Creating the Perfect Outdoor Living Space

By Rachel Wisinski and Anne Morrissy | Photos courtesy of Shigley Photo

Having lived on Geneva Lake’s south shore since 2007, the homeowner loved the lake house retreat she had curated, but eventually realized that one thing was missing: outdoor living spaces. “We wanted to enjoy the outside as much as we enjoyed the inside,” she explains. So she turned to Robert Milani, a senior landscape architect at Bertog Landscape Company, based in Wheeling, Illinois, to help make her home’s outdoor spaces match its incredible interiors, and to enhance the home’s views of the lake while trying to maintain privacy. It was no small project.

To achieve this, Milani drew from his knowledge and expertise across many areas of the business. A 30-year veteran landscape architect, he says he’s handled everything from larger design challenges to the details of mowing the grass, and was able to draw on these experiences to help guide this expansive residential landscape project.

The project, appropriately dubbed “Lake House Retreat,” started with an assessment of the property, an open field and a wooded area located near the lakefront. Milani says the homeowner envisioned a relaxed retreat, so the goal was to design the landscape to soften the architecture, creating a loose and informal feel. In order to achieve this goal, Milani and his team decided to clear vegetation around the home and plant a sweeping mix of woodland sedges and native perennials, in addition to American hazelnut, gray dogwood and witch hazel. In response to one of the homeowner’s concerns, Milani incorporated deer-resistant plants and materials, so they’re less likely to get eaten by the visiting wildlife.

“We wanted something relaxed and unstructured — something to attract wildlife like birds, bees and butterflies, where everything can come and go seasonally,” he says. “Seasonality was very important, to be able to see that transition from spring to summer to fall and even winter. We didn’t want it to be ‘cookie cutter,’ where you see the landscape. Everything had to be seamless, so when you drive up, it feels like it’s always been there.”

To enhance the outdoor living area, Milani and his team designed a semicircular outdoor kitchen constructed of the same limestone as the house itself, complete with an Italian pizza oven, a luxury gas grill and a Green Egg grill. In the backyard, a curvilinear bluestone patio features a limestone seat wall and a circular fire feature that complements the home’s architectural details and provides multiple spaces for the homeowner to gather with family and friends. A bluestone pathway from the kitchen area leads to an open field and outdoor patio shaped like an amoeba with an outdoor gas fireplace, a space Milani describes as “free-flowing.”

Surrounding these thoughtful outdoor living spaces, Milani created privacy through the use of natural garden spaces teeming with hundreds of plants and flowers. “This project was one of those not-so-typical landscape projects on the shore,” Milani says. “It was something outside the box. Instead of putting lots of shrubs everywhere, this called for soft, traditional, native plants.”

One of the challenges Milani says they faced in tackling the project involved design and logistics. He and his crew had to create spaces within entry points, taking care not to obstruct views of the lake, which led to the decision to locate the outdoor kitchen on the side of the home, adjacent to the patio. Due to space constraints and an issue with large oak trees near the home’s kitchen, Milani explains that instead of pouring new footings, they were able to use the foundation of the house and a retaining wall as the foundation for the outdoor spaces. “This saved us from damaging the root system of the oak trees,” he says. Proper drainage was also a significant challenge, solved through a creative drain tile design.

To match the stone façade of the home, Milani chose to make use of natural materials where possible. In the outdoor kitchen, he opted for more informal materials that helped better transition from the soft materials of the home to the woodland border. “Every property is designed to the client’s goals, which means [each project] can be very diverse and unique,” Milani explains. “We’re [always] looking for the best option, searching for new design ideas and things that could be really special to a client and that specific project.”

The Lake House Retreat project took about a year and a half to complete, due to a process that Milani calls phasing. When the new trees and plants filled in, he says he was thrilled with the effect. “It really shows you can do something this out of the ordinary and still have it work in a residential setting.”

The homeowner is equally pleased with the space. “The barbecue patio with pizza oven is a fun place to gather,” she says. “And the lakeside patio fire pit is a huge draw for all ages.”

Author: atthelake

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