From a distance, there was nothing exactly wrong with the fifty-year-old steps from the driveway leading up a steep slope to the Franks’ front door. There were lovely plantings (although slightly overgrown) in this small front yard landscape. There was the impressive Zelkova tree that holds a beautiful shape year-round and turns a striking golden orange in the fall.
On closer inspection, there were signs of wear on these original brick steps that could too easily become a tripping hazard. Plus, this was the exact same brick retaining wall and walkway featured in other neighborhood homes with sloped front yards. Aesthetically, the overall impression was somewhat perfunctory in that the design met the steep slope head-on rather than gently working with it to establish an easy path from street level to the front door. For safety and aesthetic reasons, it was time to make a change.
The main question was, would a more natural look be possible here? For Janet and her husband, there were some challenges along the way, but a safer, more naturally beautiful front walk turned out to be quite possible. “Before, I was a little nervous going down the stairs because there was no railing and the bricks were uneven,” Janet says. “We would use the garage door more to go in and out.”
Now they use the beautiful new front walk to enter and exit their colonial home, “I sit with friends and enjoy the vegetation at a bench on the new landing, one of many places to pause and enjoy the space.”
Just a Small Front Yard Landscape Project? Try Getting Past the Code and Zoning Hurdles
When working on a small yard landscape project, you might think it is just a matter of coming up with a design you like, moving some dirt around, and building up the space with the hardscaping and plants called for in the design. But it’s not quite as simple as “Dream it, design it, done!” There were some challenges here that made for a longer timeline than the Franks had first anticipated.
They spent time developing a design that included a flagstone pathway and a large landing with a built-in slab bench. Plantings were to be numerous, largely native, and complimentary of the beautiful Zelkova tree. By October, the design was approved by the Franks and ready to go.
Then the wait began. Because of the age of the home and because the property was in a resource protection area (RPA), multiple county offices were involved in the approval process. At first, the Franks were told they could not expand the hardscape because that would exceed the limit for impermeable surfaces. This meant they would have to remove a portion of the driveway and a side pathway before they would be allowed to add new hardscaping. Eventually, the RPA office concluded the project could be classified as “routine maintenance”. This categorization allowed far more freedom from restrictions. Once the Surrounds team navigated these bureaucratic challenges, the go-ahead was given, and the real fun could begin!
From Red Brick to Natural Boulders
Homes of a certain era, not just here in Metro DC but throughout the mid-Atlantic region were built with red brick. Lots of red brick. For the Franks, it was too much of a good thing. The deterioration of the front walkway was the perfect excuse to take this paved part of their small front yard landscape in a totally different direction aesthetically.
What was the alternative? Some neighbors had opted for stonework, but the Franks were not sold on that idea. And when the Surrounds team presented their initial ideas, Janet Frank was skeptical. “When Howard (landscape architect Howard Cohen) brought a design that centered around boulders, my initial thought was, how will this fit in with the neighborhood? But Howard pointed out how the red brick had deteriorated over time. These boulders would be here to stay.” When the Franks’ daughter visited on vacation and saw the plans, she thought they looked amazing. With everyone giving the thumbs up, it was time to get the project underway.
The results went way beyond the Frank’s expectations. “It’s so remarkable to see how stone and plants and soil can come together and make something so extraordinary,” Janet says. “I enjoy watching the changes based on the sunlight, the shadows, the weather. I’m outdoors a lot, and I just love watching the changes that happen on an hourly basis.”
Surprises Along the Way
When redesigning a landscape, surprises are bound to come up. In our work with the Franks, we found a major issue at the foundation near the front entry. “I came back from work one day and the Surrounds workers were looking at a huge cavernous hole at the foundation level beneath the foyer closet floor,” Janet recalls. “I had wondered why it was always so cold inside that closet!” A structural engineer was called in and made sure the foundation was sound before moving ahead. “This kind of thing is exactly why we hired Surrounds,” Janet says.
Then there are the pleasant surprises. For this project, one of those surprises was the landscape lighting design. “I wasn’t thinking about this aspect of the new landscape. They up-lit into the Zelkova tree and they down-lit from the tree down onto the steps,” says Janet. “ I can’t wait to see it in the fall because the canopy turns orange, golden orange. It will be so magnificent!”
Being there to manage problems as they arise and bringing sparks of joy into the process is what you should expect from your landscape design partner.
Enjoying a New Path to the Front Door
The Franks are enjoying their new front yard walkway, and appreciate the work that went into arriving at this point. “A neighbor asked if we felt we paid a fair price for everything,” Janet says. “Absolutely! Not only did I get a new landscape, but I got my questions answered, I got people who were responsible and took care of my property during the construction process, and I got a design that was second to none from an award-winning firm.”
“I got trust and reliability, which are priceless.”