No matter where you go in the country, fire and water features are uppermost on homeowners' back yard wish lists.
National studies show that fire features rank No. 1 among homeowners, while water features come in at No. 4, according to Mike Haumersen, outdoor living specialist with Belgard Hardscapes (belgard.biz). Belgard is a leading manufacturer of paver stones and blocks as well as of outdoor elements like fire pits, water features, outdoor kitchens and outdoor fireplaces, all of which are made in a factory using Belgard blocks and pavers and then installed by a homeowner's landscape design firm.
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"Interestingly, those same studies show that the Midwest spends more on outdoor living products than people in any other area of the country," Haumersen continued. "I have to think that that is true because we only have about six months of the year to enjoy the outdoors, so everyone wants to utilize that precious time to the fullest."
Belgard contributes to the outdoor fire and water elements marketplace by offering homeowners free-standing waterfalls which feature water cascading down over paver walls. Many times they are placed directly next to a fire pit to create a nice fire and water dichotomy. But they do not need to be situated that way.
The waterfalls are lit by LED lights and can be put on a timer.
But 98 percent of the outdoor features or elements Belgard sells are fire pits, fireplaces and chiminea-style fire pits.
For instance, Belgard makes five types of fireplaces ranging from rustic to contemporary, burning either wood or gas. Most of those sold in the Midwest, however, according to Haumersen, burn wood. Homeowners who choose gas generally burn outdoor ceramic logs, lava rocks or colored glass and operate their fireplaces using a convenient push button remote control.
There is even a see-through, European-style outdoor gas fireplace which people often use as a divider between "rooms" on their patio or under a covered area. It always burns glass or rocks because of its large gas burner.
Pat O'Donnell, owner of Hearth and Home in Mount Prospect (hearthandhomeusa.com), is sure he knows why homeowners universally seem drawn to fire and water elements.
"They have the same calming effect as you would get going to a spa," he stated. "Sitting and watching water cascading and hearing those sounds naturally makes you calmer, just like the mesmerizing effect of watching a flame. Both fire and water puts us in touch with our primal instincts and calm us down in a very turbulent world.
"Who doesn't like to sit back, relax, grab the beverage of their choice, put their feet up on the ledge of a fire pit and enjoy the company of friends or family?" O'Donnell added. "These amenities allow you to go back to basics and spend enjoyable time with the people you love."
Fire pits come in all sizes, shapes and complexities. Some burn wood. Some burn gas. Others burn gas and are surrounded by waterfalls. It depends on your budget, preferences and the ambience you are seeking.
O'Donnell said Hearth and Home associates are accustomed to listening to customers' wishes and matching them up to what their yard and budget allow.
Portable wood-burning fire pits, for instance, start as low as $150 and are generally made of powder-coated, extruded aluminum. There are also versions that burn propane and cost more.
Insert kits that allow a landscaper to build a gas-burning fire pit using a client's patio pavers are also available. They can generally be built to use natural gas, piped from the home, or a 20-pound propane tank. The same is true of metal (often copper) burner bowls of various shapes which can burn crushed colored glass, lava rocks or gas logs.
Fire rings using custom-welded steel forms that can be built into the paver patio using fire bricks are also gaining in popularity, according to O'Donnell. When these are used, the fire appears to come right up out of the patio.
"Outdoor fire elements are clearly still evolving. It is like the Wild West. Literally, anything goes right now, including fire pits in the middle of tables, some of which even have cooking assemblies which allow homeowners to make fondue and other treats," he explained.
The most innovative and exciting outdoor element, however, is the award-winning Evolution 360 Series by HPC which combines both fire and water. For the first time, the company has managed to complement one of its gas-burning fire bowls with the elegance and soothing sound of running water which is backlit by gentle LED lighting. It comes as a fully assembled system that can be installed on virtually any patio. All that is involved is leveling the water pit and then connecting water, electric and gas. It is then enclosed with stone, veneer, stucco or whatever is appropriate to match the patio décor.
O'Donnell estimates the Evolution 360 will cost $9,868. A smaller, fire and water copper bowl system will cost considerably less -- ranging from $2,149 to $5,303.
"People today are focused on hanging out and spending time with friends in the back yard. The industry is seeing that people prefer relaxation and low-key entertaining," he stated.
Water features of all sizes and configurations from koi ponds, to pond-less waterfalls that run over rocks and disappear into a buried reservoir, to bubblers, fountains and aqua bowls have captured homeowners' hearts and imaginations, according to Brian Helfrich, construction manager for Aquascape Designs in St. Charles and Lisle (aquascapedesigns.com).
"There is literally a water feature for everyone. It is just a matter of finding the right one, whether it is a pond, stream, fountain or something else. Moving water is just so relaxing and fun to watch that people want it," Helfrich explained.
"When homeowners decide to add a water feature it is seldom an impulse buy. Most have seen them somewhere and have been dreaming about adding one for some time, but they have no idea what is truly possible in their own yard," he said.
Ponds, which had decreased in popularity during the downturn, are making a strong comeback, he said, particularly because advances in technology have made them so much easier to maintain than they once were.
"Ponds give you so much more to look at than simple waterfalls, especially when you put fish in them," Helfrich explained, "and you don't have to know anything about fish to keep them alive. They hibernate all winter and don't have to be moved."
While ponds can cost anywhere from $3,000 to $300,000, depending on the whims of the homeowner, other water features are much more economical.
Aqua bowls, for instance, are made of a resin that looks like stone and they are designed to hold water lilies, small fish, tadpoles, snails and even turtles. They are a favorite with small children and are lightweight and easy to move. They also fit in small spaces.
Free-standing fountains that move water from dish to dish to dish can be perfect for some applications. Aquascape Designs can also take boulders or antique urns or vases found in antique shops, drill them out and transform into an interesting bubbler or fountain for a yard. Pond-less waterfalls with recycled water running over rocks and disappearing into a reservoir in the ground are also quite popular.
"When you are designing your water feature, make sure to do it from inside your house. Wherever you put it, you want it to be visible from your windows so that you can enjoy it the maximum amount of time," Helfrich stated. "And bring it as close as you can to the house so you can enjoy watching the birds that are drawn to it."
"If you can bring a pond right up next to your patio or partially extended under your deck, that is ideal because people usually love to sit right next to it," he added. "Keep in mind that people usually like to vacation near lakes, the ocean or even mountain streams. They like water, so adding it to your landscape at home just makes sense."