For the last few days, I’ve been thinking about how I would write this post. By the way, by this post, I mean, how do I even begin writing about our backyard? Scott and I have been talking about this yard for as many years as we’ve lived here, and while a lot of our major renovations took place inside, we turned a blind eye outside. Having a yard in the city was – no, is! – a big deal for us, and it’s a large part of the reason why we felt we could bring sweet Chocolate Chunk into our lives. Although it’s not horribly pretty, Jack and CC love it, and it’s been a great little area for them to burn off that abundant Pittie energy when long walks just aren’t enough. It may be small at roughly 20′ x 20′, but pretty mighty, too.
This spring, we said to each other, this is the year, right? The year we take that beast by the horns? Here’s how the yard looked post-deck-demolition and pre-siding-and-stair-build:
We started by demolishing that old, rickety back deck, and then we had new siding installed, and then we finally decided to build a simple, wide staircase. It’s an 8′ wide staircase with a 4′ deep landing, there’s just enough space to stash a grill on one side and eventually, a little storage bench on the other. We kept the risers slightly open to keep them feeling light, and we’ll eventually paint the railing and stain the deck treads (similar to our front porch):
Before deciding on our staircase, we ran through so many ideas. Everything was discussed; nothing was off the table. We gathered quotes on a steel staircase, and we gathered quotes for a big walk-out deck. We Googled “Chicago backyards” and we took countless photos of outdoor patios at our favorite local restaurants. Most importantly, we weighed the pros and cons of a massive deck versus taking advantage of the actual yard. For us, that was the biggest mind shift. We thought, if we create a large walk-out deck, would we even use the little yard we have left? And so, we scrapped all the plans for a large deck and we said, let’s make this about the yard.
So far, the stairs have been our everything. They’ve been built for a few weeks now, and on July 4th, we held an impromptu barbecue with neighbors. The entire plan was to have people walk into our home, gravitate towards the kitchen (naturally) and want to walk out of those big sliding doors and into the yard! Because the staircase is 8′ wide, and because there’s currently a lack of chairs and table, the stairs served as stadium seating – one of our goals. (Couldn’t you just imagine those stairs loading up with pillows and a movie projected onto the back of our garage?) Our neighbors lounged on the steps, and the flow from kitchen-to-yard felt seamless. It made our hearts so, so happy to see people using our space and enjoying it, even though we’re only at the very start of this backyard’s transformation!
Now, on to the plans! With all the really massive work done, this is where Scott and I are going to start pulling up our sleeves and diving in. Soon enough, this grassy view as you walk down the stairs will be nixed for a brick paver patio (more on what’s going on with the leftover siding in a minute):
Why pavers? Simply put, for our family, we don’t love the grass. Our backyard receives full sunlight throughout most of the day, and between the dry patches from lack of rain water and dead patches from – what else? – dog pee, we wanted a low maintenance alternative that felt urban, effortless and classic for this Chicago house. At the same time, we wanted to take this opportunity to address the grade of our lawn, as it’s weirdly low in some spots and high in others. We began pinning paver patios, and the more we pinned, the more we liked. In fact, once our pins began taking shape, we realized a pretty prominent theme – red bricks and herringbone:
It’s funny, because between the two of us, we just assumed we’d pick up grey bricks. Grey = our default choice for everything. But the day we went paver shopping, we took a moment to really look at our favorite images. Truly, almost every paver patio focused on variations of red brick. Before we really – and I mean, really – hunkered down to figure out why these photos were appealing to us, we would have stocked up on grey and called it day. Shame on us! I mean, isn’t it so obvious now?
The team at Lowe’s offered to help us with our backyard plans, and they pointed us in the direction of this guide to calculate exactly how many bricks we’d need. We tallied not once, not twice, but three times to the tune of 2,000 bricks. This included a 10% surplus, plus a little more for the herringbone pattern, which can eat up even more. When it came time for Paver Buying Day, Lowe’s was having a 3/33¢ sale, reducing the price of each brick by 15¢! For our (slightly smaller than) 20′ x 20′ yard, the grand total for 2,000 bricks + 400 lbs of polymeric sand + delivery (just $59; sold!) came to almost exactly $1,000.
Because Scott and I get dizzy thinking about what it would mean to dig our paver base and properly grade our yard (and because we ultimately decided that our time would be better spent finishing the laundry room!), we hired a local contractor to knock it out in one day. We’ll still share as much of that process as we can, but once the base is ready for us, we’ll then take over to lay the pavers and move on to the rest of the design, which, speaking of…
Oh, hey, fireplace! All along, we knew we’d want to shimmy a fire pit somewhere in the yard, but I also dreamed of a long table filled with friends, and the space for a proper pit kept encroaching into dining territory. When we found this pristine Mid-century fireplace in Madison, Wisconsin for a steal, we immediately scrapped the idea of a conventional pit, and Scott drove the 300+ miles round trip to pick it up. For a hot second, I was worried about plopping down a very obviously MCM centerpiece into the yard of our very not MCM home, but Scott reminded me that as lovers of quirk, what better place than the backyard to do something really out of the ordinary? (To be fair, we say that about every room, but I still needed to hear it.) Plus, this new-to-us fireplace would allow for a cute conversational area and serve as ambience for dining al fresco in the evening, not to mention, I have always loved Sarah’s backyard. We have plans to refinish her in a new color (the faux-sooty look isn’t working for us), and we’d like to convert her into a gas fireplace. We’ll definitely keep you updated on how that goes!
Back to the dining area, we used scrap siding to start playing with furniture dimensions. We sketched ideas onto paper, but being in the yard and using tangible items to get a sense of the space helps us so much. Below, Scott is adjusting our future 8′ x 3′ dining table. We’d love to anchor either end with beautiful chairs, and for the 3 chairs across the middle of each side, we’ll likely keep it simple (and stackable!). There is still plenty of room to Scott’s right (our left) for a pair of pretty club chairs by the fireplace, and do you see the siding that’s lining the perimeter of the yard? This will be where our brick pavers stop and where rows of above ground planters begin. Because we’re getting rid of the grass, we want to bring in color and greenery through plants. Lots of them!
Finally – last but certainly not least! – we’ll be providing a large area for our puppies to potty. While the entire backyard is currently theirs to use at their disposal (like, literally), that won’t be the case for much longer. Instead, the area beneath the stairs will be made into a sizable pee pit, similar to the one in our front yard. We’re not sure what gravel we’ll be using just yet, but no matter what, we want to make sure it looks good with the rest of the yard.
Assuming the weather plays in our favor, the yard will start getting dug up this week! In the meantime, we’re on the hunt for the perfect fireplace chairs, and I’m imagining beautiful wicker chairs to flank the ends of our (non-existent) dining table. (This chair is crazy beautiful, but this chair or this chair would also do!)
Has anyone recently picked up outdoor furniture that they love?
And just for fun, the large minty lumbar pillow from our bedroom makeover is on sale right now!
When we last left off with the laundry room cabinets, we had just finished building them
– fresh from their flat-packed boxes! – and we laid them in place until we were ready to install. Aside from the hanging rail system that we’ve used in the past for our fauxdenzas
, we had yet to hang cabinets in the traditional sense, that is, until now! Turns out, it doesn’t need to be as complicated as some of the tutorials we read online. Truth be told, I began to feel intimidated about the process after falling down the proverbial tutorial rabbit hole. Together, we watched a few videos, read some step-by-steps, inspected our own
kitchen cabinets, and when we were tired of reading and watching, we said, let’s not overthink this.
We weren’t fast, but we did get them hung in a (long) afternoon! As a quick reminder, we’ve partnered with TheRTAStore.com
, and we chose their Aspen White Shaker
ready-to-assemble cabinets. Here’s how we made it work for us!
After emptying the room of our cabinet piles, we marked all the studs with blue tape. We worked our way around the room, taping around the area where we thought the cabinets would hang. (This is our favorite stud finder, by the way!)
In our case, the cabinet above the washer and dryer was the most crucial piece for all the dominoes, so to speak, to fall into place. You can see in our laundry room plans that just to the left of this cabinet will be a side panel that rests on our countertop – so like I said, dominoes! A few quick measurements had us realizing that we would like 1.5″ fillers on each side of this cabinet, which is the exact depth of a standard pine 2″ x 4.” We attached two 2x4s plus a thin piece of plywood (to account for the inset lip on the side of each cabinet) directly into the studs…
… and we used 2.5″ wood screws to go through the side of our cabinet, into the 2x4s and into the studs. We attached another pair of 2x4s on the exposed side of this cabinet, which the side panel will eventually attach to and fillers will conceal. Below, you can see that the cabinet is currently resting on a stack of scrap 2x4s; this is to keep the weight of the cabinet evenly distributed until the side panel is place. At this point, we didn’t want all the weight being supported by screws on only one side of the cabinet.
With the trickiest cabinet complete, we could move on to the rest of the uppers. Taking into account the width of fillers + the distance from the far wall to the first stud, I made small marks on the back of the cabinet to show where the studs would be (behind the cabinet, once the cabinet is in place; make sense?). A small pilot hole through the cabinet would allow us to see where to attach the cabinet to the wall:
We used a leftover piece of 2×4 to act as a level ledger board, and while I propped up the cabinet, Scott used my pilot holes as a guide to, again, use 2.5″ wood screws to go through the cabinet and directly into the studs behind the drywall. This was done from the inside, at the top and bottom of the cabinet. If needed, this is the point where shims could be added behind the cabinet to keep it straight against uneven drywall.
The second cabinet was much easier since the top cabinet was good to go! While I held up the next cabinet, Scott clamped them together, triple-checked that all was level, and screwed through the back into the studs once again. While they were still clamped, three more (much shorter) wood screws were added along the front lip to keep this duo seamless.
We opted to leave a 4″ drop from the ceiling, which we felt looked the best while still allowing breathing room above the stacked washer and dryer. This drop will be completely concealed with simple crown molding soon enough!
Finally, we were able to get the base sink cabinet into place. Scott constructed a small box frame on legs (to account for the toe kick) that would push our base cabinet far enough out to become flush with the side of the washing machine. This will give us a 32″ deep working surface for our countertop. With the frame screwed into the wall, we pushed the base cabinet flush against it, added a few thin shims underneath the right side to keep it level, and we screwed the cabinet directly into the box frame:
We still need to add an access panel for the water shut off, and we’ll of course need to cut out a hole for the plumbing, but the cabinets are in place! In the meantime, we’ve laid out all of our filler pieces, and now we just need to cut them down and rip them to the exact widths. The fillers are in the same finish and color as our cabinets, and they’ll – get this – fill all the gaps for a seamless finish overall. I have a feeling this will be the most tedious part of the cabinet install, but just the thing to make all the difference!
The next time we share the cabinets, fingers crossed, they’ll be crossed off the list completely! In other (very, very exciting) news, a sweet vintage rug was delivered this week, we have these brass knobs in waiting and I’m working on a quick and simple laundry bag DIY. This room is chugging along!
TheRTAStore.com provided us with cabinets for the laundry room, and all opinions belong to these two. Thank you for supporting the brands that support us, and most importantly, we hope this gives you another budget-friendly option for all the flat-packed cabinetry out there!
When we shared our new interior attic access, we also gave you a preview of the shape of our back yard. So sad! Our little attic hatch door was actually the tiniest piece of a huge puzzle for our backyard, one that included tearing down that beast of an exterior staircase. Since turning the first and second floor apartments into a single-family-slash-duplex-up, we no longer needed that (really rickety, really scary) fire escape – although we did pick up one of these safety ladders to stash under our bed.
This was back in May, and soon after we hit ‘publish’ on that post, we hired a contractor to begin the back-of-the-house repair! For years, we’d been counting down the days until we could say peace out! to that dilapidated staircase, and once we had saved the funds to make it happen and gave our contractor the green light, it was a pretty quick domino effect to get us from point A to point B. See what I mean?:
When we bought our house, there were two back doors, both leading from kitchens – one on the first floor, one on the second floor – one for each apartment. In the last 3 years, we added a double sliding door to our kitchen and most recently, we turned the second floor kitchen into our master bedroom. The next step was taking down the staircase and repairing or replacing the current vinyl siding, and while that sentence is so easy to type, it did take a lot of thought and consideration, of course!
Initially, we thought we might be able to repair the vinyl (just until we could re-side the whole house!), but once the staircase came down, it became obvious that 1) we’d risk rain and/or snow seeping under the repaired area, and 2) it just plain, ol’ wouldn’t look good. So! The main hurdle became deciding on what we wanted to use for siding. Although the back of the house would get all new siding right this minute, we wanted to choose a product that we’d love and would eventually use for the whole house. We considered concrete board siding (Hardie Board was our first contender), but tracking down enough information on the product was a challenge from our location in Chicago. Simply put, not that many homes in our area use this material. The other option that popped up a few times throughout our research was LP SmartSide, an engineered hardwood product with a 50 year limited warranty. There were a few things that had us keep coming back to LP:
- It promises to protect against extreme climates, insects and decay.
- Like concrete board, it can be painted any color we wish.
- Unlike vinyl, it can be patched and repaired pretty easily (just like we’d repair any wood product!), and we were able to touch and feel samples at our local Menard’s hardware store.
- The siding comes in 16′ lengths, resulting in less seams.
- Plus, it’s just really, really beautiful!
Although LP SmartSide felt like a good-for-the-long-haul choice, we couldn’t get the idea of concrete board out of our minds, so I used a lifeline and phoned a friend. I told Scott, you know who’d know what to do? Daniel. (He just went through a very similar project himself, after all!) He talked me off the ledge, reaffirmed our suspicions about LP SmartSide, and he even helped us narrow in on a 5″ smooth lap.
Feeling more comfortable about our choice, we chose the pre-finished color Rustic Silver to closely match the rest of our home’s vinyl siding, but again, we’ll eventually take down the vinyl on the other three sides of our house and replace it with LP SmartSide. The soft grey is safe and easy on the eyes, but when we do replace the rest of the siding, we have dreams of painting it all a color that’s dark and bold; time will tell. Note: We had our contractor provide us with a quote on HardiePlank, LP SmartSide and vinyl. While vinyl was definitely the least expensive choice, we were in it for our home’s long term health and durability of the product.
With the hardest decision behind us, our contractor got to work. The old vinyl came down, and we were surprised to see that our house used to be green! For a moment, we considered salvaging the original clapboard, but upon further investigation, it was missing in large parts and rotted in others. After repairing our roofline, they removed any existing rot, repaired soft spots, added insulation, patched in our attic door and finally, installed the LP SmartSide!
There were only a few surprises along the way, some of which caused delays when new product had to be ordered (there seemed to be a lot of confusion on our contrasting white corner trim), but a big glass of wine always helps. And although I wished with all my heart that the doors, windows and staircase could be centered on the house, the only solution would have been to, well, build a new house. There’s a main support wall that runs down the entire length of our home, dividing our kitchen, living and dining rooms from the bedrooms and main staircase. This is typical for our style and age of home in Chicago, and so, I deal with it. Besides, look at her! What a babe, right?
By no means do we want want to downplay what a difference this made, but this is really only our starting point for the entire Back of the House Project. You can see we added a new, wide and shallow staircase – a plan that was modified no less than a dozen times, as these stairs tie into our backyard plans. We’ve already ordered brick pavers, and we’ll be sharing those details soon!
PS! A bunch of little elves (aka, this girl) have been working hard behind the scenes to make The Print Shop a more affordable place to dress your empty walls. ALL prints have been reduced (permanently) by at LEAST $10 each, and the quality is still exactly the same – top notch. We hope you’ll take a peek around!
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