Summer Houses

Summer Houses

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue of Cincy Home

The Backyard Never Looked So Good

Pool house, summer house, pavilion, veranda? No matter what you call them, or how you use them, backyard structures are popping up as homeowners seek to steal a little California living even if it’s only for a six-month stretch.

Radio man Jim Scott and Donna Hartman knew they wanted to sit outdoors and take advantage of the sweeping view of Perfect North Slopes across from their hillside farmhouse and property that includes barns and ramshackle structures.

Mark Ulliman wanted a fire pit. His wife wanted a patio. And they both wanted something that suited their love of the outdoors in their Sycamore Township backyard.

Custom builder David Ott of Beechgrove Construction knew exactly what he wanted – a pool and backyard inspired by a visit to the high-walled English garden at Stan Hywet in Akron, a Tudor Revival country estate built by F.A. Seiberling founder of Goodyear Tire and Rubber.

Architect Rick Koehler’s clients in Hyde Park wanted poolside shade for their grandchildren, and designer David A.Millett’s clients needed a centerpiece for their meandering hillside and creek
Each got a getaway space tailor-made to their lot and lifestyle from architects and designers who tapped into the outdoor living craze that ignited the West Coast and spread east, despite our uncooperative winters.

“Outbuildings give more dimension to backyards, especially large lots,” says Millett. They add interest to the landscape and you can make them visually attractive from all directions.”

“Everybody is interested in the idea of the outdoor kitchen and entertainment area that’s driving a lot of this activity,” says architect Richard T. Ernst Jr. “Unlike our parents, we are not interested in dragging all the food, the dishes, the drinks from inside the house to enjoy dining and entertaining outdoors.”

“Now with the crackdown on drinking and driving it’s safer to stay at home and party anyway. And today’s kids are ending up in the backyard shelters and pool houses. Having the best play set on the block has expanded into having the best backyard where kids can safely hang out,” he says.

That was a lesson the Ullimans learned after Neal’s Design Remodel built an open C-shaped cedar summer house in their backyard that could complement the possible addition of a pool.

“We thought we’d be having friends over to entertain,” says Ulliman. “What we didn’t expect was the kids having people over as well. We didn’t expect the kids to be hanging out as much as they have, but it’s been great.

Most backyard pavilions come from the idea of “creating a destination area rather than having a pool house as an extension of the house,” says architect Mary Cassinelli, who designed the Ott’s Tudor getaway.

“It’s an area to casually hang out with friends and grandkids and really much more than a pool house,” she says of the roughly 50 by 83 foot walled garden made of stucco, stone and wrought iron that features an enclosed structure with a full bar, minor kitchen and seating with access to grill, storage and a full bath. An outdoor stone fireplace is flanked by more seating and an al fresco dining spot. With eight grandchildren of their own, plus his sister-in-law’s grandchildren, Ott says the pool stays busy from early May to the end of September.

“Sometimes there are 15 to 16 kids in the pool. All the younger ones learned to swim here. I didn’t put all the emphasis on the pool itself, but on the surrounding area. It’s all surrounded by wrought iron fencing and perennials beds. In the fall we listen to Bengals games and sit out there even when it’s chilly. We’ve even been out there in December. Guests say they feel like they are on a retreat.”

Architecturally there are two different approaches to designing outdoor escape buildings and pool houses, says Cassinelli: Continue the architectural design of the house or go in another direction and use different materials to design elements to let it stand on its own.

“As long as the structure is far enough away from the principal building we don’t discourage a different style,” says Koehler of ArchitectsPlus, “because an outdoor living environment becomes its own space.”
Koehler created a pool house for clients in Hyde Park whose grown children were bringing grandchildren back to the house. “She said ‘I need shade for these guys at the pool.’ We hear a lot of that these days. That’s a big difference. Nobody used to be concerned about shade. Now sun protection is part of the equation. We designed it so they could be outside with the grandbabies and have shade by the pool, creating a kitchen and wet bar on one side and a bath and changing room on the other. They wanted something that was fun and reminded them of vacation so there’s an architectural folly – a fun structure – that many are asking for.”

Pinpointing a style for the Hartman-Scotts in Lawrenceburg, presented a challenge says Hartman. “We live in a farmhouse with barns and sheds and had a worn patio. I said ‘I don’t know what I want but I know I don’t want a tool shed.’ ”

Jim Schwertman of Schwertman Building Group and architect Sally Noble paid a visit, asked a lot of lifestyle questions and came up with a barn-themed building “that is much better looking than the house,” laughs Donna. The crumbling patio has been replaced with a pathway incorporating an original rock pathway and old stone wall with new walls leading to the shelter.

“We didn’t know what we could use the space for until they came out and showed us. Before, we lugged coolers and a mishmash of patio chairs outside. Now Jim and I are out there almost every night, spring to fall. We never had an escape from the sun or rain before. Now we sit out there in rain and stay dry.”

The structure, with cupola and a pig weathervane, is partially open on three sides with a cathedral ceiling, window boxes, Hardie plank siding, an under-counter fridge, dry sink, serving area and storage for tools and birdseed. They finished the interior with oversize all-weather photographs at either end of Scott and his grandkids racing on hay bales and building a tree house.

“We don’t know how we lived without it, says Hartman. “We hate it when we can no longer deny that it’s too cold to eat outside.”


Most homeowners dreaming about a summer house or pool house want more than a shield from the sun and elements though that’s usually the starting point for both. Beyond that, the expense and materials depend on what functions the homeowner is looking for. Things to consider that impact the budget include:

Size. Large or small, the size depends on the function. It can be as small as a backyard corner to accommodate a fire pit to the two-story structure with elevator and not one, but two, kitchens that Rick Koehler’s Architects Plus once designed for a client. The key is to make sure it’s large enough for the intended purpose but in proportion to the lot.

“Think big” is the advice from Steve Hendy of Neal’s Design Remodel. “Often plans for pool houses and outdoor rooms look great on paper but when you get outside they are dwarfed by the surrounding trees and Mother Nature.”

Requests for typical pool houses are usually 600-800 square feet, says Koehler, and up to 1200 square feet with space below. “Size is driven by the budget. I’d say most pool houses cost $100,000 to $200,000 or $300,000.”

Location. Pool cabanas need to be close to the water of course but also consider how it will be situated to maximize sunlight. Do you want it to be the centerpiece of the backyard or to blend in with the rest of the lot? And think about the surrounding foliage in all four seasons if it’s front-and-center in your view from the main house.

Shelter from the elements. An open-sided structure will give you minimal refuge from a summer shower but if you are the type who relishes the sound of falling raindrops, consider a structure with a little more protection with half walls or retractable panels.

Screens. If insects are particularly bothersome, consider screened sides. There are options in which screened walls can be retracted when not needed.

Roof. A summer house may be a wise choice for a long-lasting metal roof, much more affordable on a smaller structure. Designer David A. Millett pays extra attention to the roofline, often embellishing it with trim, iron fencing pieces, antiques and fretwork. “Most of the time you are going to be looking down at the roof from the main house, so I like to add elements to the top or make sure the roof has texture and interest like a shake treatment or pergola top.”

Storage. Part of a pool house function is storage. Make sure there’s enough space in the plan devoted to hoses, filters, pool cleaning equipment, outdoor furniture, floats and summer fun gear.

Plumbing. Adding running water for kitchens, toilet, showers, adds expense and minimal winterization chores to any outdoor structure.

“Once you start adding water, that’s a bigger commitment,” says Alan Hendy of Neal’s Design Remodel. “A project with a full kitchen and a bath is a lot different than a shelter for changing clothes.”

Electricity. Fans, lighting, disposers, refrigerators, microwaves are all great conveniences for an outdoor kitchen but also drive up the overall price of the project.

Extras to consider: Separate bathrooms, storage lockers or hooks and cubbies for guests’ clothes, laundry facilities, kitchens, grilling areas, outdoor fireplace, saunas and hot tubs. Depending on the size, your pool house could double as a gym.


New maintenance-free materials ideal for outdoor buildings include Azek trim, which looks like painted wood, but is really made of PVC. “It doesn’t need painting, doesn’t swell, and birds, animals and insects can’t damage it,” says Koehler. Hardie cement siding is wonderful for pool houses and replicates many wood textures. Any glass should be low-E to keep out UV rays. And architect Richard T. Ernst Jr. points out that granite countertops, stone veneers and all-weather cabinets can provide indoor luxury looks with easy-or-low maintenance.