Nothing epitomizes summer in the Midwest quite like slow days at the lake. Defined by the vast freshwater seas of the Great Lakes and thousands of smaller inland bodies of water scattered across its states, Midwesterners love to flock to the waterfront during the few months when temperatures rise and the sun stays out late.
As a Chicago-based firm with roots dating back 30+ years, the Midwest has been Hoerr Schaudt's foundation, where most of its work started and has since extended coast to coast across the country. In the Midwest, we regularly work in lakefront communities, including Chicago's North Shore, Northwest Michigan, Southwest Michigan, and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.
To learn more about some of these residential projects, we sat down with three of our partners, John Evans, Nick Fobes, and Simon Prunty, to talk about Hoerr Schaudt's history with, connection to, and recommendations for landscape design in Midwestern lakefront communities.
John Evans: We started working on residential projects in Michigan over two decades ago. At the time, those projects were smaller, modest, cottage-style homes. As clients' families have grown and the summer 'lake lifestyle' has evolved, we've seen the scope and scale of home projects really change. Our waterfront projects have transformed into luxury getaways designed for entertaining, accommodating outdoor activities (everything from waterskiing to fishing to boating), and simply spending more time throughout the year.
Nick Fobes: We've always had a pragmatic approach to how we do business, which stems back to being from the Midwest. We're located on the largest body of fresh water in the United States and often work along its coast. Between working along Lake Michigan and smaller inland bodies of water, we've seen it all when it comes to complexities and challenges that arise when designing and developing lakefront properties. We know the variety in microclimates, engineering requirements to address grading changes, erosion control processes, and the best engineers to collaborate with to sustain bluffs along the waterfront.
Midwestern Lake Life
Nick Fobes: Lakefront living in the Midwest is laid-back and relaxed. There's a greater connection to nature with the region's diverse ecosystems. We also have seasonality that you don't get in other waterfront communities – so we design for the four seasons in mind with the practice of designing for winter first.
Simon Prunty: With the Great Lakes, we get exceptional borrowed views and recreational access to some of the world's largest bodies of fresh water. Diverse shoreline habitats provide completely different sites from one part of the coast to the next. If you're along Chicago's North Shore, you might get rocky cobble shorelines. In Southwest Michigan, you have sandy beaches and dunes. Farther north, you're likely to experience more vegetated coastal wetlands. Midwestern lakefront living generally has a less exclusive feel to it compared to popular waterfront communities on the coasts. It's tasteful yet welcoming with a down-to-earth, more casual feel.
Lakefront Landscape Styles
John Evans: More often than not, the lakefront homes we've worked on are an adapted version of the original Midwestern utilitarian cottages with east coast influences, but you can drop an architecturally contemporary home on a lakefront in a wooded, rural context and make it work with the right landscape design.
The design of a home's landscape comes from its architectural style and the site's context. Materiality and design will follow the architecture. The landscape styling has so much to do with the desired use of the space (e.g., entertaining large groups and boosting lakefront views). One of the biggest differentiators for lakefront homes is defining the house's 'front' and 'back.' Nine out of ten times, you approach a lakefront property by driving up to the 'back' of the home, opposite the lake. The 'front' is the more active side where you're spending more time – it's a different vernacular and design approach than other non-waterfront homes.
Nick Fobes: When we design, there are three needs to address: (1) the client's style, wants, and needs; (2) the architecture and how it relates to the style, scale, and massing; and (3) the context.
Depending on those three factors, we can design various landscape styles from traditional to modern, and pastoral to urban. To generalize, we often create a more naturalistic style in the rural and lakefront homes in Michigan but then we lean much more traditional—and occasionally modern—along Chicago's North Shore.
The Lakefront Difference
Simon Prunty: When designing the landscape for a lakefront home vs. elsewhere, we always design with context in mind. You have this amazing built-in asset of the waterfront and borrowed views that you need to enhance.
There can be setbacks from the lake that restrict where you can develop, slope stabilization that impacts the design, and docking rights protocols. For steep hillsides, common around the Great Lakes, we recommend removing unwanted vegetation to elevate and contour the site's grading and adding specialty soils, native grasses, ground cover, and rocks/boulders to act as erosion control measures. Our team also regularly works with the Army Corps of Engineers, local municipalities, and specialized engineering subconsultants on lakefront sites to ensure we approach waterfront design most effectively.
What to Consider
Simon Prunty: First and foremost, don't over design! You buy the property for the lakefront, so there's a need to be honest with the land and the lake. Consider the greater site and context. You wouldn't put a boxwood hedge on a yard overlooking Michigan's dunes.
The landscape for a lakefront vacation home should be simple, with minimal maintenance required. Lakefront homes are places of relaxation and re-engagement with nature, friends, and family. Open floor plans that are scalable for growing families and visiting guests are a must. We also encourage designing three-season rooms to extend the season beyond the typical summer months.
Common Renovations and New Trends
John Evans: Years ago, the original cottages [in Harbor Springs, MI] would open on Memorial Day and close down on Labor Day. They were seasonal, simple, and utilitarian—most lacked heat and air conditioning. Today, this same area on the water is filled with stunning million-dollar homes. There's an increased desire to spend more time at these homes with three- and four-season rooms that extend the season beyond Labor Day weekend. Fire pits and features are nothing new but are more and more commonly requested since they allow you to extend your day on the lake well into the evening.
Nick Fobes: Many of our lakefront projects are new construction. There's a premium for lakefront homes, and many of our clients are buying older, smaller homes where they can rebuild their dream lake house. There's generally been a shift in people prioritizing more natural space and connections to water to make waterfront properties even more valuable.
We design to make the landscape feel like it's always been there—that's not necessarily a trend but a timeless desire you'll always want out of your land and scenery. Specific to lakefront homes, there's also the importance of protecting the bluff and surrounding land as the water rises and inclement weather potentially affects it. Protecting the integrity of the bluffs and dunes is one of our top priorities when we start a project with a significant grade change– it's a natural infrastructure we need to maintain that will protect a client's home and land investment in the long run.
Simon Prunty: Another request we're getting from clients is the desire to have more opportunities to be out in the landscape. We've been designing equestrian farms, beehives and pollinator gardens, vegetable and flower cutting gardens—anything that allows people to be hands-on and interact with their land. There's a growing notion of the importance of sustainability and knowing where their food comes from—whether it's Winnetka or Southwest Michigan, people love the ability to grow their own produce.