the proper plant material for the location is chosen). Water runoff is collected from the property and used to naturally irrigate the plantings.

We also use variable-speed pumps on all our new pool installations. It allows the pool pump to run at different speeds depending on time of day and amount of use, which decreases energy use and results in a cost savings. 
Another green feature we incorporate is strategically siting the vegetation on the property to save on energy costs. For example, we recommend planting a deciduous tree on the southwest side of the house. When the tree is leafed out in summer, it will shade the house from the afternoon sun and keep it cooler; whereas, in the winter when there are no leaves, it will allow the sun to penetrate, giving the house sunlight and warmth.

John Geothermal systems are very popular right now. Heat pumps, insulation pipes. Plus, the sanitation. You can get rid of most of the chemicals by using ozone. There is sophisticated equipment that will allow you to adjust the chemistry. We can monitor pools we’ve built in Nantucket from our offices in Darien via satellite.

Megan We also have propane-tank monitoring systems. If somebody uses propane and cranks their pool heater for a weekend because they have friends over or if they’re cooking all weekend and forget to shut it off, we have the first-ever monitoring system that allows us to monitor people’s propane tanks remotely from our office to ensure there are no run-outs.

What’s new and exciting as far as plant material?

Steve There are some new elms. They’re getting back to where they were as far as popularity. There are new cryptomeria and lots of new Japanese maples in different colors, sizes, and shapes. Different shades of red—they’re gorgeous. Also, lots of new hydrangeas have come out. You don’t have to worry about cutting them back; they keep blooming and blooming. ‘Endless Summer’ is the name. Also, we like the new ‘Annabelles’ in pink.

Any final issues for homeowners to consider?

Jon The biggest issue when it comes to doing the hardscape properly is drainage. People don’t always think about it. But when it comes to masonry and construction, there are lots of rules that have to be followed. Everybody thinks that stone is forever. It should last forever, but it needs to have the right drainage, the right substrate, the proper setting materials. So it’s not just as easy as going to the mason yard and buying a palette of bluestone and laying it down.

Megan We’ll get homeowners who come in with a plan that has no consideration for drainage. We’ll say, Wait a minute, this whole thing is going to crumble.

John We have pools that we built back in the ‘30s or ‘40s with flagstone terraces, and if you go back today, they’re still in good condition.

Janice It’s true. You know an old Wagner pool if you see one.

Roger There are masons and then there are pool masons. They need to know about gravel, drainage, concrete. If things are done right the first time, you shouldn’t have any problem with your deck.

Janice If projects are done in pieces, they often turn out well. Originally, projects went in slowly. It took about two years to allow for proper settling. But during the boom years, people were in more of a rush, and very often you run out of time.

My advice is, let things settle. If you’re looking to do your project in pieces, take your time and make sure each piece is finished with quality. Have some respectful passion. Pay a little respect to the site, and the site will respect you back.