From innovations in flooring and lighting to winter gardens and more, Marshall Erb Design is bringing connectivity to our indoor/outdoor spaces via smart, four-seasons design.
By Elise Hofer Shaw
If you’re remodeling a vacation home in Puerto Vallarta, an epic overflow patio is a no brainer. Picture it: A luxe kitchen and living room that connects to a shaded outdoor dining space that spills into orchestrated lounging zones around the pool… Naturally, a progressive, open-air plan makes perfect sense for a tropical climate where the weather averages are high and dry. But in the Midwest, where a finicky continental climate keeps us on our toes 365 days of the year—and surprise ‘seasons’ like fool’s spring, mud season and second winter leave us perennially guessing—careful planning for come-what-may weather conditions is required if we are to enjoy an indoor/outdoor footprint at all.
“Welcome to the Midwest, where the forecasts are made up and the seasons don’t matter,” laughs Marshall Erb, founder and lead designer at Marshall Erb Design in Chicago. “Despite spring dragging its feet per usual, we are well into several reconcepting projects for clients who want to repurpose, reimagine and expand upon their indoor/outdoor footprints for fluid entertaining and alfresco family fun.” And, according to Erb, technology advancements and material innovations are widening the scope of what’s possible. “From flooring options and folding wall systems to climate-control windows and skylights, things are advancing rapidly to cater to a heightened demand for flexible indoor/outdoor spaces. Our Midwest clients aren’t willing to settle for two decent seasons anymore. They want four—or the simulation of four-seasons living via clever design.”
So what does interconnected, four-seasons design look like for us Middle West dwellers? “In the spring and summer, it’s about being able to open up and connect your interior spaces to your hard- and landscaping spaces, creating one concurrent floor plan for indoor/outdoor entertaining,” informs Erb. “In the fall and winter, it’s about creating weather barriers between these spaces without losing the beauty and wellness benefits we receive when we feel connected to the outdoors, things we can achieve by harnessing natural light, incorporating smart lighting systems that simulate the sunshine, and by creating indoor green spaces like a conservatory. Gen Z loves its plants. With a conservatory, you can surround yourself with tropical plants all year and reap the wellness benefits. Think of it like an English winter garden—but multipurpose and modern.”
Reinvention and world-class sourcing are hallmarks of Erb’s design style. So it’s no surprise that when it comes to creating expansive footprints for entertaining, he ensures that his team is up to date on the latest advancements in NanaWalls (folding or sliding glass wall systems). “Today’s bifold doors and operable glass wall systems are redefining the architectural possibilities, forging performance, aesthetics, flexibility and ingenuity,” says Erb. “In the past, they had to be thick and bulky to keep our Midwest winters out during the off-season. But today they are much thinner with discrete partitions and virtually disappear into the walls.” For the firm’s architectural window and glass door needs, Erb frequently works with Hopes and Crittall, and he is getting creative with placement in order to maximize natural light exposure and vantages—and, oftentimes, to create multiple access points to the backyard.
On the subject of lighting, Erb understands that a balance of natural and artificial applications is the key to refining one’s architectural detailing. “Today’s skylights let in all the sunlight and fresh air you want, without letting in the rain, summer heat and harmful UV rays you don’t,” says Erb. “Fully automated for fresh air on demand, rain sensors on solar and electric models automatically close the skylight at the first sign of precipitation.” For custom, artificial lighting installations, Erb typically works with a lighting designer to customize the Kelvin scale based on the geography and seasons. “It’s all quite fascinating… During the daytime, for example, 3,500 to 4,000K is best to match the daylight. [Sunlight is actually 6,000K, but that appears really artificial to humans.] So we will program the lighting to flick on at noon at 3,300K to mimic the light outside. In the evening, because the system is on a timer and it knows the date, the lights will automatically dim down to a cozy 2,700K. Quality of light is a huge design vertical right now.”
Another category that Erb is keeping a really close eye on is flooring—and, in particular, innovative ways in which to carry one continuous material from the inside of the home to the exterior hardscape for a seamless look. “Exterior stone has to be very dense—not porous—so that it won’t soak up water, freeze, expand and burst,” informs Erb. “Whereas before the options were quite limited, brick pavers and bluestone for the most part, now there are incredible four-seasons products that are both durable and stylish.” One such material that Erb is deploying for indoor/outdoor flooring is porcelain. “For a project in Wicker Park, Chicago, we have chosen a dense marble from Materials Marketing called Pearl,” says Erb. “It can be milled to the thickness we need for exterior and interior applications, and can even be carved into stair treads and pool copings.”