Home & Design

Enjoying the Great Outdoors

Fall is an optimal time to start planning next year's landscaping projects

Petro Design Build transformed a lackluster yard into a lush
oasis complete with a spa, a fountain and a stone fireplace.

It's autumn in the DC area. The crisp, cool air is filled with falling leaves and the heavy perfume of tiny osmanthus flowers—and landscaping and construction crews are everywhere.

Fall is definitely one of the best times to begin landscaping projects, whether large or small, simple or complicated. If fences are erected, walls put up and patios laid throughout the fall and winter season, then planting can begin in the spring. Successful projects, however, always begin much earlier.

The following two projects shed light on how to go about planning and executing successful outdoor renovations.

Tranquility in DC

Kathleen Litchfield, President of Petro Design Build, Inc., says clients first "have to think out the project" during the design phase. "It's so easy to change your mind on paper," she says.

Litchfield sends clients a detailed questionnaire before she schedules the initial design consultation. It covers everything: the number of children and family pets; where the trash cans are located; the styles and colors the clients prefer and the materials they simply do not want in their yard. A key question is how long the homeowners plan to stay in the house. "That determines where your energy should go financially," she says. "If you're going to sell the house in a couple of years, maybe you should think about curb appeal."

Petro Design Build develops a couple of different design scenarios, presents sketches to the clients, then works with them to make sure everyone is "on the same page," as Litchfield explains. Planning is comprehensive and detailed. Drainage issues must always be considered, along with the installation of outdoor electrical wiring and outlets and underground pipes for lighting and irrigation.

Litchfield believes it's always important for landscape designers to carefully consider the inside of the house before tackling the space outside. In a recent project in Northwest DC, Litchfield collaborated with Bethesda-based interior designer Karen Snyder of Interiors of Washington Ltd. to make sure that the interior and exterior plans worked together.

A rear window with three vertical panels was replaced with a huge picture window that frames the entire yard. Living room windows that looked out on an unattractive side yard were removed. In their place, French doors were installed that open to a small stone terrace with a curved stone seat wall and a rose garden just beyond it.

In the back yard, a timber wall and steps were torn out. Now, a bluestone wall and steps lead to an arched stone pedestal designed to hold just the right piece of artwork or statuary. The patio that stretches across the back of house is constructed of flagstone laid in a rectangular pattern. An insert of two-foot square paving stones laid on the diagonal creates a "carpet" for the dining area.

On the second floor of the house, Petro replaced the master bedroom windows with another set of French doors and added a small French-style ironwork balcony so the client can sit outside on temperate mornings with a cup of coffee and survey the garden below. A fiberglass spa was nestled into one side of the patio, complete with a faux stone panel on the bottom that lifts off for access to the mechanisms inside.

A shell-shaped bronze fountain was also built into the patio, as well as a fireplace that enables the area to be used in chilly weather. Petro hollowed out part of the wall next to the fireplace for wood storage, but the family pet has appropriated the space as a doghouse.

According to Litchfield, the client's main priority was to have "a relaxing garden space to unwind in, almost like therapy." The entire project took about five months to complete, but through careful planning in great detail, right down to the remote control that turns the spa, fountain and lights on and off from inside the house, this client has exactly the kind of garden she wanted.

A DC Landscape Transformed

Don Gwiz, vice-president of Lewis Aquatech, believes that the most important element in successful landscape design is an open dialogue with the client. "It takes good communication and a client who is understanding," he says, "because there is always change, there's always evolution to the plan that's eventually developed."

Gwiz has no preferences about the timing of projects because, he says, "There is always a downside to construction. If you start in the fall and work through the winter, there's a lot of stop and start based on wet weather and adverse cold weather, so you've got a construction site that sits idle for a longer period of time. If you start in the spring and it's a typical DC spring, it rains every other day and the site is a mud hole. If it's summer, it's dry and you can get the work done consecutively, but the client wants to use the product. So there's a downside to every season, and the clients need to pick the one that suits their family lifestyle the most."

Like Petro, Lewis Aquatech also develops detailed design plans for any project, but Gwiz says a design "is never finalized" until the client uses the space. A good example, he says, is a recent project in Northwest DC where the homeowners decided to upgrade their current property instead of moving. "They decided to do a facelift and make it more inviting and user friendly," says Gwiz.

The house was built into a sloping lot, with a spacious stone terrace outside the main level. Steps led down to a wide lawn. The existing pool, running parallel to the house, was just beyond it. The clients wanted new stone terraces and a replacement for the wooden deck.

Landscape architect Andy Balderson of Donovan, Feola, Balderson & Associates, hired to design the outdoor project, came up with a much more ambitious plan.

Balderson and Aquatech proposed an upper terrace comprised of two levels, a secondary "pool deck" terrace below, and a new swimming pool that would run perpendicular to the house with a disappearing back edge. After two meetings to discuss various options, the clients decided to go ahead with the plan, but they also decided to build an addition onto the house to provide more space inside.

Gwiz worked with the builder to set construction guidelines and timelines, and the work then got underway. The plans were modified to relocate the pool on a central axis with the new addition. Behind the back edge of the pool, which drops down seven feet to a lower level, a seating area was created so that the clients can sit and watch the waterfall.

During the design process, Gwiz likes to accompany his clients to various sites and showrooms to select materials and to see projects that are akin to their new designs. "If you take them on a field trip," he says, "it helps them visualize what's going to happen in their back yard and helps them get other new ideas." Gwiz showed this particular client a negative-edge pool tinted Mediterranean midnight blue, a flagstone waterline tile used in pools, a flagstone patio with bull-nose flagstone coping and a yard with multiple-level terraces. The homeowners decided to use these materials and elements in their project.

Still, it was only after the upper terrace was in place that the clients realized how much space was available just outside the kitchen door. They decided to add some of the other items they'd seen on the field trips, including an outdoor stone fireplace and an outdoor kitchen, complete with grill and refrigerator. The clients are now considering the addition of a pergola with ceiling fans overhead. Gwiz says that projects "always take longer than anticipated because of field changes and unforeseen conditions." But he says that as long as the quality of the work is excellent and you keep clients informed, "the end product is well worth the wait."

"It takes good communication and a client who is understanding," says Don Gwiz, "because there is always change, there's always evolution to the plan that's eventually developed."

Like his clients on this project, Gwiz says a lot of homeowners in the metropolitan region live in areas where prices have increased dramatically over the past several years. "They can take the home equity," he says, and "allocate it to new patios, trellises, and other outdoor amenities to make the space more modern."

This DC residence added bubbling built-in spa when they
remodeled their back yard and pool.

The project incorporates a negative-edge pool
and a spacious flagstone patio.

Water from the pool cascades seven feet down to
a lower level, which has its own seating area.

Once the project was underway, the clients also
decided to build an outdoor kitchen and fireplace.

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