After going untended for a mere 20 or 30 years, the property of a Bethesda couple needed a facelift—at least that’s why they initially hired McHale Landscape, Inc. Once they began the process, however, the owners’ vision for their overgrown yard—and their wish list—grew exponentially. Soon, says Will Smith, the landscape architect on the project, it had become a full-scale renovation.
Smith started the way most landscape architects do: with a schematic drawing of the landscape plan. “A schematic or preliminary drawing gives us a feel for the layout of the design, so you can see the hardscaping and beds, etc.,” he says. “It’s not the details but an overview of what the design will be and how the elements will relate to each other.”
Instead of refurbishing the rundown old pool, Smith installed a new one farther from the house to take better advantage of the three-acre property, creating what he calls “a destination pool” with a pergola on its far end as a focal point. A cutting garden for the wife and a bird sanctuary for the husband, plus a dry creek bed for collecting rainwater, a waterfall and a flagstone path round the perimeter of the yard, completed the job.
A Federal-style house in Chevy Chase had a similarly overgrown yard when Bob Hawkins of Hawkins Signature Landscapes first encountered it. “It was a great lot,” he recalls, “but it had no distinctive characteristics for entertainment areas or pathways. We essentially had to blow up the yard completely to create a pathway system, patio, cook center, fireplace and pergola—the whole gamut.”
The complications of the job were compounded by the fact that the house had an historic designation, which meant lots of hoops for Hawkins to jump through with the zoning board. For example, no trees measuring more than 3.4 inches in circumference could be removed, so Hawkins had to transplant them. Similarly, boulder slabs had to be used for steps because they were deemed “non-permanent.”
Throughout the process, Hawkins relied on communication with his clients to make everyone’s goals clear. “I tell people, ‘I’m interviewing you as you’re interviewing me,’” he says. “That’s how I find out what they like and don’t like.” After that, “I come out with schematic plans that allow me to show them the process step by step.”
Because he finds that most clients are overwhelmed by details, he does this in stages, first showing them a quick overview design. “A loose schematic overview helps people get the feel for what we’re doing,” he explains. “They can start to visualize without getting exposed to so much information that it gets lost.”
He later creates detailed schematics of individual elements in the design—the significant areas that will be the priorities of the project—to show to clients. “It’s easier for them to understand when they see those smaller sections instead of the whole plan in detail,” he says. “It’s less overwhelming.”
For the landscape of a custom home in Vienna, Virginia, Josh Kane of Kane Landscapes had his hands full. “We had to work around a septic system that was in the center of the backyard,” Kane says. “Project plans were very important to us because they showed us the nitty gritty of what we were doing.”
However, these were not the plans he showed his clients, who saw instead an overall schematic that reflected all their requirements for the project. “Most people just want to know where things are going,” Kane says. “They don’t want to see whether we’re using 45- or 60-foot pipes for drainage; they just want to know where it’s draining to.”
The wish list for the project was long. The couple, who love to entertain in large numbers, wanted a grand backyard with a pool and adjoining Jacuzzi; a spacious pool deck of pavers accommodates lots of guests. An outdoor pavilion houses a fireplace and a full kitchen complete with Viking appliances, a 53-inch grill, electric and smoker ovens and more. Kane did the job in phases, the first being the pool construction and the second, which happened after the homeowners moved in, being the construction of the outdoor room. He also had to contend with a protected tree area and a steep slope towards the back of the yard that required major retaining walls.
According to Kane, extensive jobs such as this one are more prevalent now than they were five years back. “People are going more all out,” he says. “Since the economy changed, people are staying put and investing more in their homes.”
With a proper landscape plan in place, they are well on their way to enjoying an outdoor space that’s uniquely tailored to their needs and lifestyle.