City Soirée

Project Brief

Knowing their 2,043 square foot terrace rooftop in Chicago could be an amazing outdoor space, our clients had begun investing in upgrades before hiring us. But they quickly realized that their original vision wasn’t satisfactory. Upon engagement with us, we excitedly conceptualized how their wide open, unprotected space could fulfill their dreams to live beautifully outdoors.

For this couple, the ease of entertaining was key with space for dinner parties as their highest priority. This meant a dedicated space for their large dining table and multiple spaces for people to gather in – all enhanced by ambient lighting. Our clients were also concerned about privacy from a neighboring building that looked directly onto their space which was addressed through plants as screening and the pergola. The noise of the mechanicals needed to be damped. This gave us an opportunity to define separate areas so that we could play with different materials and level changes through decking. Along with privacy, the sun exposure made the space very hot on summer afternoons and they wanted to find a way to create shade that would withstand the punishing winds off the lake. While the custom panels are fixed in place, their design allows for dappled sun and wind movement. With the addition of heaters anchored on the pergola and a fire feature, the couple has a space for extended seasonal use. And, of course, they wanted plantings that would soften the space and invite you outside. By using/transplanting some of the trees and shrubs they had, and adding other shrubs, perennials, green roof trays, and containers for annual displays an urban garden oasis was created.

Their outdoor terrace went from a Hodge podge commercial looking space to a sophisticated, welcoming, relaxing space that make entertaining a piece of cake!

Dermatologists Cheer! Umbrellas!

Have you ever left your dermatology appointment with a high-five because you’re protecting yourself from the sun ALL the time in ALL the right ways? 

I never have.

Erin (my dermatologist) gives me pamphlets, a huge bag of samples of sunscreen, and a stern warning EVERY time I leave her office. Protect yourself!

It’s a hard pill to swallow, not because I don’t believe she’s 100% right, but I just love the feeling of sun on my skin. I also know I gots to take care.

So, what the heck does this have to do with Topiarius?! Cha-ching!

If you want to get that high-five like I do, then you want to protect yourself from the sun by choosing one of these wildly creative SHADE options.

Some of these we’ve installed and used in our designs and others we want to. They are all easy to use and so visually cool.

A wall mounted, cantilever umbrella that requires no pole from Umbrosa! No more tripping around the base. Photo: Topiarius
A Mamagreen personal shade that moves where you do! Photo: Mamagreen
Double your fun! Heavy-duty cantilever umbrellas from Umbrosa that can rotate easily to create shade. Photo: Topiarius
These are for when your only decision of the day has to be whether you put the cover on or take the cover off the Sombrero booth. Photo: Mamagreen
It's not just enough to have shade during the day! You should also have evening light with the Extremis Sol Luna! Photo: Shadescapes

If you want to know more about some of these umbrellas, please take a look at this blog post on our website. AND, if you want to talk with us about your new design and installation, now is a perfect time. Can’t wait to hear from you!

From the gal who is learning to love the shade – 

Sara J-S

P.S. Curious about other ways to beat the heat, check out these posts as well: fans and misters and pergolas!

Don’t Chase the Shade

Roof Top Shade

One of my favorite memories about my pug Pegi is how much she despised the heat – I mean despised it! During the summer when we’d take her on a walk she would run ahead to the shade, wait for us to catch up, stay there as we walked past, then run to the next bit of shade. Truth. Hand to God.

And when there are days like this for us humans it’s gonna take more than a spot of shade to beat the heat!

So rather than wax poetically about this, here’s the punch line.

These are our top 5 solutions for beating the heat when you have a pergola.



The endless options for pattern on these fixed panels creates a unique respite from the sun.

Roof Top Pergola


When the heat is too much, grab the “wand” and slide the panels where you’d like to have them. There are different options for fabric color too.

Roof Top Pergola


Fixed in place, depending on the time of day, these louvers will minimize the heat by creating dappled shade.

Roof Top Louvers


With a click of a button (or as a reaction to the the weather) the louvers will open and close providing instant shade.

Roof Top StruXure


One of the more interesting and creative solutions that we’ve designed and installed are the moving panels. Using a “wand” the panels slide forward and backward to block the sun.

Roof Top Moving Panels

Beating the heat is no joke when you’re a pug . . . that’s for shizzle. But it’s even more fun when you’re human!

Can’t stand not having the outdoor space of your dreams? Can’t stand not having respite from the sun? Then now is the time to contact us and we’ll walk you through our process. 

Loving living beautifully outdoors!


Top 4 City Landscape Codes

If you’re planning on building out a rooftop or updating your landscaping in the city of Chicago, then these are the top 4 codes you should know.

But to put this into perspective, I suggest we think about codes as something to embrace rather than be amazingly annoyed by them.

This is not an out-of-the-box thinking kind of conversation. This is about codes. We all live with codes. We all agree in the US to drive in the right lane, stop at red lights, walk through an intersection at appropriate signals (most of the time), park in designated spots, etc. You get the point, right?

We use codes because we need to have ways to operate with each other; we need best practices to keep ourselves and others safe.

Just like homebuilders have codes to follow, so do we in landscape design/construction. And these codes are set by the city / municipality in which you dwell.

For Chicago city dwellers (i.e., residential properties), there are 4 key codes that are worth knowing about when you’re planning for landscape construction.

Since 2016 . . .

ONE: Rooftop Structures

On a private residential roof deck any structure above the parapet wall that is within 3’ feet of a property line or 6’ off a neighboring building has to be noncombustible. If this applies to you, then your pergola needs to be made of a metal and any screening needs to be made of metal, glass, or cement board.

TWO: Backflow Preventer

Irrigation systems require a backflow preventer installed by a licensed plumber and they need to be inspected yearly. The inspection is typically done by your irrigation company which has proper certification.

THREE: Fence Height

Anything less than 5 feet tall does not require a permit when built with typical materials (e.g., wood, vinyl, steel). But fencing can be up to 6 feet for solid panels and up to 8 feet for open slats. These heights may require a permit and a variance request. The takeaway is to follow neighborhood fencing heights, always talk to your neighbors, and hire professionals who know the codes!

FOUR: Parkway Trees

All trees in parkways are city property (no matter who plants them). Technically you’re supposed to get a permit to do any work in/on parkways, but functionally the city is fine with homeowners making improvements. However, existing trees cannot be removed! THIS IS HUGE! The fine is $1,000 per caliper inch. This means if you remove a 20” diameter tree you will be fined $20,000!

In order to plant a tree in a parkway, you must hire a company that is licensed by the city of Chicago to plant parkway trees, and you are going to be limited to 4 – 5 options. The city determines which options you have by what other trees are planted in your neighborhood. The city’s goal is to diversify plantings.

Major take away: When you’re contracting with a company (like Topiarius) to work on / at your home make sure you find and use a reputable firm that has up to date knowledge of codes. And don’t ever be discouraged by these codes . . . design solutions abound so that you can live beautifully outdoors.

P.S. This list is simply an overview of codes we encounter on a regular basis. It is not intended to replace city code documentation.

P.S.S. To see a pergola system that fits within city code, click here.

What Should Your Budget Be?

The #1 question we get is what should my budget be?

I’ll tell you this. It’s an easy answer, but it does require explanation.

You can see our answer if you skip this part and scroll to the bottom.


Craig and I had the absolute pleasure to spend time on Memorial Day weekend at a cliend home (new word for client turned into friend) for a summer kick off party. Unsolicited to a large group of party goers, our cliend said, “Having invested in my outdoor space (her back yard and rooftop), Topiarius has completely changed the way my family (of 5) lives together. It’s amazing.”

Here’s another way for me to explain. I’ve heard the following story told with a few variations, but let’s assume that while the specifics may not be 100% that the sentiment is 100% correct.

  • On a lovely afternoon at a café in Paris, a woman notices that Pablo Picasso is at a nearby table.
  • She musters the courage and walks over to him.
  • “Excuse me Sir, would you mind sketching me something on my napkin? I’ll pay you.”
  • “Of course.” says Picasso.
  • He takes her napkin, pulls a pen from his shirt pocket, and draws a few lines.
  • “That will be $20,000 francs.” he says.
  • “What?! You only spent 5 seconds on it?” she says incredulously.
  • Picasso responds, “No Madame, I’ve spent 30 years on this.” 

When you are looking for a luxurious outdoor oasis, a sanctuary at your own home, you will have to understand budgeting and expenses. But, friends, you’ll also have to understand that good design, quality installation, exceptionally kind and honest staff are not just fine-tuned overnight. They take time, energy, and lots of work to manifest and develop.

So, dig into our Budget Calculator and get a sense of what we suggest as starting points. Our goal is that these amounts kick-start conversation getting us on the same page from the very beginning. (I know, right? We are all eager to get your project started as quickly as possible. So let’s not waste time!)

If you’re interested in booking a call with us to talk through finer points, then let’s do it. Contact us today.

P.S. Continue reading our posts. We’ve got some great posts about value, investment, planning, and understanding our industry. Our goal is to always educate and make sure we can answer all your questions. 

I recommend these posts to get started: 

Yummy Textures + Colors

Gone are the days when you want your landscape to look like your neighbors, right? Our homes, inside and out, are all about expressing who we are and the kind of life we want to live.

This is why textures and colors are a must when it comes to outdoor design.

The combinations of landscape materials, such as plants, wood, metal, and stone, develop the textures of your built space.

Layer your space with furniture, that can have any amazing combination of color choices, and you’ve put the icing on the cake.

Taken as one whole visage . . . it’s an artistic masterpiece reflecting you!

You living beautifully outdoors. 

Over the past few weeks I’ve been posting on social media some combinations that I find inspiring. Scroll through and see if you feel the same.

Texture_Landscape and Fabric_1

JANUS et Cie fabric left to right: Plume (Rambutan), Remarkable (Amber), Conga Lines (Manhattan), Great Ocean Road (Khaki)

Landscape: Ipe (hardwood) decking, old clay Chicago pavers, white/cream Petunias, and Heavy Metal Switch Grass

Texture_Landscape and Fabric_2

Perennials Fabrics left to right: See Sea / Safari (Blanca), Jake Stripe (Black Tie), Bebop (Salt and Pepper), Tangled (Flannel)

Landscape: Custom sized bluestone paver in an herring bone pattern next to river rock next to black-painted cedar fence.

Texture_Landscape and Fabric_3_mammagreen

Mamagreen fabric top to bottom: Sunbrella (Ibzia), Sunbrella (Coral Spectrum), Agora (Coral Dust), Batyline (Gem Cream), Olefin (Aubergine)

Landscape: Sedum green roof and limestone pavers

Texture_Landscape and Fabric_4_Perennials

Perennials Fabrics top to bottom: See Sea (Squares), Ishii (Topaz), Wild and Wooly (Salt & Pepper), Scribbles (Hotsy Totsy), Drypoint Plaid (Watermelon)

Landscape: Artificial green wall and Limelight Hydrangea

Self-Care: Outdoor Relaxation

Self-Care Outdoor Relaxation

Craig could rarely find me in our house this spring, summer, and fall.

Mind you, our home is not large, and we’ve not done a whole lot of leaving our house this past year.

At some point in his search, he’d finally open the door to our upper terrace, see me lounging on our sofa with a book or my computer, and with an exasperated laugh say, “I’ve been calling your name. Haven’t you heard me? I should know better because you are always out here!”

The reason I was always out on our terrace . . . I loved being surrounded by nature and I needed to relax. I needed some serious self-care.

I have a strong hunch you are planning for 2021 and thinking about your priorities. This is the reason why I STRONGLY recommend you book a consultation with our team now because it’s too important for your well-being to put it off.

Our terrace reno was new this past spring (pre-COVID) and we had been jonesing for it for over 12 years. (Trust me –patience is not a virtue of mine.)

It wasn’t that we didn’t want to do the project, we just kept bumping it down the list because it didn’t seem as important as other items. And, it wasn’t just about a coat of paint and a new chair. Real work had to be done to get it in tip-top shape. But . . . had I known that we’d be so rejuvenated and calmed, and so able to relax, by being on our terrace . . .  trust me we’d have made it a priority.

Listen, we see all kinds of defunct spaces. We see how the dog controls the back yard because it’s their playground and not yours. We see how if you sat on your deck too long it would totally annoy you because it’s falling apart. With no sun protection why would you bother being out there during the day? And the alley streetlights! It’s like living in Greenland. And . . . rodents claiming residence in the most expensive pieces of property in Chicago. Gross! Oh . . . (one of my favorites) the previous owners stained everything rust/red . . . stressful! Blah!

I know we all know that spending time outdoors is good for us. But did you know that research done by Harvard Medical School proves that interacting with natural spaces offers therapeutic benefits? Calming nature sounds and even outdoor silence can lower blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which calms the body’s fight-or-flight response. That visual aspects of nature can have a soothing effect. Having something pleasant to focus on like trees and greenery helps distract your mind from negative thinking, so your thoughts become less filled with worry.

So, if this were a game of Would You Rather . . .  it’d go like this: Would you rather have the most amazing outdoor living space that allows you to relax and provides you will multiple health benefits OR would you rather have the broken-down space that pisses you off because you hate being out there and it doesn’t provide you with any benefits?

Easy to choose, right?

But, yet it’s winter. It may seem that right now it’s an easy priority to bump down the list, but when the weather turns and our COVID lifestyles begin to change (cuz that gonna happen!), having the additional space to submerge into nature is going to be become invaluable to you.
With your newly redesigned (non-annoying) luxurious outdoor space . . .

Your investment will have an 100% ROI . . . for your mind and body.

Your connection to nature . . . will provide proven therapeutic benefits.

Making this a priority by contacting our team now for your complimentary consultation is the best prescription for self-care.
If you’re curious and want to dig deeper into what we do, join us for our FREE webinar Nature as Healthcare on Thursday, January 28 at 11 a.m. CT. It’s gonna be soo good.

Sara J-S, “Doctor of Self-Care”

Thank you, Mood! Outdoor Fabric.

Outdoor Fabric

I know I’m not the only one that has done this.

The fan base is too huge for this to be unique. But . . .  we still had to go.

We (Craig and I) rode the elevator to the 3rd floor. The doors opened and the angels sang!

Okay, no angels just buttons, zippers, and notions everywhere. (Yup, I geek out over notions.)

We had entered MOOD Fabrics in NYC!

Let me catch you up: The epic TV series Project Runway, with the help of coach and mentor Tim Gunn, made the store even more famous. Each time Tim and the competitors were leaving the store they showed their manners and said, “Thank you, Mood.” I mean . . . I got the T-shirt to match.

Topiarius Mood Fabrics

So what’s the deal? Why do I believe that fabric is so interesting? Why do colors, patterns, and textures make my mind work on overdrive?

3 Reasons

It’s about all the options, about all the possibilities, about all the unique outcomes.

With the switch of a color, the whole mood can change. With the addition of a pattern, a rooftop can get interesting. With a textured, furry cushion, you now want to relax on the sofa and watch the game outdoors.

The beauty is that no two outdoor spaces will ever (or need to be) the same! You can have the design that speaks to you, and your neighbor can have theirs. Bonus! For all the designers at Topiarius, this is so not boring. We get to bring you the best possible design.

So how do you find outdoor fabric, particularly if you can’t go to Mood Fabrics in NY or LA?

I suggest you start here with these companies. Fabric can be purchased and provided to an upholsterer to make the cushions, pillows, etc. 

Janus et Cie
Link Outdoor

You’ll notice I have not listed Sunbrella. Sunbrella is ubiquitous in the outdoor fabric world. It’s almost like asking for Kleenex, when really you’re asking for a tissue. It’s a great option as well, but I want to make sure you’ve got the inside scoop to all things luxurious.

I Had No Idea. Green Roofs.

Sarah S. was one of the coolest girls in 7th grade. She had the most amazing bob haircut and knew how to wear eye makeup. She could peg her pants and knew how to wear her Forenza sweater backwards! 

I had no idea what she wanted when she said hello to me for the first time in our French class. I knew it wasn’t cuz she wanted to know where I got my turtleneck with strawberries all over it. (It was 1984, they were amazingly practical for a girl like me in New England!)

Turns out she was looking for a friend as much as I was. I quickly learned in addition to all her coolness, she was really fun and generous.

It wasn’t uncommon for us to beg one of our parents to drop us off at the Holyoke Mall at Ingleside on a weekend night. Three floors with curvy glass railings and lights that guided us to all the stores. One whole floor was a food court, a movie theater, and games!

And, on the top floor, next to G. Fox department store was . . . Benetton!

Back then the store was a small, refined boutique. Huge pictures lined the walls portraying female and male models from around the world of every skin color. (Radical!) The colors just exploded through the clothing. It was breath-taking. The United Colors of Benetton! (I can hear the angels singing.)

Sarah gave me a tour as one of the most experienced docents of Benetton. She told me about the sweaters, shirts, and pants. And, then . . . she pointed to the prized possession of all 7th grade girls: the Benetton rugby.

She already had one but wanted to make sure I knew this is where I should bring my parents to buy me my very own. Friends, I’d just been given the key to cool town.

Benetton Rugby

I will freely admit that my 12 year-old self knew nothing other than coveting that damn rugby and that I could only be a fulfilled junior higher if I owned one.

But, I also learned a valuable lesson. That my small world could/should/would expand. To some it may have just been clothing and a foolish adolescent’s endeavor, but to me it was learning what I didn’t know AND how much more I wanted to know what I didn’t know.

We want to help you, our trusted clients and fans, be exposed to all kinds of possibilities for you to live beautifully outdoors. (We’re also a bit biased and want it to be luxurious as well.)

So hold tight  . . .  I’m going to share with you what could be your Benetton rugby.

GREEN ROOFS. (full stop.)

I’m sure you’re familiar with them, enough so that I don’t need to get technical.

I want to make sure you know they don’t just make a corporate office building LEED certified.

Green roofs are incorporated into private residential designs – as well they should be!

They can be added for their plantings, for texture, and for design elements.

Topiarius Green Roof
Topiarius Green Roof

They can be used as most of the design for an impressive makeover. The planting provides interest all year with a lovely contrast between spring and fall.

Topiarius Green Roof
Topiarius Green Roof
Topiarius Green Roof
Before Topiarius Green Roof

And, they can be installed in spaces that won’t be used, just seen.

Topiarius Green Roof
Topiarius Green Roof

The options with green roofs are endless, which is (of course) where Topiarius comes in.

We have yet to tap into all the creative ways we can incorporate green roofs into designs.

We’d sure like to take on that challenge and . . .  be your docent through this whole new world. 

Winter is the perfect time for us to begin your design.

Contact us, but only if you’re serious about learning what you don’t yet know. 

P.S.  My begging paid off and my self-esteem was saved. My parents bought me a green Benetton rugby off the slightly damaged rack.

And, Sarah and I are still good friends to this day.