Project Spotlight: Backyard Resort

Southview Design develops outdoor living area fit for the whole family.

July 08, 2014
Project Spotlight: Backyard Resort

The swimming pool remained the focal point throughout the project, but landscape designer Tim Johnson continually integrated items from the clients’ wish list to build an entertaining yet relaxing outdoor living space. 

Shortly after construction began on this house in Minnetrista, Minn., the owners turned their attention to the creation of an outdoor living area where they could entertain friends and family. Close friends referred Southview Design, a landscape design-build company in Inver Grove Heights, so the homeowners reached out to landscape designer Tim Johnson, one of two partners in the firm. As the couple worked with their builder to manage their home’s construction, they collaborated with Johnson to integrate outdoor living spaces within the property’s layout.

“They were well beyond thinking about how the house might be married to the outside,” says Johnson, who first visited the jobsite during framing. “They knew they wanted to have a pool, they just didn’t know how the pool was going to fit in the backyard and what the other key pieces were going to be.”

Despite not being involved with the home’s original design, Johnson conceived a plan to incorporate a pool and many other items on the clients’ wish list during the initial phase of the project in 2009. He returned the following year to make some minor tweaks and additions, but the clients held off for another few years before embarking on an expansion that ultimately included a pergola, a fireplace, and a putting green, all of which helped transform their backyard retreat into a family resort. 

“They just realized the space that was created for them was so great and they ended up using it a lot more than they thought they would, so they decided to take it to another level,” Johnson says.

Taking inventory

The overriding goal of the project focused on the ability to entertain friends and family outside, but the clients remained adamant about preserving unobstructed views of Lake Minnetonka through the rear of the house. Encompassing more than an acre, the lot stretches to the water’s edge and features an existing patio, dock, and sand beach along the shore. “We had a few flanking trees on the sides of the pool that helped frame the lake and give a little bit of height [in the backyard],” Johnson says.

Southview installed a fire pit and hot tub on one end of the pool as well as some structural retaining walls along the hardscape. Many other landscaping elements also took root during this time, but simultaneously managing the home’s construction, design specifications, and product selections kept the owners from immediately pursuing more items on their outdoor wish list. “The potential for phasing happens a lot in our projects,” Johnson says. “The pressure of trying to do everything at once so that you can enjoy it is always present, but the budget doesn’t always allow for the opportunity to do that.”

Company Snapshot

Company: Southview Design
Partners:  Tim Johnson, Josh Koller
Location: Inver Grove Heights, Minn.
Website: www.southviewdesign.com

The clients planned on integrating an outdoor kitchen sometime down the road, but the husband approached Johnson as the calendar neared Mother’s Day and asked to include the feature in the first phase as a gift for his wife. Johnson recalls drawing up a plan for the outdoor kitchen and giving it to the husband, who slipped the rendering in a Mother’s Day card for his wife. Johnson also incorporated in the kitchen and adjacent bar top the same stone veneer used on the exterior of the house. “We tried to make it look like this was planned from start to finish with the architect of the home,” he adds.

When Johnson returned a few years later to advance the outdoor space, he again referred to the home’s architectural detail as he considered new elements. “I took photos of the house and tried to pull those up in front of me when I was creating the layout and the design,” he says. Southview cut out some of the concrete around the pool and mixed in flagstone inlays to create more visual interest. Johnson also took note of the shapes repeated in exterior aspects of the home—specifically the eyebrow window, upper-balcony wall, and main deck railings—and made sure to reflect those lines and curves in the hardscape, retaining walls, and even the furniture. This coordination continued in the construction of a waterfall, large fireplace, and overarching pergola during the project’s apex.

Ramping up

Johnson designed a grand fireplace for the living area on the end of the pool opposite the fire pit and scaled everything to the house. The property setback limited the location of the 9-foot-wide-by-14-foot-high structure, and the stone matches the veneer used in the outdoor kitchen, the retaining walls, and the home’s exterior in general. Southview poured the concrete footing 6-to-10 inches larger than the base of the fireplace and 5-feet-deep with enough rebar to “cage bears.” To complement the seating in front of the hearth, Johnson pictured a pergola suspended overhead, but his vision called for two support columns when several engineers insisted on four.

“If I put four posts in, the two posts that would’ve been near the pool’s edge would have disrupted traffic flow and the visual of the lake,” says Johnson, who also points out how two additional columns would have curtailed the amount of living space near the fireplace. After closely working with an engineer on a solution, Johnson achieved a two-post design that maximized the open area in front of the hearth and ensured the pergola stretched over the entire space.

Southview installed the fireplace footing, the main retaining walls, and a nearby waterfall feature in the fall of 2011. The clients did not want their yard torn up much longer, if possible, so the firm sodded the property and returned the following spring to erect the fireplace and pergola. Because of the new grass, Johnson could not bring in a skidsteer to lift into place the steel required for the support columns or the horizontal base of the pergola.

The company used a crane to hoist the pieces, which weighed in excess of 1,800 pounds, around the house and into the backyard—a distance of more than 100 feet—so workers could set them into place and weld everything together. As a result, the fireplace and pergola represent one solid structure that stands 14 feet above the ground and runs down 5 feet below it. Johnson ultimately positioned the fireplace and pergola so the clients could look out into the backyard and gaze upon the edifice no matter the season.

“We live in Minnesota—we don’t get to enjoy the outdoors around a pool area or fireplace as often as we would like because of our longer winters,” he says. “So it was really important for me to place it in view of the key windows of the house.”

By phasing the project accordingly, Southview ended up delivering to the clients an outdoor living area centered on a pool with one end for adults (fireplace, kitchen, and dining space) and the other end for the couple’s children (diving board, fire pit, and putting green).

Engaging parties

Southview’s design-build approach not only helps clients manage their budgets and integrate several items on their wish lists, but it also slows down the moving parts and enables them to make sound decisions. “It allows them to walk through the process and understand what’s taking place,” says Johnson, who appreciates how the system encourages creativity and ensures a quality job. “If you’re planning everything at one time, you’re probably missing some key details.”

Clear and consistent communication becomes even more important when phasing construction work. The wife in this project particularly admired how Johnson would copy her on every email and response he sent to her husband even if the subject did not specifically demand any action on her part. Johnson also showed the couple concept plans of outdoor living throughout the process without attaching inflexible costs or hard prices. In the end, the collaboration produced an award-winning project and a relationship outside of business in which Johnson speaks to the clients several times a month, if not several times a week.

When it comes to the landscape and outdoor living of their home, the clients will always know where to turn. “They’re considering another project, and they know that I’m their guy,” Johnson says. PR

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