Photos by Jim Kruger
Living in northern California certainly has its appeal, especially to snow- and ice-bound Northerners weathering yet another long, tough winter. But don’t think the San Francisco area and its environs are all winery tours, ocean breezes, and sunshine. Wildfires and mudslides, the potential for earthquakes, an expensive housing market, limited opportunities for a yard, and the skyrocketing costs of living are among NorCal’s least appealing attributes. Which is why Mike and Kristen Thelander decided to move their family to Minnesota.
The first house they looked at sold them on Minnesotan living. “My son went crazy in the backyard, running up and down and around,” Mike says. “We certainly couldn’t afford that kind of space in California.” The stately home in Independence included a huge backyard: a rolling expanse of lush, green lawn embraced by trees and complete with long, wide views.
Mike saw himself swinging a golf club across the green. “It felt like a driving range,” he says. He also pictured outdoor living spaces anchored by a fully equipped kitchen, where he could cook, grill, and make pizza to his heart’s content. Kristen adds, “Here was a place where we could enjoy the scenery, with a nice open backyard that would be perfect for gathering family and friends to appreciate nature and—with Mike’s outdoor kitchen—enjoy food together.”
Over the next three years, working in phases with Mom’s Design Build in Shakopee, the Thelanders realized their dream of enjoying a gracious, amenity-rich outdoor living area. The first summer, Mom’s rebuilt the fieldstone retaining wall next to the house and completed cut-and-fill grade leveling. Next came a see-through, wood-burning fireplace constructed from weathered limestone, some covered in lichen. Then, the wood-fired pizza oven. “Mike is a big pizza guru,” Kristen says. “We use our garden tomatoes for the sauce and the kids pick the basil. It’s a fun family activity.”
Senior Designer Heather Sweeney and her team also suggested adding a pergola. Mike wasn’t interested—at that point. “I wanted to be outside,” he recalls. “I thought, ‘Why would I want a pergola?’”
The following year, Mom’s added an outdoor kitchen next to the pizza oven, sheltered by massive wood beams and brackets. The kitchen includes a Lynx Sedona grill, cooktop with burners, sink, fridge, and taps for beer and root beer. Pots and pans, dishes, silverware, glassware, and cooking utensils are stored in cabinets underneath, to keep views to the house and backyard open. “Everything I need is right here at my fingertips,” says Mike, who, from the sunken gallery kitchen, can serve up hot, delicious meals to friends and family seated at the granite-topped bar.
The designers also installed a synthetic turf chip-and-putt course, accessed from the house by a bluestone path. “My son is hitting golf balls now, too,” Mike says. A fire ring looks over the backyard, and has become a favorite spot for after-dinner s’mores. But the Thelanders weren’t done yet. That summer, several dinner parties were rained out. “It’s hard to stretch pizza when it’s raining outside,” Mike says.
The next summer, the pergola over the dining area was officially a go. Adding a motorized Arcadia pergola, with sensors that automatically close the louvers until watertight when the weather turns rainy, meant incorporating a larger flared-gable and copper roof, and modifying posts and footings to support the roof and pergola. To keep everyone comfortable through three seasons, Mom’s installed three types of heaters, including one flush mounted into the pergola above the dining area and others secured to brackets.
Decorative Azek polymer panels screen the sheltered lounge area under the porch. A hanging basket chair—a favorite hang-out spot for the Thelanders’ daughter—provides 360-degree views of the backyard and valley, and of every activity taking place in the outdoor living spaces. A large-screen television gives the family the option to watch games and movies outside during the summer.
The Thelanders have fully embraced their outdoor living spaces for pre- and post-game gatherings for their son’s football team, birthday parties for their daughter, extended family get-togethers, block parties, pizza nights, and putt-and-chip cocktail hours. Mike in particular loves the new outdoor space. “When Mike’s in the kitchen doing his thing, he’s at peace,” Kristen says.
“He often works Monday through Saturday, so he needs that connection with his family and with nature,” she adds. “He’s comfortable out here and absolutely loves it.” Over the three-year process, Sweeney says, trust was key. “When you’re doing things in phases, you can’t always see the end result, how things will function and look when the vision is realized. I would tell the Thelanders, ‘Trust me, it’ll all work.’ They were great clients, and it made a huge difference to have their trust along the way.”
Having successfully made fresh bread in the pizza oven last summer, Kristen is already looking forward to trying out clay pot cooking in the outdoor kitchen this year. The family’s fully equipped living and dining areas, entertainment spaces, and outdoor kitchen certainly “wouldn’t be practical in California, not to this scale,” Kristen says.
“In California, it’s a luxury to have this much space,” she continues. “Still, I’d dreamt of having this kind of a backyard with all of these amenities. Now we do. And having survived this tough winter just makes spring and summer and fall in Minnesota that much sweeter, don’t you think?”