A Landscape Design That Looks Like It “Just Happened”
The style of this Great Falls Virginia landscape design playfully blends constructed and unconstructed elements to achieve an overall natural look that is both tailored and raw.
The design follows the natural slope of the site—which drops about ten feet along the length of the house. The landscape architect’s plan establishes multiple outdoor rooms throughout changing elevations that are connected by gently stepped walking paths.
After the construction of our house was complete, the back yard was basically a blank slate. –Noelle S.
A Blank Slate
When the owners built their home, construction ended at the back door. As can be seen in the upper right section of the BEFORE photo, a set of temporary wooden steps descends to a blank landscape. Except for some gigantic hollies and a few scraggly trees at the perimeter of the property, it was a blank slate.
The homeowners wanted to have a back yard that was “natural looking—as if you were walking into nature in a secluded area.” They wanted the landscape design to unfold unselfconsciously, to have soft edges and more curves in it than angles. They wanted it to have an unstructured look and feel.
A Carefully Constructed Accident
The sloping lot was a challenge. The homeowners wanted a walk out from the basement level to the pool. The natural grading of the property allowed that. But the trick was to construct a way to the pool from the uphill side of the house—a ten-foot drop in elevation.
Many of the architects that we met with recommended a very sharp, defined concept, with a noticeable staircase and drop from the upper to lower levels of our back yard.
The Surrounds landscape design is all inviting pathways that traverse the grade. Long shallow steps and gracefully turning paths disguise elevation changes. There are no direct lines to any destination and the changes in grade are so gradual as to feel effortless.
It doesn’t feel like a drastic jump from the patio level to the pool level or from one area to the next.
Landscape architect, Howard Cohen, fashioned the site to reflect the clients’ love of the natural environment. The unselfconscious appearance of the landscaping belies its structural complexity. Four patio areas connected by meandering walkways cleverly incorporate the changing elevations on the property. Changes of grade are subtle in some places, more dramatic in others.
The design begins at the uppermost elevation with an outdoor kitchen and dining patio. A few steps down an easy grade is an outdoor living room with fireplace and a nearby spa fed by a waterfall. A gently winding set of stone steps leads down hill to the swimming pool patio and another waterfall. From there, low grass steps take you from pool deck to the play lawn beyond where the kids can kick a soccer ball around. It is worth noting, too, that the location of each use area is tied to sun patterns of the site. The uncovered outdoor kitchen gets morning light and is then shaded by the house against the hot afternoon sun. And the pool area gets full afternoon sun.
We are able to use the fireplace year-round. Making s’mores is a favorite summer evening activity for us.
Moving and Shaping the Landscape
An important item on the client’s wish list was to have a level playing field where the kids could toss a ball around or practice lacrosse. Cohen’s landscape design accomplished this by moving earth from other spots on the lot and using it to level an area just below the pool deck. Instead of a retaining wall to hold the flat area against the slope, the design employs buried boulders and plantings to gradually ease the downhill direction. So, even there, the landscape design plan affects a low key, natural looking transition rather than something constructed that might call attention to itself.
I told Howard that I like the natural look of boulders and he just went with it. My husband laughs and says, “We have Great Falls in our back yard”.
Designed landscape features mimic the sort of rustic spontaneity you would find on a hiking trail in the mountains:
- Walkways naturally traverse grades and navigate around obstacles like hiking trails do.
- Constructed materials are mixed with unconstructed materials taken from the surroundings
- Pavers and natural stone retaining walls abut raw uncut boulders
- Plants and grasses spring from the cracks between stones.
Standing at the back door of the house, you see in the distance, a “mountainous” outdoor fireplace flanked by a simple waterfall that drops into a spa. This landscape is, of course, a fabrication, carefully constructed to achieve a convincing effect. It works. We accept it because the details are true. Most importantly, the architect’s design revised and re-shaped the landscape in such a way as to fulfill the homeowners’ vision.
Do you have a landscape design dream for your property? Contact our landscape architects. We’d be happy to talk about it with you.