5 Ways to Transform Your Outdoor Living Space Into a Place You’ll Enjoy (Almost) All Year Long

For a few glorious months every year, Chicago’s frigid temps become a thing of the past. Here’s how to make the most of your home’s outdoor living space so you can soak up all the sun and warmth you can before the next polar vortex strikes.

Even in a place like Chicagoland where nearly half of the year is inclement, owners of upscale homes are investing in exterior living spaces that rival those indoors, with distinct and decked-out areas for living, dining, cooking, and leisure. “People are inundated with digital everything, so they want their homes to be very restful and an oasis away from their busy lives,” explains landscape architect Robert Milani of Chalet Landscape & Garden in Wilmette.

The shift began about 10 years ago when people began demanding outdoor kitchens and dining areas, says Carrie Woleben-Meade, the director of design at Mariani Landscape. Now those amenities have become “assumed,” she says, with people incorporating pizza ovens, pergolas with deluxe sound systems, and games galore (think foosball, ping-pong, and air hockey). “Parents want their teenagers there, so they can keep an ear open and know what’s going on,” Woleben-Meade says. “The backyard is not just green and pretty anymore.”

Here are some of our favorite ways you can maximize your family’s enjoyment of your home’s outdoor spaces.

1. Don’t skimp on style

Metal garden furniture sets are becoming things of the past, as people increasingly invest in higher-end, often custom upholstered pieces. “What people are trying to do is to bring the inside out by coordinating color schemes, fabrics, rugs, and accessories,” says Michael Schmechtig of Schmechtig Landscapes in Mundelein. “We often work with interior designers on those details.” In fact, drawn to their comfort, style, and durability, many interior designers have begun using outdoor fabrics inside as well.

Outdoor Living Space: Kitchen and Dining Area
Outdoor kitchens and dining areas have become a standard feature of many landscape designs. This one by Schmechtig Landscapes incorporates natural materials, allowing it to blend into its surroundings seamlessly.

2. Build a she-shed or man-cave

We’ve all heard about man-caves, and now comes the “she-shed,” a place to read, do yoga, meditate, or just relax. A cozy little backyard retreat with electricity will cost anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 and up, depending on the bells and whistles, Chalet’s Milani says, noting that the pine interiors can be left raw or wood-paneled for a more decorated look. Some even have plumbing.

Outdoor Living Space: She-Shed
Lush landscaping and a small in-ground swimming pool create a dazzling setting for an intimate she-shed with French doors by Chalet Landscape & Garden.

3. Add a fire feature

Incorporating fire features into your outdoor living area is one trend that shows no signs of cooling off. It’s not just a homey focal point: Milani says that there are emotional benefits that come with bringing the heat. For one, it might just improve your relationship with your children. “Once you put a firepit in, you’ll bring your kids out into the landscape,” Milani says, noting that 99 percent of the time, clients tell him it made their family ties stronger. “It’s one of those miracles. If you build it, they will come.”

Outdoor Living Space: Firepit
A contemporary fire table invites long conversations in this downtown project by Mariani Landscape that includes areas for both living and dining. Hydrangeas and other plantings foster a sense of privacy.

Mariani’s Woleben-Meade likewise utilizes fire features in her designs, both formally as handsome brick fireplaces and informally as rustic firepits. Not only do they offer a striking point of interest, but they also allow people to use the space for longer into the season. “People are investing money in this area, so they want to extend the season as long as possible,” Woleben-Meade says.

Outdoor Living Space: Fireplace
Incorporated into a curved wall that’s ideal for extra seating, a brick fireplace with built-in wood storage extends the season of this beautiful patio by Mariani Landscape.

4. Plant herbs and other edibles

Herb gardens are more popular than ever, and it’s easy to see why. After all, fresh herbs elevate even the simplest dish. Make It Better’s dining editor, Julie Chernoff, should know. She has a lovely garden outside her Daniel Burnham-designed home in Evanston that includes rosemary, basil, mint, sage, and two types of thyme. “I use my herbs all summer long and well into the fall,” Chernoff says. “Rosemary stems make fragrant skewers, savory is a must for all dried beans, and I make herb pesto and salsa verde all the time.”

Outdoor Living Space: Garden
A mix of low and tall hedges establish a strong sightline in this garden planted with both edible herbs and a mix of flowers by Mariani Landscape.

Although vegetable gardens are considered by many to be less attractive, they are also gaining in popularity. Raised gardens allow people with disabilities or issues with bending over to take part in the activity. Vertical gardens are another option, making the most of unused real estate on the side of the house or garage. “You can change out the plants seasonally for variation and diversity, so a vertical garden can give lots of pleasure over the years,” Milani says.

Outdoor Living Space: Vertical Garden
In this project by Chalet Landscape & Garden, the foliage has been used both as ground cover and to create a “live wall” with a mix of plantings punctuated by colorful flowers.

5. Incorporate fountains, streams, and other water features

In a recent North Shore project, Milani included a unique front walkway with floating pavers that pass over a water feature. The serene feature reflects the light, plays home to aquatic plants, and impacts one’s mood as well, Milani says. “Seeing, smelling, and hearing the water creates a Zen-like feeling,” Milani says.

Outdoor Living Space: Water Feature
Engaging all the senses, this linear water feature by Chalet Landscape & Garden creates a sense of serenity that also complements the home’s contemporary architecture.

Because of the freezing temperatures in a climate like Chicago’s, it’s important for water features to look attractive even when they’re dry, says Woleben-Meade. For a high-rise condo’s patio in Chicago, for example, the designer used a sculptural vertical metal and glass water feature that’s a focal point all year long. “Water adds another visual dimension for us to work with,” Woleben-Meade says. “It makes a space feel bigger or sets a contemplative mood.”

Tate GunnersonTate Gunnerson is a Chicago-based freelance journalist with an equal appreciation for natural beauty and good design. He is a passionate supporter of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the National Kidney Foundation.