Living spaces extend outdoors

Project 1 - Des Moines Family Robinson

Looking more like a Disney theme park attraction than a back deck, this entertainment and play space designed by Clive, Iowa-based Silent Rivers definitely is not what one would expect in a suburban Des Moines backyard. The sprawling structure incorporates unusual details small and large — from flag-shaped gate handles with family-heritage significance to a working drawbridge.

Designer Tyson Leyendecker knew from this project’s inception that his clients were looking for something beyond standard-issue outdoor barbecue-and-cocktails space. “In our first conversation, they had said they wanted something ‘Swiss Family Robinson-esque,’” he says. With that meeting began a design effort filled with firsts — among them, Leyendecker notes, “It’s the first time I’ve worked with rope as a building material.”

The clients’ initial hope had been for a grown-up version of a treehouse, built into a large elm and designed to replace the play structure their children had outgrown. An arborist was consulted and fears of Dutch elm disease nixed that idea, but dreams of a treetop getaway continued to bloom.

The design process included a mix of high-tech modeling and high-touch craftsmanship. For example, many of the angles are precisely placed toward the directional headings of locations of bridges the family’s company has built and Olympic Games the family has attended. Google Earth came in handy for that task, Leyendecker says. Digital models helped the Silent Rivers team understand overall scale and give structural engineers the data needed to evaluate support requirements.

The local building department faced its own firsts in its efforts to classify the structure and determine its requirements.

“We initially went in trying to say it’s a play structure. They took one look at it and said, ‘no it’s not,’” Leyendecker says. Deciding what category the project actually fit took more effort than deciding what it wasn’t; however, they eventually filed it as a deck.

Beyond the sophisticated software and variance applications, though, this structure is really a study in detail. That exact modeling became fruitless when on site work began and carpenters began cutting boards to fit around tree trunks and limbs — and opportunities for added flourish began presenting themselves. Take, for example, the rectilinear pattern repeating itself in gate handles and platform decking. The perpendicular lines represent the Danish flag, a nod to the family’s native land. And the quilt pattern of the catwalk-style bridge’s railings? You’ll find the inspiration in a pattern inset into a concrete table on the structure’s top deck.

Also, since these photos were taken, Silent Rivers has added LED lighting on all the railings, along with scattered uplights to create more after-hours opportunities to play at being pirates or enjoy a siesta in a rope bed amid leafy branches.

“It’s become more of an experience, both night and day,” Leyendecker says. Project 2Restoring a Lost Identity


Project 2 - Restoring a Lost Identity

This 40-year-old northern Illinois lakefront home had a few things going for it when a Chicago-area family purchased it six years ago, including great water access and plenty of room. Unfortunately, it also came with a leaky roof, failing windows and poorly considered access to the lovely back yard. And beyond these specific issues, it lacked the sense of presence its standout location deserved.

“The house was built in the ’70s,” says Chris Donatelli, owner of Donatelli Builders, the company responsible for this makeover. “Everything was from that time period, and it lacked an identity.”

As plans progressed, all material and design decisions were geared toward maximizing the home’s “wow” potential with a contemporary flair. This meant clean lines were a must. For example, siding-board corners had to be carefully mitered to eliminate the need for corner boards and window trim.

“With this house, there was a lot of saw work that you’re not going to appreciate from a distance,” Donatelli says.

There’s also a lot more usable outdoor space than previously existed. In the home’s “before” incarnation, a pergola-style covering extended over the ground-level patio so the only access to an outside living area was through a lower-level slider. Now a main-level deck extends from the kitchen, creating an outdoor room for entertaining. The patio (pictured below), still gets some filtered sunlight thanks to the deck’s glass-block floor, a detail the homeowner suggested.

This decorative touch added to the saw work for Donatelli’s team. While the floor-rated block system came complete with its own framing, the proportions didn’t match those of the decking. As a result, each deck board had to be narrowed, with fastening grooves rerouted, to maintain the clean lines.

“You probably have 12 man-hours on the table saw,” Donatelli estimates. “Everything has to be thought through carefully.”

Similarly, the windows and doors weren’t simple replacement models. Six-foot-wide window and sliding-door openings were widened to 9 ft., with slim-line contemporary doors instead of the previous wood-heavy French-style models. In the main floor’s central bay, 7-ft.-tall windows now run nearly floor-to-ceiling, a design decision requiring consultation with the manufacturer and the addition of steel supports to stand up to possible severe wind loads.

“We wanted to maximize the view and we wanted to contemporize the look,” Donatelli says. “We really wanted to maximize the glass.”

A detail of concentric circles now gives the bay a strong visual pop from the outside, while it also helps draw the existing Palladian-style arch from the second floor into the overall design of the rear faade. The inspiration for this was drawn from the lakefront setting, as it’s meant to suggest the rings formed when a raindrop breaks the surface of a body of water.

As a sign of the exterior renovation project’s impact, the clients opted for a major interior redo soon after the outdoor plans were finalized. The finished product has given the house its much-needed identity, inside and out, while banishing the 1970s from the property.