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 is definitely not what one would expect in a suburban Des Moines back yard. The sprawling structure incorporates unusual details small and large – from flag-shaped gate handles with family-heritage significance to an actual working drawbridge – that are sure to children of all ages feeling playful for decades to come.

Designer Tyson Leyendecker knew from this project’s inception that his clients were looking for something beyond standard-issue outdoor barbeque-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 – as did the budget. Total project costs topped $113,000, but the clients come from a family of bridge builders, a profession not known for making little plans.

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 (including Beijing). Google Earth came in handy for that task, Leyendecker says. And digital models helped the Silent Rivers team both understand overall scale and give structural engineers the data needed to evaluate support requirements.

The local building department faced its own firsts in their 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, though they eventually filed it as a deck. “I’m sure for them it was the first time they had to look at footings this size for a deck.”

Beyond the sophisticated software and variance applications, though, this structure – be it deck, play structure or English manor house folly – is really a study in detail. That exact modeling became fruitless when onsite work began and carpenters began cutting boards to fit around tree trunks and limbs – and once 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 crazy-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 where the lines point to the varied destinations mentioned above.

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. And a joy, one is sure, for children of all ages.




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 stand-out location deserved.

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

So, 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. So, 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. While the shading was appreciated, this plan also meant the only access to an outside living area was through a lower-level slider. Now a new main-level deck extends out from the kitchen, creating a new outdoor room for entertaining. The patio, below, still gets some filtered sunlight thanks to the new deck’s unique glass-block floor – a detail suggested by the homeowner.

This decorative touch only 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 re-routed, to maintain the clean lines desired by both Donatelli and the owners.

“You probably have a good 12 man hours on the table saw,” Donatelli estimates. “Everything has to be thought through so carefully. You have to be thinking of all these things as you’re constructing.”

Similarly, the new windows and doors weren’t simple replacement models. Six-ft.-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. And, 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 Marvin Windows 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 façade. The inspiration for this little bit of eye candy was drawn from the lakefront setting, as it’s meant to suggest the rings formed when a single 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.

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