Photos by Drew Gray
Bret and Jen Riemenschneider have lived in their Orono home on Lake Minnetonka since 2001, but it wasn’t until this year that they got outdoors and embraced true lakeside living. Temperatures were unseasonably below freezing in October, but there they were, cozied up under a couple of blankets watching football, warmed by a custom fire table and built-in infrared heaters on their new indoor-outdoor patio created by Mom’s Design Build.
Though Bret and Jen remodeled the interior of their home more than a decade ago, they’ve struggled for years with how to create an attractive, functional outdoor space where they could relax, entertain, and enjoy the view of the lake. They talked with a few landscape architects about ways to get rid of their small, oddly shaped existing deck and open up the house, but they weren’t excited about any of the ideas they saw.
Then, Jen heard about how Shakopee-based Mom’s transformed a family’s porch into a beautiful all-season indoor-outdoor room. “I loved the pergola, and how it had screens that could be opened to create a seamless connection between the house and the backyard,” she recalls. Bret, who had previously seen a similar type of pergola at a home in Washington while on a golf trip, loved the idea as well. “We’d been talking about a three-season porch because the bugs can be bad in the summer, so we needed a screened-in space, but we didn’t want to block the view,” he explains.
The couple got in touch with Mom’s, and were soon working with a team of designers who helped them create an open, inviting space that turned out far better than they ever imagined. “We’ve never been able to figure out what to do, and Mom’s was great because we just sat down with them and started coming up with ideas,” Jen says. “They really pushed us by being imaginative and helped us think about a larger vision that included everything we wanted.”
Heather Sweeney, a senior designer with Mom’s Design Build, is used to working with people who say they love to entertain. But when she arrived at Bret and Jen’s house for their first meeting and saw how Jen had made a bunch of appetizers for the occasion, she knew creating the perfect place for hosting family and friends truly was a top priority. “It was so clear from the beginning that Jen gets so much joy out of having people over and preparing food,” Heather recalls.
Though they liked some things about their kitchen and living room, Bret and Jen felt the space was too small for gatherings, particularly the island, which was hard to navigate around once the kitchen got crowded. Low ceilings were also a problem because both rooms are located on the home’s lower level. To open up the living area and improve sightlines to the lake, Mom’s tore off the back of the house, as well as the old deck, and built a spacious, elevated, bluestone patio. “If we had put the patio at ground level, we would have just seen our yard from the kitchen because of the way the grass slopes down,” Bret explains. “But by elevating it, we’ve got a great view of the lake, and it seems closer to us now than it did before.”
Removing the back wall and deck gave them enough room to increase the size of the island and add a long bar-height table and chairs. An 18-foot-long wall of glass Loewen doors connect the expanded kitchen and living area to the new outdoor patio, and can be left wide open or closed, depending on the weather. Designed with motorized, louvered roof slats that can be opened to let in light and air, or closed to keep out harsh sun or rain, these types of pergolas have been popular in other states for years and are increasingly being used in Minnesota for outdoor rooms.
Retractable Phantom screens that quietly roll up into the pergola’s frame can be easily opened or closed with the push of a button. “I think the concept of a louvered roof pergola is the first transformational space that can really work with our bizarre weather,” says Jim Sweeney, owner of Mom’s Design Build. (He went on to explain that the louvers should be kept closed when covered by heavy snow to protect the motor.)
Envisioning the Possibilities
Like many people, Bret and Jen found it difficult to visualize ideas without having something to look at. So, from the start, Mom’s Design Build used a 3D model to show the couple different aspects of the project, and help them envision what the finished space would be like. “We can put furniture and people into the space to give them a frame of reference, or we spin the model around so they can see what the view would be like from the sink or from the steps down to the yard,” Heather explains.
During the project, Kelley Woodhead, Mom’s Design Build project manager, met regularly with the couple, and Bret, who works in the construction industry, collaborated closely with the team on mechanical issues such as concealing wiring, as well as downspouts from the house and pergola, inside the pergola’s columns for a cleaner look. Raised-bed gardens on either side of the patio soften its stone edges and offer just enough space for growing a few sun-loving, low-maintenance plants, including Bobo hydrangeas, allium, yarrow, and wild geranium.
After years of not being able to spend much time outside in the backyard, Bret and Jen could hardly wait for the patio to be finished last summer. Toward the end, after the crew had left for the day, the two of them started pulling furniture outside so they could sit there and relax. “It’s been amazing,” Jen says. “We were out there every single night because we wanted to be there so bad. We’ve spent more time out there in the last three months than we did in 17 years.”