A narrow lot with a steep grade change presented unique challenges when the homeowners decided to expand the living space from the interior to the back yard. Their vision materialized seamlessly with the help of Botanical Decorators.
By Sally Benson
When viewed in plan, it is evident that the design makes good use of every square inch of space on a challenging urban property. The result? A blend of hardscape and lush plantings that creates a welcoming conversation area and green retreat, extending the interior outdoors.
The Wesley Heights neighborhood near American University in Washington, D.C., hosts stately homes, mature trees and sometimes tricky terrain. Many properties are situated with little easement between them, limiting the amount of room to maneuver a lawn mower, let alone larger landscape equipment. So when the owners of a Colonial-style home decided they wanted an outdoor living room, the design team at Botanical Decorators, Olney, Md., knew that access would be a major challenge. A 14-foot grade change at the back of the house added to the puzzle.
Landscape designer Brian Hahn explains that the property was undergoing a near-total overhaul. “The house went through a major renovation,” he says. “It was gutted from basement to upper level and completely redone. The homeowner was reconfiguring the whole back fa<0x00E7>ade of the house, installing large French door systems” that open to what was to become the outdoor living room. “The new French doors really opened up the house to the outside,” Hahn continues. “His main goal … he wanted the fireplace and the whole [backyard] living space to feel like an additional room off the back of the house.”
Working closely with the homeowners, Hahn and his team developed a plan that would turn the little-used space into a multipurpose showplace that serves both as family retreat and entertainment venue. The patio, anchored by a statement fireplace, functions as an al fresco living room and welcomes the family for intimate outdoor dining as well as conversation and relaxation. There’s room, too, for entertaining, and as many as 200 guests at a time have moved comfortably between the rooms, both indoors and out.
The upper level garden and lawn – positioned 14 feet above and behind the patio and fireplace – provide a green room that is used by the family’s children and dogs. Ample gardening space is available for the homeowners, who enjoy growing perennials and flowers for cutting, and the addition of magnolias and shrubs offers the ideal place to relax and unwind.
The property totals about a third of an acre – not much space in which to fit such amenities – and every available square foot is put to good use. But in order to make the transition from neglected back yard to year-round retreat, a lot of intricate planning and hard work was required.
The existing backyard structures needed to be demolished and removed, but space was so tight that the driveway was the only location available for a Dumpster. Because of the narrow passage from front yard to back, demolition was done by hand – and materials hauled by wheelbarrow.
Extremely limited access didn’t deter the Botanical Decorators crew from turning a so-so patio into a showcase outdoor living room that’s used year-round. Some of the stone was recovered from an existing wall and reused, but all material was transported by wheelbarrow and hand-placed.
“We demo-ed an extensive existing patio and 9- to 10-foot retaining walls that were already existing in the back,” Hahn says. “We wheelbarrowed it all through the front yard, down the hill, and we dumped the wheelbarrows in the Dumpster that was sitting on the driveway. We had a ton of masonry demo to do, and when we did the redesign we pushed the walls about 3 feet into the hillside. So we had to remove hundreds of yards of soil; we did all that by wheelbarrow, all by hand.” In total, more than 75 tons of material were excavated and removed from the site.
Once demolition was complete, materials for the new design were hauled – again, by wheelbarrow – to the back. About 110 tons of stone, steel, concrete and soil were imported, as were all new plants.
As for the equipment employed? “Wheelbarrows and ball carts for the trees; that was pretty much it,” Hahn emphasizes.
The master design called for a patio with a fireplace, plus necessary renovation of the retaining wall. To tie the upper level of the property to the patio and to provide the homeowners easy access, a series of steps leads from the patio, along the side of the fireplace and up to the lawn and garden space.
Renovation of the retaining wall, in which the massive fireplace serves as a focal point, took place while the weather was cool. “It took about two months of masonry reconstruction, and we did that during the winter time,” Hahn says. “It was actually a good time to have a project that was going to need a little bit longer to do, where the client wasn’t feeling as rushed to enjoy the nice weather. So the masonry construction took about two, two and a half months, maybe a little bit longer, to get the big part of the construction done.”
Some of the original material proved useful in constructing the new wall: “It was a Carderock quarry stone, so our mason was able to salvage some of the original stone work and clean it up,” Hahn explains. “We rechiseled it and some of it matched the current stone that we put in.”
To the left of the fireplace, the company installed a banquette that encourages more intimate visiting. Constructed of ipe, the surface is supported by steel lintels that are tied into the wall.
Photo © Roger Foley Photography
The stone used is native to the area. “It’s quarried about 10 miles from the job site,” Hahn says. “It has a lot of blue tones, with a little bit of a mix of brown, and it really works well with the Pennsylvania bluestone that we used [in the patio], as well as the with the minicobblestone.”
All work was performed by the company’s stonemasons, and both the wall and fireplace are a hybrid dry-stack construction. “That stone was hand-chiseled,” explains landscape architect Steve Wlodarczyk. “It’s set in a dry, open mortar joint. There’s a block wall behind, and it’s concrete filled. Here’s what we do: Instead of putting a mortar joint between the stones, all the mortar joints are behind the stones, and then all the little gaps that are left, we chisel really small stones and fill them. It really shows off the colors in the stone without having a perimeter of mortar around each one, so you don’t have that interference of the mortar joint. You can see the clean colors of the stone.”
Above and behind the fireplace, the homeowners enjoy a lush, green getaway. But providing a comfortable and easy way to get there was a real challenge. “Dealing with a 14-foot grade change that close to the house, and getting a very comfortable transition, was tricky,” Hahn says. “Working with five steps, a little walkway, two more steps, then another little walkway and then maybe a series of six to seven steps – getting that to feel comfortable and almost effortless going up to the upper yard was a real challenge in the limited space we were dealing with.”
Planting pockets created in the transitions help to soften the hardscape, at the same time giving the impression that the structure is a natural part of the slope.
With such a significant grade change in such a small space, drainage had been a problem; standing water tended to settle where the conversation area is now situated. “We put patio drains in, and there are weep holes and there’s a lot of gravel behind the walls,” Hahn says. “[Water] weeps out and goes to the patio drains. We did pretty much everything in a 4-inch tile that transitions to a 6-inch tile, and we piped it out toward the front of the yard off to a riverstone bed that goes to a natural swale. The drainage was controlled pretty well; when it rains, it all drains and dries out within a 12- to 24-hour period, no problem.”
Working closely with the homeowners, Botanical Decorators created a livable space that serves as an extension of the home throughout the seasons. “They use it year round,” Hahn says. “Unless there’s a Polar Vortex. On a warm winter day, they clean it up … there are a lot of evergreens back there, and the hydrangeas have a lot of nice winter interest, so it still has a lot of impact during the winter time. And, of course, you have the fireplace.”
Acting as the outdoor room’s anchor, the fireplace lures residents and visitors from nearly every room. “Where we positioned that in the yard,” Hahn points out, “it’s viewable from all the new doors, and all the rooms on the back of the house have great views right to the center of the fireplace. We wanted it to draw people outside and really give them a reason to go out there.”
The upper lawn area provides a space to relax and a place to garden. The homeowners’ children, as well as their dogs, make good use of this lush green getaway.
Photo © Roger Foley Photography
The amenities are part of the design, giving extra meaning to the company’s name: Botanical Decorators. “When we’re designing a space,” explains Wlodarczyk, “it’s really important that we think about how the client is using the area, the type of furniture that we’re going to be putting in the space. It’s not just design in a vacuum; it’s really designed with the idea that it’s going to be used.
“[The clients] mentioned that they wanted a conversation space, a comfortable area in front of the fireplace with a large coffee table,” he continues. “The coffee table is from Restoration Hardware, one of their larger ones; it’s slightly over 6 feet long and nearly 3 feet wide. The scale of it was perfect. But they wanted a really comfortable conversation area right in front of the fireplace, and that was kind of the driving force. The layout with the sofa and the deep-seated chairs … we actually have two ottomans that can be moved around really easily and can be used almost as side tables, and people can sit on them in a larger gathering. It’s the kind of conversation area that we do a lot, with the ottoman, the two deep seats and the sofa; it really lends a lot of flexibility.”
A smaller, more intimate conversation space was added to the left of the fireplace. “They wanted a little area,” Hahn says. “We were kind of limited on space, on where you could get a small area for a dining table. So where the stone wall returns back, we [placed] metal lintels and we did a banquette idea with ipe decking for the bench. All of that is cantilevered with steel lintels underneath that are actually tied into the wall for support.”
Wlodarczyk adds, “We’ve been there for a couple of parties, and people just love to sit out there. It’s a very comfortable space.”
Above it all
The small plot that stands at the top of the property had been of little use, but Botanical Decorators worked closely with the clients to blend hardscape into usable lawn for the family’s children and dogs. There’s also plenty of room for adults, with ample gardening space and a few cozy corners in which to escape.
“For the dogs and for the kids, we did an upper lawn area,” Hahn describes. “We did a nice, pretty level lawn; we couldn’t get it exactly level because we were battling grade change, but we developed a little escape up there.
“The client likes to garden,” he continues, “and wanted to be able to play around with some perennials and stuff up there, so we did a little bit more perennial garden up in that area. They had a request for some Annabelle hydrangeas up in the upper yard, and they really like sweetbay magnolias, so in the upper corner near the Adirondack chairs we created a grove of three sweetbay magnolias underplanted with the Annabelle hydrangeas because they love [those] for cut flowers.”
Whether it’s occupied or not, the hammock, strung between two mature trees, gives a feeling of oasis to the space.
Planting for permanence
The property benefited from existing plantings, including a few mature trees that provide pockets of shade. “There was one large oak tree and one large existing hickory tree, and we preserved those,” Hahn says. Placement of the fireplace was not a problem: “We actually limbed the shade trees up pretty high, so there’s no threat, no concern at all from that standpoint,” he explains.
Planting pockets on either side of the fireplace are filled with seasonal color, while the top of the wall supports more permanent displays of Drift roses, an all-gold variety of Hakenochloa (Japanese forest grass) and hydrangeas.
The homeowners requested a few favorites, in addition to the Annabelle hydrangeas. “They really like the Shademaster locust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis ‘Shademaster’); they had those in the past and they wanted to get a quick-growing tree that’s going to give them a little bit of shade in the afternoon,” Hahn says. “They like hydrangeas, they like roses; they mainly were driven more by the color palette. They wanted more of the corals and they definitely were going more toward kind of a pastel.”
Hahn specified a ‘Pink Chimes’ Japanese snowbell (Styrax japonicus ‘Pink Chimes’) for a corner of the wall above a banquette. “Those are really nice, because when they flower, they flower below the leaf, so they’re great when you plant them on top of walls and you’re looking up at them.” In spring, the soft pink blossoms reflect the pastel palette requested by the homeowners.
A series of steps leads from the conversation area to the upper lawn, scaling a grade difference of about 14 feet. On the one-third acre site, the location and configuration of access from one elevation to another required intricate planning and exacting installation.
Photo © Roger Foley Photography
“We brought in a bunch of ‘Green Giant’ arborvitaes (Thuja ‘Green Giant’) as well,” Hahn adds. “[It’s an] evergreen with a kind of wavy, ferny foliage. All the plantings in the back, except for the existing large trees, are all brand new. So the entire planting plan in the back is all brand new. Since there was so much hardscape that we were putting in, we were trying to get as many different textures and colors to create a lush feel back there to soften up some of the hardscapes.”
Bringing the indoors outside also brings the family together, and very happy clients now use the open-air living space for dining, for relaxing, for conversations … for nearly everything.
“It truly does feel like another room of the house,” Hahn says, “and that’s really what we were driving for. The connection with the three main rooms off the living space of the house; all of them have direct connection out. The flow … you couldn’t ask for a better flow from inside to outside on a property.”
Although the fireplace functions as a focal point-positioned so that it can be seen from all vantage points at the back of the house-the plantings soften the scale and hard lines of the stone. The homeowners requested the palette of pastels and asked specifically for the young ‘Shademaster’ honeylocust (Gleditsia triacanthos var. inermis ‘Shademaster’). The designer recommended the small Styrax japonicus ‘Pink Chimes’ because the soft pink flowers appear beneath the foliage, providing visitors on the patio below with the perfect view of its spring floral display.
Photo © Roger Foley Photography
Despite the obstacles, Wlodarczyk says it was well worth the work. “I would say, anytime someone looks at a property and thinks, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s nothing you can do with it. It has a really steep hill, or there’s some kind of challenge … ‘” he comments. “With the right masonry and the right creative design team in place, you can take what would seem an absolute negative and turn it into the curb appeal advantage of making the property just a beautiful place.
“So I would say not to be discouraged because it may look like you have an unending challenge,” he advises. “That’s the challenge, but when you do it right, it’s very rewarding.”