july - september 2016
This project was conceived and constructed for a family in South Austin in 2016. The clients moved from San Antonio and left behind a mature garden space. Post-construction, their new single-family spec home sat on a corner lot that was a sloping, heavily sodded blank slate. They wanted their entire property to be unified in one design language and to maximize the use of the three small outdoor spaces: a front, side, and backyard. The landscape design proposal we created for the 3,865 square-foot outdoor space focuses on function, resilience, and sustainability.
While those characteristics are unique to the site, there is a trend in Austin to leave very little outdoor space as they fill the lot to the impervious cover limit. In a neighborhood crowded with similar houses, nearby windows overlook yards, making privacy seemingly impossible. These small yards have very few square footage available to create usable space, so they remain undesigned—an afterthought—and are simply sodded with turfgrass. This urban density does not address the yearning we have for open space, where vegetation is sorely needed to soften the orthogonal, hard lines of the built environment. This niche of small-scale outdoor living spaces is often overlooked by landscape architects, and we feel our design elevates the profession by providing a level of detail, sophistication, and thoughtfulness usually reserved for larger high-end residences, commercial projects, or public green spaces.
We implement a strategy that both reacts to and directs the choreography of the users as a primary tenant. We began the design process by simply asking how the family envisions using the space. They requested additional outdoor living spaces for playing, entertaining, and lounging. A sloped site does not feel comfortable as a place to be occupied by human activity, so in order to create a usable space that feels private overall, we created a level core surrounded by a planted buffer, which is applied to each space on the site, thus unifying the design. The benefits of a planted buffer are to disconnect from neighbors, soften a fence line with vegetation, and encapsulate spaces to give a room-like feel. Users know how to use an area once it is framed to the scale of a room in a house if it is intended to be used as a similar function. The planted buffer also acts as a transitional zone because it softens the collision of the rectilinear language of the home to the more irregular axes of lot lines, streets, sidewalks, and driveways. It also acts as a transitional zone for the topography because the yard is constrained on all sides by existing grade; the site cannot be reasonably leveled or terraced all the way to the property line from a budgetary and aesthetic standpoint. This zone allows the level core to end at a reasonably safe height, then meet up with existing slope several feet from the surrounding fencing. Spatially, bamboo is the best solution for dramatic privacy in small yards. This solution is able to tolerate the inundation of water from overflow from rain events and need slightly more water than the other plants on site. The shape of a bamboo plant is well suited for limited space as they grow very tall without taking up too much width. It truly acts as a green wall, obscuring fencing, streets, and housing beyond.
The materials indicate how a space can be used while providing minimal maintenance. A resilient space requires less water, is freeze and drought tolerant, moderates erosion, and its materials hold up to the elements for years to come. More specifically, the surface treatments applied throughout the site are zoysia turfgrass, 5/8” Texas basalt gravel, and 1-2” native riverstone. This low-water grass variety is used in the front and side lawns as it is barefoot-friendly and lends itself well for unprogrammed play, replacing the previous over-used catch all application for sod. Gravel is installed in areas that are intended to be walked on but can also act as mulch to inhibit weed growth and retain moisture for informal planting strategies, similar to wood mulch, but requiring much less annual maintenance to top-dress. Riverstone is used on areas with slope for erosion control and, because it is not suitable as a walking surface, it subconsciously tells a user that the planting bed does not double as a path. Plant choices indicate circulation by strategies of compression and release, framing spaces and revealing openings for path. Vegetation is either native to central Texas or adapted; no invasive species are specified so that plants stay only on site. The adapted plants pay homage to the cultural landscape, contributing to the composition of species that provide seasonal contrast and textural interest. The planting beds are also intended to be taken on by the homeowners as stewards so that they may augment the plant selection and allow the spaces to evolve.
The front yard includes a level terrace on the sloped site, providing the largest play area for the two young boys. In order to create a barrier from the street, the yard is edged with a planted bed. On the opposite side of the entry path, a raised planter with an ornamental tree provides a focal point for the kitchen window to create interest both inside and outside the home. The side yard outside of the fence retains its natural slope and is densely planted to slow the flow of water and help with erosion control via root balls once they become established.
The side yard is a suitable scale for entertaining or dining as a family. A steel and cedar arbor provides a structure to grow vines overhead and to give shade to the deck. The cedar slats establish a rhythmic continuation of the living room ceiling, guiding the eye from indoors to the exterior, further emphasizing the connection to the outside spaces.
The backyard is used an extension off the main bedroom, generating a private space for relaxation in a lush garden oasis. A low site wall facilitates leveling the space and provides additional informal seating. A simple post and beam structure is a flexible framework to allow for the use of a hammock or net swing for the children. An irregular pattern of limestone pavers provides unprogrammed hardscape for seating and barefoot play space. Since the outdoor space is shared with vehicles under a carport, a partition of hedge variety of bamboo in a raised planter makes it feel less utilitarian and more ensconced by vegetation.
Concerns for adverse impacts on the environment heavily inform our sustainability strategies. The project is installed with locally-sourced materials for the native plants, pavers, gravels, and soils. Steel is made of pre-consumer scrap and remnants that are also recycled at the close of the project. Drainage plans encourage rain water to percolate on site; where overflow water sheds, materials are used to slow surface water, encourage infiltration, and reduce erosion, minimizing the impact on stormwater systems. The use of plants with low water requirements will mean lower overall usage from the already-efficient drip irrigation system, which is especially important when city-wide watering restrictions are in place. Using native plants is essential to the sustainability of the landscape to create diversity and support wildlife as habitat.
The family enjoys the blending of the interior and exterior through the addition of level outdoor living spaces, and the surrounding vegetative screening add a framed view of a much-needed organic texture. This project successfully represents a thoughtful design strategy applied across the site to make it more usable and private, while overlaying sustainable and resilient vegetation and materials.