Living Large in Your Backyard

By staff December 1, 2004

There's nothing like the feel of your very own tropical island resort. Southwest Florida homeowners are pulling out all the stops to create their own backyard slice of paradise with multi-level landscapes, opulently outfitted outdoor rooms and elaborate lagoon-like waterscapes. It's not unusual, says Lee Miller of Florida Design Concepts, for homeowners who've bought multimillion-dollar properties to invest a quarter of a million dollars or more in these backyard environments.

Even if you don't take that steep a plunge, here are five splurges worth making.


Outdoor cooking has been around since the advent of fire. One look at today's gleaming stainless steel appliances, however, and you realize just how much backyard cooking has evolved.

"We can duplicate virtually everything you have in your indoor kitchen," says Billy Friedli of Outdoor Kitchens, Inc., who serves up turnkey custom outdoor kitchens for his clients-everything from design and construction to appliance installation. "It depends not on how much you have to spend, but how much you value outdoor cooking." What are the must-haves? A grill, sink, refrigerator and side burner (nice for cooking foods with a strong aroma). A bar setup is also a popular request. "Everyone wants to gather wherever you are cooking, whether it be inside or out," says Friedli. "And we find a lot of the guys who wouldn't get near the stove in the kitchen become the king of the grill."

Keeping pace with the Florida lifestyle, an outdoor kitchen ensures a lively resort environment. "Most new houses have pools now, but an outdoor kitchen-that's something special," Friedli says. The price tag: a sizzling $5,000 to $25,000, depending on the appliances and materials, with granite countertops and custom tile often repeated outside to match the home's interior.

Freestanding cabana kitchens are available if you don't have the space for a built-in. You can get everything-grill, side burner, rotisserie, oven, even a spot for a fridge-in about 48 inches of space for $5,000. Or you can try the latest rage, the flattop grill, a super-cool toy for the outdoor gourmand. For around $2,400, you can whip up breakfast or a teppanyaki-style dinner in no time flat.

Bird Key residents Gary and Shirley Barrack wouldn't trade their outdoor kitchen for anything. "We cook out two or three times a week; it's much more enjoyable than doing it indoors, and I get out of cooking," says Shirley. Yes, it still seems to be the man's job to do the grilling, much to the delight of the ladies. "I'm sure at some point I'm going to have to learn how to operate that thing," Shirley says with a laugh.


The trick to a wonderful pool is paying attention to the surrounding hardscape, says Lee Miller of Florida Design Concepts. "An estate is not a large home," says Miller. "An estate is the grounds surrounding the home. And a pool is not just a shape in the backyard anymore. It's creating privacy around the pool with landscaping and grade changes, and integrating architectural elements from the home."

Miller is currently designing a pool for a Casey Key family that he calls "an ultimate outdoor experience for entertaining, larger than most commercial projects." It actually will incorporate two pools, one of them 120 feet wide. A hidden slide will travel from one pool to the other through a rock outcropping and an orchid wall. Mini-river rapids are also part of the plan. The price tag? More than half a million dollars.

"Here's the big kicker," says Miller. "People are not traveling as much after 9/11. They're investing their money in their own home sites. And they're spending money to make their outdoor experience live up to their $5- or $6- or $7-million homes."


Sometimes in this hectic world a traditional kidney-shaped pool won't cut it. You need an oasis, perhaps one like the backyard waterscape Lucas Congdon of Lucas Lagoons recently designed and built for a Bradenton family.

"My husband passed away five years ago. A year later, I was diagnosed with an illness that prompted me to change my life," says one of Congdon's clients, who prefers to remain anonymous. "I read a motto, 'Life is not measured by the amount of breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.' I decided I needed to create a place of peace where I could make every moment count."

Congdon sketched out his vision for her backyard: a natural pool with a beach entry extending from a flagstone patio. Out of the sand, papyrus grows just like at the beach. Four cascading waterfalls, a bridge, swim-up bar, and rock slide for his client's children were incorporated into the design. Even Congdon marvels at the outcome. "The first time I swam in the lagoon, I thought 'I can't believe I created this,'" he says with a chuckle.

Lucas Lagoons cost between $60,000 and $150,000-double or triple the cost of a standard pool. Congdon can either create a lagoon from a traditional pool base, finishing it with a natural stone finish called crystal stone, rock waterfalls (his signature element) flagstone and landscaping to give it a natural lagoon effect, or he'll design a totally natural lagoon up to three acres.


Even without a pool or lagoon, you can create a resort feel in any backyard, or front yard for that matter, with the right landscaping. "Landscape is about emotion; it's not just a physical thing," says landscape architect Ski Giczewski of DesignScapes, Inc., who visits tropical resorts every year for inspiration to create environments that evoke continuous vacation emotion.

"There are design elements that give landscaping a human feel, that create warmth and comfort and make you want to go there," he says. The trick is to get people to venture into every corner of their property by creating more useable space. With paving systems y selected for their warmth and natural beauty, Giczewski designs pathways to provide an invitation into particular areas. "As you meander down a walkway, you'll see a feature that draws your attention this way, then you'll see another that leads you in a new direction, perhaps into a secret garden or patio via a different route."

Heaps of flowering plants and bigger-leaved greens help achieve that lush, tropical feel, like brightly colored heliconias, bromeliads, white bird of paradise and bougainvillea. Locally, more plants are being used than ever. In fact, water conservation laws in Sarasota County limit the use of sod in new construction to 50 percent of the lawn.

Any scintillating combination of water and tropical plant life is today's ticket to paradise, and, a center point of many landscapes is the waterfall. "People are putting them all around their property, in the front, as well as the back," says Giczewski. One impressive project he completed had a waterfall running parallel to the staircase leading from an elevated front door. On a smaller scale, koi ponds are gaining popularity as well.


Where landscaping creates emotion, lighting sets the mood, whether welcoming, serene or sexy. Mark Curtin, owner of South Florida Landscape Lighting, says subtlety is key. "Landscape lighting is like painting with moonlight. The effect of the light should be seen, not the source."

Low voltage lighting has many advantages over line voltage. "It's safer, more economical to run, less expensive to install and maintain, and there are many more options to choose from," says Curtin. The fixtures are also more weather resistant and last longer. "Customers are in awe when the lights turn on for the first time. They stand outside and stare at their property from all angles with new excitement. 'Wow, it's just like being in a resort' is probably the most common response."


_ Integrate the architecture of your home into your pool area, says Lee Miller of Florida Design Concepts. Use columns and fountains, and nix the cool deck-choose beautiful tumbled stone or brick pavers instead.

_ Get real. "Stone has so much character and history," says Lucas Congdon of Lucas Lagoons. "When you are sitting on a stone that is thousands of years old as opposed to some fake rock, there is no comparison."

_ Create a stunning landscape that won't cost a fortune to maintain by xeriscaping, advises Ski Giczewski of DesignScapes, Inc. Using native or indigenous material in its proper location is smart and environmentally friendly.

_ When you're spotting your new outdoor kitchen on your property, there's no one right place, says Outdoor Kitchens, Inc.'s Billy Friedli. "It can be right outside your back door or down by the pool. Convenience is what matters most."

_ Outdoor lighting should flow in a continuous series of high and low illuminations, says Mark Curtin of South Florida Landscape Lighting. The end result should not be pinpoints of light.



Billy Friedli

Outdoor Kitchens Inc.

4513 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota, FL 34231

(941) 926-7476


Lucas Congdon

Lucas Lagoons

(941) 366-7700

Lee Miller

Florida Design Concepts

966-6995 or cell 539-6400


Ski Giczewski

Designscapes, Inc.

7840 Fruitville Road, Sarasota, FL 34240

(941) 343-6161


South Florida Landscape Lighting, Inc.

(941) 358-2230

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