By Bruce Zaretsky
Even these days, when new houses tend to be overly large and their lots tend to be quite small, it’s rare to encounter a situation in which there’s nothing in a backyard other than a basic patio. Indeed, there’s almost always something more to do in designing a backyard — and on many happy occasions, there’s actually a good deal to be done in integrating spaces beyond the patio into an overall design.
In our business, the areas beyond the patio are quite often the exclusive province of landscape materials – trees, planting beds and lawns, along with associated pathways, lighting arrays and the occasional sculpture. Our approach to these greener spaces will take another series of articles to address; here, let’s stick with built structures and focus on watershapes and fire.
Splashing Good Fun
In many cases, integration of watershapes (pools, spas, ponds and even fountains) with the main patio space is simplified by the fact that the watershape is directly adjacent to the patio, almost as an extension of the hardscape.
Fountains and ponds are primarily decorative, so the main drivers in placing and developing them have to do with lines of sight and defining pathways that lead to prime viewing areas on the patio and beyond. Pools and spas are a different matter, however, and their greater role in the use of the entire backyard space makes them the subject of special consideration.
If a pool is to belong to clients with young children who will doubtless be adept at doing cannonballs into the deeper parts of the vessel, for example, I will be very careful not to put a patio’s relaxation space near the splash zone. Nor will I be inclined to put cooking or food service or preparation areas in that vicinity, either.
I also learned long ago that designing patio spaces to accommodate a nearby pool involves much more than pouring the standard three-foot apron along with a wider lounging space where it’s most convenient for the masons. In fact, we now step back and carefully consider how the space will be used by everyone – the homeowners, their children and guests of all ages.
In doing so, we always do what we can to get the clients involved. Will they want to sit near or even dangle their feet in the water while children who need supervision are using the pool or spa? Or will some distance be suitable, perhaps with plants or low walls as sound barriers? Or do they enjoy the thought of being randomly splashed as kids play in the water and emerge dripping wet?
This is where we speak about such options as beach entries, sun shelves and other opportunities they have to get themselves close to (or even a bit into) the water while avoiding a soaking. It also opens discussions of placement, access and seating areas and of decks adjacent to the water — all of which helps us refine the design to the point where we know our clients will be completely happy with the results.
Lots of our clients are also interested in fire these days. Not long ago, the craving was mainly for the flames they put to work in outdoor kitchens, but now fire pits and fireplaces are literally the hottest items on many homeowners’ punch lists.
This is all great, but it’s yet another consideration that complicates our work in designing integrated patios and backyards. Fully constructed kitchens — complete with grills, fryers and pizza ovens to go along with sinks, refrigerators and full-service bar areas — are much in demand and offer a whole new range of factors that must be weighed and accommodated.
For starters, we need to consider access from the house and the main kitchen to the outdoor cooking area. This distance is particularly crucial in the cool Northeastern region, especially if the homeowners want to be able to grill outdoors through the fall and winter. But even in the desert Southwest, some consideration of convenience must come into play. And everywhere, sun, shade and wind issues must be factored in as well as the cooks’ comfort.
In addition, not all outdoor kitchens need to be that elaborate or even permanent. Indeed, many of my clients use portable grills, in which case I’ll design the patio with some sort of terrace near a convenient door. In summer, they can place the grill wherever they desire; for winter use, I’ve provided them with a nearby, relatively sheltered area in which to prepare their feasts.
Fire pits and fireplaces involve a different set of considerations, partly because they can be placed anywhere in the landscape, and partly because they serve more passive functions than do cooking areas.
Many of our clients want them to be part of the patio space. With a fireplace, my first considerations have to do with placement and the fact that these necessarily large features will block a portion of the view. That can be a good thing if the structure can be used to block an undesirable view, but sometimes it doesn’t work out that way, and good views must be compromised because of other key factors such as the wind’s prevailing direction and where the smoke will tend to go.
Helpfully, fire pits have lower profiles and can more easily be integrated into patio designs. Their primary function (beyond decoration) is to warm the space immediately around them, so they are often placed at the centers of seating areas. Still, you must consider wind and smoke issues in deciding where to place these elements in the landscape.
The Whole Package
As this sequence of articles has moved along toward this conclusion, it has occurred to me again and again that there are a glorious number of details involved in designing these spaces — including more than we have touched on here to any significant depth.
From the driveway and front entrance through to all of the elements that go into outfitting a backyard that meets all of my clients’ desires, I am constantly aware of one key issue that seems to drive the majority of my decisions: where these elements are all to be positioned in the landscape relative to the home and each other.
Above all else, I want these spaces to feel as though they were thoughtfully organized, the result being comfortable, usable areas unencumbered by too much (or too little) sun, shade and wind, and with free-flowing traffic patterns. These spaces, after all, represent large investments, and I want to be sure my clients are getting their money’s worth each and every time.