Creating Memories with Outdoor Rooms

Words and Photos: Derek Stearns

Growing up I remember our home being one of those destination homes where everyone hung out.  Whether it was my parents and their friends (who had a better social life than all of us) or my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins or the tight friend groups of my brother, sister and myself; our house had plenty of outdoor living parties.  Of course, home cooked food was on the menu and there was always music (a strange mix of current top 40’s and Frank Sinatra). My parents knew how to create the right atmosphere for everyone to have a good time. Some of my fondest memories took place in our backyard during cookouts and countless hours swimming in the pool.

My father took pride in building all of it and we got the benefit of using all of it. My memories are full of family and friends relaxing, eating and just having a great time in our backyard. These memories are what influenced me to create my own outdoor space for my home and all the homes my cousin Dean Marsico and I have designed for over the past thirty years. So when Bronzella Cleveland reached out about a new article for the magazine, I knew I wanted to write about the business we are in. Sure it’s the business of masonry, working with the right tools, building by codes, designing and keeping up with current products, but after it’s all said and done – we’re in the business of creating a space for clients that will foster their own memories. Memories full of good times with family and friends.

You always knew when we were having people over because hours before anyone showed up, we were getting everything ready. Dad was adamant about having his space look the best, so we all went to work – we edged planting beds, mulched, weeded, picked produce out of our Papa’s garden, prepared the grill and the food, and got the speakers connected outside with the radio set up (no Bluetooth back then). Those memories remind me of how it feels trying to get all the details right on a job site. Those details meant everything in how a space would look, feel, and how people would enjoy it.

It reminds me of one of our yard operators at the quarry as he was watching us work on the outdoor room displays. I vividly remember him saying, “It looks like someone cares.” It struck me that that was what my Dad was teaching us all those years. He was teaching us to genuinely care about our work. And that’s how we want to run our businesses. Of course we want to make money and profit but this attention to detail sets the tone for everyone around us. It sets the standard that someone cares. The one who always notices this care is the client. Through word of mouth, that client brings us more work. Good work begets more work.

Recently Dean and I were asked to speak at the Matt Light Foundation Leadership Conference at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, MA. The audience consisted of high school students from several different schools in the state. The students were rotated in groups of fifty so we got about a half hour with each group, leaving time for a Q & A. During one session a student asked, “You both seem so confident. Where does that confidence come from?”. Without even looking at each other Dean and I said, at the same time, “Failure.” The students laughed, as did we. But as we got into it, they understood that although our successes were big, so were our failures. They go hand in hand. This forced us to learn from those failures because repeating them really sucked. As I thought about my failures in business, I came up with some common themes….maybe they’re recognizable…

  • Not listening to the client.
  • Letting my ego drive me into thinking I needed to impress others.
  • Not pricing the job right.
  • Not knowing what it cost to keep my company operating with a profit.
  • Beating the crap out of my body and not working smarter.
  • Letting my company dictate my life because I was self – employed.
  • Not keeping up with the right tools.
  • Hiring the wrong people.
  • Making emotional decisions.
  • Giving people the benefit of the doubt in business.

Just reading that list makes me anxious. It also confirms that I will never repeat these mistakes again…at least not blindly.

Life experience is the best teacher. Even though the “Don’t List” has plenty to chew on, the “Do’s List” is full of tools that help create a bright future for good business and profits.

Ask the right questions with the client and take notes physically/mentally.

How are you going to use the space?

When you have a get together what’s the average number of guests?

What don’t you like?

Have you made any decisions on furniture?

(The answers to these questions will determine everything about the project and what the end result will ultimately be.)

Sit down and figure out what it costs to run the company.  Budget out everything so you can get to a daily number of what it costs to survive and make profit.

Learn the word NO. Decide who you want to work for and what you want to do.

Work smarter. At some point you realize ”I can finish that tomorrow. “

Align with the right businesses and crews.

Never forget who you are working for – the client.

Back in 2007 Dean and I were hired to design and install a unique space for the client’s daughter’s wedding. The antique home was in the Marshfield Hills area of MA. The daughter wanted to be married in the backyard she grew up in. There were so many obstacles with this project. The whole backyard was a hill and the father of the bride had to walk his daughter from the house through the new brick patio, and then down antiqued granite steps. Steps, which were surrounded by round fieldstone walls, and then over several more walkways. After that, they then faced another flight of bluestone steps that lead to a tumbled bluestone patio where the marriage ceremony would take place. Yes, we had to build all of that before the date of the wedding. The photos below are only a few portions of the job.  All I kept thinking about was the steps and the image of the father and daughter walking down these fourteen steps (that were spread throughout the project.)

Each riser and each tread had to be right. Talk about details. It was on this job that made me wish I were a carpenter! Long story short we did it. We finished a week before the wedding and everything went smoothly. That was a great challenge for us. A challenge that helped us create an incredible memory for the client. I ran into the father a few years after the wedding and he couldn’t stop talking about his yard and that day.

Most projects that come our way are not as specific as that wedding day project. But when we think about it, every project will be used by the client, their kids, and the families that come after them. I am reminded of these coming generations as I drive by my father’s stonework in our area south of Boston, MA. He has been gone for over thirty years and his grandchildren know him by his work. Over the years as we drove by his jobs, the kids would always hear us say, “Papa Artie did that.” I wondered if they were listening or knew what it meant when they were young, but then one day as we were driving by a stone building my daughter (a teenager now) said “Dad, didn’t Papa Artie build that?” and I smiled and said “Yes he did”. That building is one of those memories for her.