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The Teshima family, from left, Tara, Peyton, age 4, Kenzo, age 1 and Chris, in their mid-construction backyard in Toronto.


Tara Lynn and Chris Teshima are renovating their backyard.

Before COVID-19, this would have been an unremarkable statement. But as lockdowns on travel and social gatherings persist, an investment in an outdoor oasis is a triumph with sharply rising costs for raw materials, long shipping delays and a stretched talent pool.

While we’ve all shared the burden of the pandemic – and the desire to escape it – this couple feels the stress acutely. Both are physicians at busy Toronto-area hospitals: Ms. Teshima is a plastic surgeon at Markham-Stouffville Hospital, north of Toronto, and Mr. Teshima is a gastroenterologist at St. Michael’s Hospital downtown.

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“The pandemic changed everything for us,” the couple says. “We’ve always been accustomed to frequent travel, both short getaways across the border and long trips overseas. Once COVID shut everything down, we found ourselves stuck at home like everyone else and missing a connection to the outdoors.”

They tried to build their backyard oasis last summer, but the high demand for landscape architects and tradespeople delayed their outdoor transformation. This spring they finally broke ground, including the addition of a new pool to enjoy with their two young children.

“We haven’t taken any time off and it is safe to say that we are both a little burned out,” Ms. Teshima says. “We are hoping to create a relaxing and refreshing space where we can unwind … [and] host small social gatherings after COVID restrictions are eased as a safe way to begin to reconnect with friends and family.”

They’re paying for the backyard renovation with funds that would’ve gone to travel, restaurants, sporting events and even their wardrobes, since their current attire consists solely of hospital scrubs and personal protective equipment (PPE).

The couple enlisted the help of Earth Inc., a Toronto-based landscape design agency, to create a backyard with a modern beach aesthetic inspired by one of their favourite destinations – the Four Seasons Hotel in Maui.

Michael McMartin is a designer at the agency, and he admits bringing any of his clients’ visions to life is challenging right now. He says timelines and budgets continue to swell because of the shock waves on supply and demand brought on by the pandemic.

“We find most clients are well aware that it is more difficult to source certain types of lumber and that the costs have increased,” he says. “But they are often shocked by how much of an increase has occurred. For much of the standard lumber that we use in landscape construction the average increase is somewhere between 40 per cent to 60 per cent since pre-pandemic times.”

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The Teshima family stands where the pool will be when their backyard project is finished.


Thomas Kyle, the principal of TKL Design in Vancouver, shares the same frustration. “Lumber costs are through the roof, forcing everyone to suggest other products at more reasonable prices. Plant material is down over 50 per cent, making supply almost impossible,” he says.

On top of pandemic-related slowdowns, plants, trees and shrubs are hard to come by due to unexpected cold snaps across the border. On the upside, his business has grown 137 per cent from last year and he says his biggest challenge is finding designers to fill his increasing need for talent.

“It feels like the demand for our services has doubled since pre-pandemic times,” echoes Mr. McMartin. His clients’ wish lists have shifted with COVID-19-era times, too. There are requests for patio bars that double as standing desks, garage renovations that serve as secondary hangouts and private workspaces and, of course, more requests for pools.

“The demand for them since the pandemic is massive. Many of the pool companies we work with are booked until next summer and they are telling us that there are big shortages for pool heaters, pumps and equipment,” he says.

Anticipating the collective desire to be outside, Muskoka Teak, an outdoor and indoor furniture store in Port Carling, Ont., placed its orders last September and it has increased its staffing to meet the demand this year.

“We started receiving our product three months early,” says owner John Philbrick. “We are looking forward to the [selling season]. I’m one of the few guys who can say ‘I can help you,’ and ‘yes I have it.’ "

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In fact, he’s just received a large shipment of umbrellas, a bestseller during the pandemic along with casual seating. “It doesn’t matter how awesome your deck or dock is [when] you can’t get comfortable or constantly have to leave to seek shade.”

His well-stocked store is a victory at a time when a COVID-19 outbreak at a foreign shipping hub can delay deliveries. Mr. Filbrick says freight can sit on a dock for six weeks and, “Walmart and Costco are kicking little guys like me out of the line.”

This local business is withstanding more than shipping headaches. Muskoka Teak also oversees and designs the production of its furniture and as a result it has watched all its costs rise, from raw materials to shipping, by 10 per cent to 15 per cent.

Despite the hurdles, Mr. Philbrick is sticking to the No. 1 rule in retail: The customer always comes first. “The important thing for us is showing our clients that they matter. Ultimately, when fulfilment expectations are not being met, you need to offset the client’s disappointment in any way possible through creative solutions or better service.”

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