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Our Backyard Plans: The (Really) Long and Short of It

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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:

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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):

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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!

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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):

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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:

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one | two

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…

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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!

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  • Magda7.12.16 - 6:36 AM

    We went to look around a house that had a special dog toilet for their huskies – a concrete pad, sloping down to a gully with a gutter to a drain, they trained their dogs to use it for pees and poops then hosed it down afterwards!ReplyCancel

  • Love this detailed recap of your plans. It sounds like it’s going to be beautiful & functional. We’re also currently prepping and researching to do a paver stone patio in our yard. Look forward to seeing how it all turns out!ReplyCancel

  • Stacy7.12.16 - 7:28 AM

    Sometimes I feel like having a smaller back yard would be SO much easier than a big one – my back yard is about 8000 square feet and while I do really love it, it can be totally overwhelming at times. Where do I put the grill? A patio area? A vegetable garden? A fire pit? What do you even do with a side yard?? And the mowing! I wouldn’t trade it for anything, but I see smaller yards like yours sometimes and just think, if only…

    All that to say, I think your little city back yard is fantastic, and I am really excited to see what you do with it :)ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.12.16 - 7:49 AM

      Your feeling of our yard is how we felt when we moved from our 657 sq ft condo to this house! SO MUCH SPACE, ha! But I hear you. A large space can be just as overwhelming as a smaller one, and the feeling that you need to maximize every square inch. It can really be tricky! It’s taken us 3 years to get to this point, so there’s no harm in simmering on your yard until ideas start flowing.ReplyCancel

  • Kaylin7.12.16 - 8:47 AM

    What are you going to put in your above-ground planters? Are you worried about the shade from the garage interfering with them?ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.12.16 - 9:12 AM

      We are 100% open to suggestions! We might need to do some part shade plants by the garage, but along the fence is so sunny for the majority of the day. We’re also putting a planter to the left of the stairs, and that gets bright sunlight all day, too!ReplyCancel

  • CC7.12.16 - 9:19 AM

    I like the brick pavers but I get sad whenever city dwellers with a grass yard get rid of it. It’s so rare to have a yard in the city and even more rare to have grass. I’d be careful taking away your grass for brick if for no other reason than the potential for backyard flooding. Brick is more permeable than say concrete, but not as much as grass.ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.12.16 - 10:45 AM

      Thanks, CC! We’ve discussed any flooding issues with the crew that will be grading our yard for us. It’s definitely something we wanted to be mindful of!ReplyCancel

  • Kelly7.12.16 - 9:26 AM

    Clover is more drought-tolerant & dog-pee tolerant than grass. You could do a clover pit if you want to keep some soft greenery back there for the pups to pee or lay on.

    I would worry about my dogs’ feet getting sore from the hot concrete/stone if there was nothing else for them to walk on.ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.12.16 - 10:44 AM

      Thanks, Kelly! The pee pit will be shaded almost entirely by the stairs, and they use the pit in the front yard with no issues at all.ReplyCancel

    • Laura7.12.16 - 2:43 PM

      Clover attracts bees!!!ReplyCancel

  • Susan @ Jubilee Furniture7.12.16 - 10:11 AM

    Jubilee Furniture has an amazing relationship with many of the outdoor furniture showroom managers at the Merchandise Mart and have lots of “never been used” pieces from them. That said, sometimes it’s a single piece of a collection. We also just picked up (yesterday) a couple hundred outdoor cushions/pillows that we sell for $8 each! Again, it’s sorta hit or miss re: sizes and fabrics – but that might be a thought for your stairs (which are gorgeous!). Love your plans (as always!).ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.12.16 - 10:16 AM

      So good to know! We love Jubilee. :DReplyCancel

  • Heather7.12.16 - 11:03 AM

    I love the plans! It’s going to be such a chic place to hangout! We’ve had really, really good success with herbs (especially basil of all types) in our planters. They love direct sun and are really easy to grow.ReplyCancel

  • Jaime Ballard7.12.16 - 11:58 AM

    Ok…so this is an honest question, and not meant to be critical at all but, what does that window lead to that is right below your stairs just to the left of your dog in that picture?? I thought I recall you have a rental unit below your house (am I mistaken??) and am wondering if that is their kitchen or bedroom window that is now going to look out onto the dog toilet? I am just curious! I promise!
    PS the pee-pit idea is genius and i am thinking of how we can incorporate them into our front and backyards for our future dog(s). Our pug is 14 y.o. and at this point, we are just thankful she makes it outside to go ;)ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.12.16 - 12:07 PM

      It’s a valid question! It is a window to their unit, but when the pee pit is done, it’s literally going to look like gravel. SO much nicer than what they have now and have had for the last 3 years. The pee drains, and we pick up #2 when they go.ReplyCancel

      • Jacqueline7.12.16 - 2:11 PM

        I was wondering the same thing, Jaime! And wondering about the smell, if you plan on using the stairs as seating for the backyard? I’m a cat person, but my kids desperately want a dog. ?ReplyCancel

        • Kim7.12.16 - 2:18 PM

          As long as everything is picked up after a potty break, there’s no issue with smell! The great thing about the pee pit is that it can be hosed down every now and then, too. It was really important for us to make an area where the dogs could go for a quick nighttime potty break, and the front yard pee pit has been a champion! This one will just be larger.ReplyCancel

      • Melbournite7.12.16 - 8:46 PM

        But, they still look out to a view of the dogs toileting multiple times a day, right? Unless that window’s view is obscured in a way we readers can’t see, it looks like you don’t value the comfort and amenity of your tenants (you can’t half tell I’m a tenant).ReplyCancel

        • Kim7.13.16 - 8:38 AM

          We absolutely do. Everything has been thought out to ensure the comfort of our pets, our tenants, and lastly, us. We’ve even discussed our plans with them. (Besides, our dogs do much more than potty in the back yard!)ReplyCancel

  • Shelle7.12.16 - 1:34 PM

    Please slow down the transitions on your photo montages. They flip too fast. They did on the last post as well. Or leave readers the option of still photos so we can see the transformation at our own speed. Thank you.ReplyCancel

  • Laura7.12.16 - 2:52 PM

    The flow between inside and outside is so so great. I love all your plans! I have brick in my yard and it works so well with lots of rain and lots of doggie activity. Your chair selections are beautiful. Try before you buy or be able to return or exchange is my only recommendation. As it goes with inside furniture- one won’t use a space if it isn’t comfortable.
    I love your idea of making the fire pit gas. Wood fires seem like such a great idea until the winds shift and you can’t breath and your neighbors have to close their windows on a hot night for all the smoke.
    I’m excited to see the project completed!ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.12.16 - 4:16 PM

      Thanks so much for the feedback! Happy to hear that brick works well with your yard + dogs. Such a good boost of info!ReplyCancel

  • Ben7.12.16 - 3:14 PM

    Just came from Belize. Belizean chairs. Look them up. Mahogany gold slat chairs. It’ll play well with your MCM fireplace, which by the way I have one and it’s been in the garage. Never thought to just bring it outside like a chiminea.ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.12.16 - 4:18 PM

      Those chairs are so pretty! We actually saw a vintage one at a street fest a few weekends ago, and Scott loved it. I sat in it, and the combo of the deep seat and angle didn’t allow for my short legs to sit comfortably. Womp.ReplyCancel

  • Robyn7.12.16 - 4:26 PM

    Where/how did you get that fireplace? I NEED ONE. I have been searching craigslist to no avail :(ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.12.16 - 6:08 PM

      Craigslist! We did a really wide search, which is how we ended up in Madison (we’re in Chicago).ReplyCancel

  • Sarah7.12.16 - 9:46 PM

    Love the idea of the aged brick in herringbone pattern — will look stunning. Can you tell us the dimensions of the top “step” of your outdoor staircase (i.e., the landing) and how you arrived at the width (is it wide enough for a chair and/or table, for example, or for planters)? Looking forward to seeing images when the yard is finished!ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.13.16 - 8:36 AM

      The landing is 12′ wide x 4′ deep. The stairs are 8′ wide. We came to this to give us the most amount of yard possible, but a landing that was deep enough to accommodate a bench on one side and a grill on the other. We couldn’t go wider than 12′, due to the stairs that lead down to our tenant’s apartment, below!ReplyCancel

  • Sarah Homrok7.13.16 - 6:31 AM

    Just purchased a similar fireplace yesterday! I know you are early in your design plans, but, how do you think it will hold up in our Chicago winter? Will you store it inside? I plan on placing it in front of our wooden fence too, do you think the heat will damage the fence? Which type of paint will you use to refinish it? Thanks so much! I have enjoyed watching you rehab your home.ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.13.16 - 8:35 AM

      We’ll be using a high heat spray paint, and we’ve seen this fireplace in SO many settings nestled close to a wall or fence. It’s intended to be used indoors, and an image search shows that they used to sit almost right up to drywall in a lot of homes! Ours will still sit several inches away from the fence, but we’ll definitely share the transformation once we get to that point.ReplyCancel

  • Haley Hepburn7.13.16 - 7:24 AM

    DO you plan to get rid of all the grass? Or leave some? I noticed that your inspiration pictures had both brick and grass? I think the extra green is so nice. But it’s your yard of course and I’m sure it will look great no matter what! :)ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.13.16 - 8:43 AM

      We went back and forth on that for a WHILE. I wanted to keep a strip of grass, but for what? Our inspiration yards are also much, much larger! We decided to nix the grass completely, which is why the entire perimeter – with the exception of the fireplace – will be above ground planters. We’ll still get a lot of greenery in there!ReplyCancel

  • Shay7.13.16 - 5:01 PM

    I love those CB2 chairs you linked! I also want one of those MCM fireplaces in the future but it wouldn’t fit here. We are currently going through a huge backyard make over – in some ways similar to yours. we started two years ago by splitting off part of the yard to make a dog run that’s full of rocks for the pup to do his business. We’ve also been working to remove the grass; we turned most of the space into veggie bins, we refuse to water it, and the dog is allergic anyway. We had a tiny broken patio that just got replaced with a 17′ square and we filled it up with furniture and added a sun sail. It’s smaller then you’re looking for but we got the Beer Garden set from World Market and really like it.

    The last two big projects minus landscaping and some paths is to finish a chicken coop and we’re having our tiny deck screened in. The deck goes to the kitchen and will give us a nice bug free zone on the cool side of the house in the summer and will be a nice place for our indoor kitty to get to watch more of the world.ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.14.16 - 10:40 AM

      That sounds so nice! Wow. All that hard work is totally going to pay off. Love that you have chickens, too. :)ReplyCancel

  • av7.14.16 - 10:16 AM

    looks like you guys will really be able to get the most out of the space back there–i’m excited to see it come together! and the deck already looks great! gotta say, though, i’m a bit sad for the pups…you said you liked having the yard for the dogs to run/get some energy out, and it appears all of that space will be completely taken away by the table, dining chairs, club chairs, plants, etc…ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.14.16 - 10:33 AM

      Don’t let them fool you… We live within walking distance of parks, a large urban walking trail and an ice cream place where they frequently get doggie cones.ReplyCancel

  • Julie7.14.16 - 11:53 AM

    awesome to hear that you are listening to your instincts on the red brick pavers. they will provide a nice color balance with the grey and wood that you currently have at the house — plus the earthiness will help to make the greenery really stand out as well. have you thought about adding wheels to the bottom of the dining table (similar to the island) in case you decided to host the block party in the back yard?

    ugh! chrome hates me — originally posted on a totally different post from the 8th!ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.14.16 - 11:57 AM

      Hmm, wheels are an interesting idea! We have plans we’re looking at for the table we want to build, but I’m not sure wheels will work for them. It’s something to consider though!ReplyCancel

  • Grondwerken7.15.16 - 12:46 AM

    Amazing! Only question in my mind is your yard’s ground is neither full of grass nor has bricks? Exactly what are you planning for the same? A complete concreted ground or garden kind of yard?ReplyCancel

    • Kim7.15.16 - 10:36 AM

      It’s almost all grass, but it will be brick pavers, and the perimeter will be lined with above ground planters soon enough!ReplyCancel

  • Casey7.17.16 - 9:01 AM

    Those stairs look amazing! We’ve been slowly working on our backyard space this summer as well. It’s so satisfying to see it change into a place you want to invite friends over to :)ReplyCancel

  • Pat7.19.16 - 12:04 AM

    We used pea gravel in our dog’s potty area. It worked out ok, our dogs still preferred the grass.

    And an fyi, my cousin’s dog broke a leg when it slipped through the open stair as he was running full bore up the stairs. Ever since then I always advise people to put a riser on their stairs.ReplyCancel

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