Botanical Decorators designed new stairs, a pool, spa, grilling area and pavilion in a tight space.
BEFORE: Botanical Decorators project showing the empty lawn.
In McHale's project, a 10-foot-tall retaining wall separates a terraced patio from the pool area. © JOHN SPAULDING
BEFORE: McHale Landscape Design project prior to completion.

Outdoor Vision

Landscape designers reveal what inspires them to go from the drawing board to a finished garden

It’s easy for homeowners planning a landscape project to come up with a wish list of desired features. What is not so easy is creating a design that will organize these amenities, flow efficiently, dovetail with the topography and existing architecture—and look good too. On these pages, two landscape pros share their views on how a design vision takes shape.

An Outdoor Playground is Born
Landscape designer Brian Hahn of Botanical Decorators stresses the importance of form and function when devising a successful outdoor design. Not only does the scheme need to be attractive to the eye, but it also needs to incorporate easy, logical circulation throughout. “In general,” Hahn says, “you want to focus on strong, clean lines and work with the shape of the property. You put in the main components first. Then, once you get the concept down, it’s about making it look pretty.”

He recently designed a Potomac, Maryland, landscape for clients who wanted to build a pool, pavilion and grilling area in a small, pie-shaped yard. Where there was once an empty lawn and no access to the yard from the kitchen, the owners now enjoy full access via new stairs and a landing, a grilling and dining area, a free-form pool and, at the other end, a pavilion with a sitting area and a stone fireplace. 

While the shape of the lot largely dictated his plan, Hahn made sure that the pavilion would serve as a dramatic focal point from the kitchen and basement doors leading to the garden. “When you come out of both spaces,” he says, “you look across the pool and directly at the pavilion. You always want to have sight lines from one space to the next.” 

If space is limited, Hahn says it’s best to make it feel as big and open as possible. On larger properties, however, designers create  “transitions” from one area to another. “In larger lots, you can have multiple defined spaces and vignettes and can meander from one to the next,” he says. 

Hahn relates that while some clients entrust their landscape professionals to come up with the best vision for their project, others have pre-conceived notions that can be hard to change. 

“In those cases,” says Hahn, “we need to do a good job communicating why it’s better to do things differently. Usually, once clients see the plan and the scale, they understand why we did what we did.” 

Smooth Collaboration in McLean
For landscape architect Daniel Robey of McHale Landscape Design, the vision for a project is inspired by a combination of factors, from the topographical constraints of the site to the style of the house and the way the homeowners live. “The best situation is when the homeowners have a general idea of what they want, then allow us to figure out the details,” Robey says. “That way, we have the flexibility to design as we go and work around any issues that arise.”

This was the scenario during a recent project in McLean, where the owners had just purchased a home on a sloped, two-acre site. They were updating the house and knew that they wanted extensive landscaping with a pool, but nothing more specific. “I did initial design sketches and got an idea of the general direction they wanted to go in,” Robey explains. “I asked questions about their lifestyle to get clues. There wasn’t a grand vision beforehand.”

Due to the slope and location of the septic field, the backyard required terracing. A 10-foot-tall retaining wall separates the patio from the 18-by-50-foot pool, which was sited on an axis with the kitchen—a logical connection because the wife is an avid cook and it is the hub of the home. A space beside the pool was left empty while the homeowners decided what kind of structure they wanted there; eventually, they built a conservatory that does double duty as a greenhouse and pool house with a kitchenette and fireplace. 

In the front yard, Robey designed a patio that echoes the curved stoop and portico at the home’s entry. Pennsylvania bluestone stepping stones create an informal path from the street and allow a visual connection to the backyard, where the pool coping and patio are also made of bluestone.

“The key is flexibility,” Robey advises. “The beauty of the landscape design/build process is that the homeowner can be in the driver’s seat. Everyone needs to go into it with an open mind.” He adds, “On almost every job, the homeowner teaches me something.”