Some empty nesters turn a spare bedroom into a home gym, but this couple focused on their backyard. Goodbye, swing set. Hello, outdoor lounge!

By Petra Guglielmetti Nathan Kirkman and Hilary Rose
July 08, 2019

If you ask interior and landscape designer Emily Janson, lawn is overrated. She’d much rather her yard feel like a swanky courtyard. Once her kids went off to college, she decided to finally ditch the kiddie playhouse and design the yard of her dreams, complete with a lounge, a dining room, and a fountain evoking European gardens.

The project became a grand DIY that she and her husband, Skip, tackled with help from YouTube videos galore and kind souls at the local hardware store. “It was exciting to challenge ourselves to learn new things at this stage of our lives,” says Emily, who mapped out the space using spray paint on dirt they leveled and packed with a rented roller. Soon she found herself mortaring brick and hauling gravel home. Check out how their small lot in the Chicago suburbs became the ultimate place to entertain—and even better, escape.

“Adding big elements, even in a small space, is what gives you that outdoor-room effect,” says Emily Janson, who broke up the 50 x 150-foot yard with pergolas and pavers. Inspired by a bluestone table she’d seen, Emily had a local carpenter create a similar but less expensive one out of wood, then stained it blue-gray. She found the metal chairs by the curb and updated them with paint.

Emily knew she needed a cabana. She dug foundation footings with a rented auger and had a lumberyard translate her sketch and cut the wood to size for the 10 x 12-foot structure. "I’m a believer that every home should feel like a vacation, inside and out, year-round."

The coveted cabana is Emily’s go-to spot for happy hour with her girlfriends. She slanted the roof so rainwater runs off the back. Inside she “funks it up” with bohemian and global decor in cushy, comfy layers so the conversation can go on for hours.

A metal console from CB2 doubles as a planting station and an outdoor bar when Emily and Skip entertain. String lights wrapping the trees set the mood.

Emily added lattice to the top of the fence for increased privacy and behind the garden bench to support a living wall of climbing roses and clematis.

A few key changes went a long way in turning the yard into a three-season retreat, including creating covered areas, improving electrical access, and hardscaping.  “People let Midwestern winters deter them from putting tons of effort into their yards, but I’m determined to live a California lifestyle in Chicago,” says Emily, who used to live in the Golden State. She uses the cabana and its built-in daybed May through November.

While the yard was dug up, Emily had underground power lines run to each hub so she could plug in fans or heat lamps, charge laptops, and hang light fixtures with dimmers. “I’m all about sexy lighting,” she says. Stone pavers and loads of gravel keep every area accessible, even after rain turns the lawn soggy.

The water feature is a soothing focal point. Emily slid a sheet of 9 x 12-foot pond liner into the 3 x 6-foot hole, trimmed it to fit, then secured it with brick pavers from The Home Depot. To prevent it from getting clogged, Emily placed her submersible pump on cinder blocks to keep it above any debris. An overturned ceramic planter hides the hose and cord, shelters the pump, and provides a base for a decorative bowl to hold the fountain. She found a concrete ball at HomeGoods, had a hardware store drill a hole through it, then ran the pump hose up through the planter and bowl and into the ball.

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