THE GREAT OUTDOORS
Stir-crazy and craving human connectivity, Chicagoans take to the outdoors—and look to exterior architects for perennial plans that deliver on beauty, function and Zen.
From form to functionality, pandemic living has left an indelible mark on interior design—and, according to Marshall Erb Design, exterior layouts are feeling the effects, too. “Our clients are reevaluating their open-air domains, opting for expanded footprints and year-round bandwidth for entertaining,” shares Marshall Erb, lead interior designer at Marshall Erb Design in Chicago. “Whereas before the primary focus for four-season patios was how Midwesterners would use them in the spring, summer and fall, our clients are now requesting perennial outdoor architecture and design so they can take things outside whenever the mood strikes.”
Reason (and the CDC) tells us that with fresh air and more space between people, the risk of contracting the coronavirus goes down. That, combined with a stir-crazy nation feeling an overwhelming urge to socialize safely on some level, it’s not surprising that one’s physical boundaries are being pushed—and that a newfound willingness to take on the elements has emerged. “At Marshall Erb Design, we’re taking our cues from snowy second homes and vacation properties in the mountains,” says Erb, noting that he has seen a rise in demand from clients who want snow-melt systems in the Midwest, something that until now was more of a top-tier luxury and primarily reserved for driveways in Aspen or the like. “Now, both downtown and in the suburbs, snow-melt patios and countertops are becoming regular requests.”
Much like our beloved restaurants’ response to outdoor dining against the elements, it’s all about bringing the indoors outside into the fresh air—and layering in the creature comforts discerning homeowners crave. “In the past, for those who want a covered patio with a breathable barrier from the great outdoors sans insects, we’ve incorporated these amazing retractable wall screens from Phantom Screens,” shares Erb. “Available in manual or motorized styles that completely disappear when you don’t need them, I definitely envision working more of these seamless shielding systems into covered patio designs in 2021 for clients who are looking to extend their fall well into November and beyond.”
As for December through February, when things get downright frigid across Chicagoland, designers like Erb are having to get creative when it comes to inclement-weather systems. “Phantom Screens also makes these gorgeous power shades in a clear vinyl material that blocks the wind,” says Erb. “I’ve seen them done for homes in Wisconsin before but not here yet. They offer a dual-shade option as well that offers the choice between a regular screen and the vinyl shades, providing you with multiple scenarios for different weather. It’s an ultra luxury, but now the concept is starting to widely make sense since we can’t congregate inside like we used to.” As for bringing the heat, Erb is well-versed in auxiliary heating systems. “We can customize a heating system to accommodate any size outdoor area. I’m partial to Infratech’s electric infrared heaters because they are sleek, low-profile and eco-friendly—and because you don’t have to mess around with refilling tanks.” And, according to Erb, heating systems aren’t just reserved for back patios anymore. “We can incorporate them into the portico above the side door where you stand to let the dog out, or into the eave above the front door so that your guests don’t catch a chill.”
Back in the backyard, however, Erb is seeing a spike in requests for elaborate outdoor kitchens—and, consequently, giving cooking and dining setups the professional treatment. “Before, it was par for the course to have a grill, refrigerator and countertop adjacent to your outdoor dining area,” says Erb. “But nowadays people want all of the bells and whistles befitting of a Top Chef-style cooking show. We’re seeing more and more of our clients wanting all of the essentials upgraded to professional brands—like Wolf and Sub-Zero, for example—plus a family-friendly pizza oven and wine fridge, all proximate to a pergola-topped lounge with a wood-burning fireplace, a flatscreen all-weather TV, and integrated audio for music.” As for appointments of the furniture variety, expect to continue to see vendors expanding their outdoor offerings. “Outdoor furniture is an explosive category right now,” adds Erb. “Bernhardt, Woodbridge, Universal and A.R.T. are just a handful of the lines that have made moves in 2020 to capitalize on the growing demand.”
Another trend that’s further motivating people to embrace their natural surroundings is the pursuit of a heightened state of wellbeing. “I don’t envision people returning to their pre-pandemic bubbles, mentally or physically, once we get a vaccine,” says Erb. “Finding peace and calm in nature—whether you have a balcony, a city-sized lot or acres in the burbs—is a post-pandemic trend with staying power. It’s all about getting outside, resting more, making time for self-care, eating healthy, drinking water and breathing deeply. Want a Finnish barrel sauna and a cedar hot tub so that you can take a literal bath and a tree bath in your backyard? We’re here for it.”