July 31, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

If there were but one thing to consider before building your very own epic backyard party central, equipped with all the essential grilling and barbecue fixtures, it is this: Your guests don’t have to live with whatever outdoor Franken-kitchen you cobble together from your inner Cro-Magnon desire for fired meats.

No, they rub their bellies, hopefully thank their gracious hosts, and go home. It’s you who must live with what remains.

The better approach, it appears, is the path Stephen and Joy Abels took on their West Omaha home.

From left: Stephen, Joy, and Chelsea Abels

“Be patient,” Joy says. “The best design is probably not going to be your first or second design.”

The Abels thought long and hard about what they wanted their backyard to be. They hosted regular gatherings, a tradition they knew would continue. They like pizza about as much as anyone else, but not so much that an outdoor pizza oven made a lot of sense.

And they knew they enjoyed hosting friends and family, but that didn’t mean they wanted to be a caterer—just grill some fine meats, maybe smoke the occasional brisket or prime rib roast. That would be sufficient.

From a practical design perspective, they most desired a space to spend comfortably warm afternoons and evenings with their guests.

But the Abels also knew their kitchen table overlooked the backyard from large facing windows. They didn’t want an expansive gray slab of concrete (with a few deck chairs anchored together by some sort of monstrous outdoor fire pit) to mar their daily view.

So they saved. They scratched out ideas on napkins and random scraps of paper. And they spent countless hours stalking the internet for other inspirations on websites like houzz.com.

They began planning three years ago, when Stephen went for an evening stroll through the neighborhood.

A few doors down, he noticed a neighbor’s impressive backyard fireplace. Stephen had no idea who the neighbor was, but in that moment, he turned up the driveway and knocked on the door.

“I introduced myself, said, ‘Love your fireplace, tell me about it.’ He said, ‘Come on in.’ And he gave me Hugh’s name,” Stephen says, referring to Hugh Morton, co-owner of Sun Valley Landscaping, the company that would eventually redevelop the Abels’ backyard.

The Abels wanted to create a space that felt “like Nebraska.” Morton was happy to listen and accommodate their wishes. The finished product fits perfectly in place.

Morton’s design includes native trees and bushes in the landscaping, brickwork resembling quarried limestone from Ashland, and even the calming white noise of a stepped water feature. Everything seems a natural fit.

Perhaps the neater trick is the elegant flow into the style of the house. Although built years apart, the outside living area transitions seamlessly with the style of the indoors.

“The challenge for Hugh was I wanted it to feel comfortable for four people or 40,” Stephen says. “And I think he did a good job.”

There’s plenty room for the epic backyard barbecue, if the mood strikes; or a tranquil afternoon of quiet study for the family’s four home-schooled children; or just another one of their weekly church group nights of about two dozen people.

It’s exactly what they need it to be, when they need it. As it should be.

They put in the time, making sure the space was just right.

“And whatever you think it’s going to cost,” Stephen says, “round up.”

Visit sunvalleyomaha.com for more information about the company responsible for the Abels’ backyard space.

From left: Christian, Cameron, Stephen, Chelsea, and Joy Abels

This article was printed in the July/August 2017 Edition of Omaha Home.