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Backyard Battles of the Sexes

By Scott Cohen

11-21 cohen art -- smallWhen couples get together to plan their backyards, sparks frequently fly. Once they really dig into the process and start defining their individual desires, they find all too often that their wish lists are actually worlds apart.

As an outdoor designer, I’ve worked with couples who’ve run into these sorts of vision-related snags at some point in the process, and it all boils down to the fact that, up until the design process actually begins, they’ve never communicated with each other (or anyone else, for that matter) about what’s required to make them both happy.

I don’t want to go overboard with generalizations, but in my experience, men usually place an emphasis on fun, action and entertainment. For them, bigger is typically better – especially when it comes to their barbecues, screaming sound systems and gushing waterfalls. By contrast, women tend to focus on the cozy, relaxing and intimate with respect to everything from waterfeatures and soft night lighting to outdoor fireplaces and fragrant planting beds.

These divergent starting places sometimes bring out the worst in homeowners as they seek to define their ideal backyards. But with a little understanding, knowledge of available options and some good old-fashioned give and take, I’ve found that bridges can be built, compromises struck and a project developed that will bring couples together instead of driving them apart.

A Rowdy Roster

In the first of this pair of articles on dealing with these backyard battles of the sexes, I’ll define the sorts of issues and features that can become wedges in the decision-making process. Let’s start by looking at the sorts of things men and women look for when it’s time to discuss the latest outdoor “must haves.”

[ ] Outdoor fire features. Among all of the amenities that have become popular in the past few years, few rival fire as a key component of exterior environments. Whether it’s fireplaces or fire pits, these features make bold, artistic backyard statements and almost always become key gathering places for couples, families and friends.

For their parts, women tend to envision see themselves relaxing in the glow of a crackling fire with their spouses, sipping glasses of wine and discussing plans for, say, an upcoming vacation. For theirs, men often see themselves gathered around a blazing fire – hanging with the guys, smoking cigars and telling jokes. Women think fireplace; men think fire pit.

[ ] Waterfeatures. Many of our backyard projects include pools and spas, but increasingly they are also including additional waterfeatures of various sizes and descriptions. As with fire features, men and women tend to think about these special amenities in different ways.

When women are considering waterfalls, for example, they commonly envision gurgling streams or soft cascades that generate soothing sounds, help conjure relaxing moods and create settings so peaceful that butterflies and hummingbirds will always be part of the picture. And men? They generally picture something more akin to Niagara Falls, with lots of big boulders and crashing water and maybe a shelf where they can sit and get a deep-tissue neck massage courtesy of the torrent.

[ ] Outdoor kitchens. These exterior cooking spaces have become immensely popular in recent years – and yet another skirmish line in backyard battles of the sexes. In my experience, women typically want counter space and lots of it along with amenities including built-in cutting boards with through-the-counter trash receptacles and built-in stainless steel drawers. In some ways, it’s as though they want their outdoor kitchens to be fully realized projections of the features they like best indoors.

For men, by contrast, it’s all about the barbecue. Sure, they might yearn for pizza ovens, but what they really want is the biggest grills they can find. Indeed, some men will pick a barbeque so big with a lid so big and heavy that the lady of the house will barely be able to lift it. (Perhaps this is a way for men to ensure that they will be the undisputed kings of the grill?) Their muscular backyard dreams also tend to include fully equipped beverage centers where they can perform bartending duties in style. (Think Tom Cruise in Cocktail.) What man can live without through-the-counter beer taps or stainless steel, drop-in coolers with trays to hold assortments of lemons, limes, olives and cocktail umbrellas?

[ ] Sound and entertainment. Here we find yet another interesting battleground. Today’s outdoor entertainment is about much more than just dining and lounging, and we’re designing plenty of our outdoor kitchens to include large television screens. Sound systems aren’t far behind, with men campaigning for outdoor surround sound systems that really rock and women appreciating sound but seldom wanting to see the speakers.

To sum things up, women tend to buy quite readily into the concept of outdoor rooms as direct extensions of interior spaces – outside and different, but not separate from the indoors with respect to mood and attitude. Men, by contrast, tend to perceive the outdoors as different from the indoors – rowdier places where fun times prevail.

So how does a designer help to bring these battles to reasonable conclusions? We’ll get to that next time.


Scott Cohen is president and supervising designer of The Green Scene, an outdoor design and construction firm based in Northridge, Calif. He is also the author of books on a range of subjects related to watershaping and landscape design. For more information, go to www.greenscenelandscape.com/scottcohenbooks.html

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