Bespoke Backyards

Creating Outdoor Luxury

Years ago, backyard beautification usually meant planting some flowers, adding a couple of shrubs, and laying down a few patio stones to create a small deck. Outdoor furniture – if you could truly call it ‘furniture’ – usually comprised a picnic table and aluminum lawn chairs with uncomfortable, sticky plastic mesh seats and backs. Barbecuing was still somewhat exotic, and most outdoor grillers used folding barbecues or tiny rectangular hibachis. Unless among the wealthy, in-ground pools were few, with above-ground corrugated steel or plastic versions more likely.

Today, spending tens of thousands of dollars or more on luxurious landscaping is becoming the norm rather than the exception. Relaxing outdoor spaces serve as idyllic settings for romantic candlelit dinners and gathering places for family functions while adding curb appeal and value to properties.

Apart from homeowners wanting to boost the worth of their lots, another reason for the upsurge in backyard beautification is frustration over the high cost and inconvenience of owning a cottage. Although great for escaping the big city, some cottage owners – tiring of the Friday evening driving exodus, insurance, maintenance, and paying for a second home – are turning to transforming their backyards at home.

Several years ago, a Toronto couple fed-up with the cottage commute was featured in the Globe and Mail newspaper after investing $250,000 to transform their backyard into a “Japanese paradise” complete with katsura trees, sauna/guesthouse, waterfall, and a pagoda cabana with doors of sandblasted glass to look like rice paper.

From zen-inspired tranquillity spaces to infinity pools, man-made waterfalls, dramatic theatrical lighting effects, and outdoor fireplaces, luxurious resort-style backyards are becoming increasingly popular as more homeowners seek the ‘vacation experience’ just steps away from their back doors. For ideas and inspiration, photo-heavy social media sites like Instagram and Pinterest are full of countless pages of beautiful backyards with landscaping and amenities so striking that they almost seem unreal.

As with any home improvement project, budgeting is important for most of us. While glossy magazines showing off the estates of the outrageously rich and famous are stunning, these sprawling properties are out of reach for many. When it comes to luxury, however, there are various shades depending on taste, and even homeowners with modest backyards can create a backyard oasis for themselves.

Much like home interior renovations, exterior projects are about making a splash. For those on a backyard budget, this can include decorating with relatively inexpensive items, such as light-catching orbs, an array of solar lights, a fire pit with rainbow crystals, and pretty pillows.

For handy homeowners with more funds available, there is the do-it-yourself route, which can take the form of everything from planting to construction. With a bit of know-how, cedar or pressure-treated wooden decks, stone walkways, and concrete patios can be designed and installed for maximum visual and practical impact. For those with more expertise – or who are lucky enough to have skilled friends – carpentry projects range from simple wooden fences or metal trellises to a pergolas, in-ground plant and tree lighting, stone fountains and fishponds or outdoor kitchens complete with a bar and seating.

Where money is no object, luxurious outdoor living spaces often start with the building material itself. One example is ipe (pronounced ‘ee-pay’), a type of Brazilian walnut. Ipe’s incredible durability, resistance to rot, insects, and every environmental condition, even fire, has made it highly desirable for indoor and outdoor projects. Ipe is three times stronger than cedar, dense, and comes in colours ranging from tan to dark brown, making it ideal for stairs and decks. Although Ipe has many advantages, it is costly and requires experienced contractors to cut and install.

Far beyond of the old days of charcoal grills and folding tables, today’s outdoor kitchens rival those on the inside of the house. For homeowners eager for summer, there is no feeling like cooking outside under the open skies.

Much like indoor kitchens, outdoor cooking, dining, and bar areas are designed to accommodate the space and provide maximum functionality. Designs range from ultra-modern to more timeless looks. Because they are being used outdoors and must withstand rain, snow, sun, salt water, and other elements, cabinets are often powder coated in custom colours before installation, preventing rust and extending their lifespan. Easy-to-clean powder coating is also available in a range of finishes, from sleek and industrial-looking metals to dark colours and finishes resembling natural wood grain.

Owing to its durability, stainless steel appliances remain a timeless, popular choice for gas barbecues, wine chillers and fridges, warming drawers, griddles, sinks, and even deep fryers. The choice is vast with something for everyone from beginners to experienced cooks.

For barbecue lovers, this area can include grills or smokers like the Big Green Egg. Invented in the mid-seventies and based on East Asian wood-fired clay ‘kamado’ ovens dating back over three thousand years, the Big Green Egg remains popular with chefs worldwide. Today’s Egg combines tradition with modern materials, including ceramics developed by NASA, and comes in sizes ranging from the portable Mini (perfect for picnics) to the massive 2XL, big enough to roast an entire suckling pig.

Another popular item is the outdoor pizza oven. Although authentic wood-fired pizza ovens from Italy capable of reaching 800 degrees Fahrenheit (426 degree Celsius) and cooking a thin crust pizza in under two minutes can easily cost upwards of $25,000, as little as a few hundred dollars can get the pizza enthusiast a tabletop version.

Of course, no outdoor entertainment space is complete without a bar and comfortable lounge area. Much like kitchens, designers create backyard bars reflecting the tastes of homeowners to resemble everything from a serene, family-friendly place to chic New York or L.A. nightclub settings, complete with LED lighting and even dance floors. For those preferring a more rustic, rugged look, there is the option of stone facing and granite bar tops. Want swings instead of barstools like your favourite bar in the Caribbean? No problem. How about a swim-up bar inside a pool? Anything is possible.

The perfect backyard may have a manicured lawn, gazebo or pagoda, outdoor kitchen, and dining area, but what is a perfectly landscaped backyard without a pool? In-ground pools can be created in any shape, however these features require ongoing maintenance and are a considerable investment, varying in price depending on size, depth, and other features, such as tanning ledges.

Canadian-born actor and rapper Drake invested a fortune in his Hollywood Hills pool, which features an eighty-foot rock waterslide, swim-up bar, grotto, waterfalls, bridge to a sitting area, and gas fire pit.

While not all of us have Drake’s bank account, investing in backyard beautification is never a bad idea, since it adds value to our homes while it provides us with years of outdoor enjoyment and plenty of great memories.

Building the Next Generation

As thousands of experienced workers retire across North America every day, it is small wonder many industries are concerned about the future. It has been a decade since the oldest members of the baby boom generation started leaving their jobs, removing from the workplace decades of experience and skills that are tough to replace. The situation is so dire that, when younger workers are not available or knowledgeable enough to take over, retired staffers are often called back to work on a part-time basis.

December 8, 2019, 8:09 AM EST