Maximizing a Small Urban Yard
January 15, 2019
The story behind The Urban Yard at the Seattle Box.
Take a walk with me through this awesome yard project. I'll talk you through all the details, but first — as most of my stories go — there’s a bit of a backstory here, so please indulge me as I paint a picture of how this unique project actually came to be. I happen to know a great deal about this one, as it is actually my own yard.
Back in 2012 when we remodeled our house, we knew that we also wanted to finish our small urban yard. As we dove deeper into the house project, the “while we’re at it why not also...” plague hit us — as happens to many people when remodeling — and the scope of work just kept increasing (that LEGO room didn’t start out as tricked out as it looks now). Consequently, our bank account and access to loans kept decreasing. So, we wrapped up the house and left the front yard ravaged by construction equipment.
For years, people would walk by our house and stare at the torn up, muddy gravel pit that was our driveway, and then cast their gaze over the jungle of weeds that was our “garden.” We tried to keep the vision in our head alive every day as we walked through the disaster to our front door.
Unfortunately, of course, the vision of what that yard would be was different for me and my husband, Chris. Try as we might, we could never reach agreement on a few major items in the yard. He also, quite surprisingly I think, didn’t seem to enjoy when the conversation led to me asking him, “Did you also go to architecture school?” Shocking, isn’t it? Tragically, while we had finally figured out how to pay for the yard, we couldn’t actually figure out what that yard would be.
Let me explain further with a bit of a side story. I love landscape architecture. I’m obsessed with it and it is one of my life goals to actually become a landscape architect. When we made the decision at Board & Vellum to bring landscape architecture into the fold as a service, I have never been so excited. I could design outdoor spaces all day long, but the reality is, I have a giant lack of knowledge when it comes to plants and keeping them alive. So, I knew that we had to hire someone objective to help push through the initial concept, as nothing I could say would convince Chris that my design was perfect and was going to work. He needed an outside perspective, so we made the call to hire a professional for some early schematic design services.
After speaking with a bunch of landscape architects to see who might be a good fit for our project (and realizing during this process that I secretly wished that Board & Vellum offered this service), we hired Scot Eckley to conceptualize a few design options for us. Chris and I each had our wish lists of things we wanted, and we let Scot and his talented team come up with some options that weren’t what we had already considered, too. We also were hopeful that he could help solve one of our biggest dilemmas: what to plant along our south property line.
Having someone present us with a variety of options and ideas was incredibly valuable to help break through our impasse and actually move forward. Scot’s idea for a raised deck in the front of our house was a concept we could both get behind, which allowed us to move ahead on our own and provide an opportunity for me to design the rest of the yard’s hard surfaces. While I’m obviously partial to the services we offer at Board & Vellum, I can’t say enough great things about Scot and his team.
So what the heck did we want in our yard? We have a small urban lot of under 4,000 square feet and we wanted a patio, driveway, fire pit, private garden, privacy from neighbors, an outdoor cooking area, a dog run, a hot tub, a play area for the kids, and probably a zillion other things. Making it all work meant that I had to consider every single available square foot as precious and work through the loopholes of the local zoning code. Good design takes time, and this was definitely one of those situations where I’m glad we were patient.
We couldn’t be happier with the result. Like any great project, this one came out awesome because of the killer team we assembled. I may love designing hardscapes, but I know I have no ability to pick plants beyond specifying dark or light green. Fortunately, the gentlemen at Withey Price Landscape & Design were outstanding at specifying and sourcing plants and organically laying out the stonework in the garden. The team at Manos Construction labored through a miserable winter to carefully build a yard, deck, and fence (with notoriously difficult-to-work-with ipe wood, which was likely tougher than they would like to admit). So with all that said, here’s what we ended up with.
The key to the yard was a series of low decks (no more than 18” above the gently sloping front yard to comply with the zoning code) that create outdoor rooms. The main area has a gas firepit from Solarus with some outdoor seating around it. A series of concrete planter walls help define the space and an adjacent privacy fence helps keep it sealed off from the street. Bamboo at the street side helps block the view of taller buildings across the street.
Separated by only a few steps is the upper deck, and a couple of steps down from the firepit, the entrance to the sidewalk (which jogs around some planters for privacy). You can see the corten steel planters which form the edge of the deck and a wall from the street. I love the look of this metal and, more importantly, it takes up almost no space, which was key to making this all fit together.
At the upper deck, I designed a cantilevered bench. This is a great spot to lounge casually with your arm draped across the seat back and watch the people passing by. I was determined not to let the front yard be a closed off compound with no view of what was happening on the sidewalk. This area is pushed just far enough back and up that it provides privacy while allowing some view. A carefully selected and positioned Japanese maple lit with festive lights helps form a canopy under which to enjoy a meal.
Tucked off to the side of the existing front porch is an area for grilling. It includes a gas BBQ and some carts for food prep. Surrounded by planters for vegetables and herbs, this is a cozy and comfortable spot to grill dinner while people gather just steps away.
Looking back to the lower deck, you can see the fence at the driveway beyond. There’s also an existing dogwood tree, which we carefully danced around to ensure it wouldn’t die. (You wouldn't believe the insane planning and calculations I did to ensure that the deck framing missed the tree roots while not exceeding 18” in height above the soil. It’s the kind of thing that reminds me of the value of hiring a crazy person like me to get the details right!)
Here’s where the two main areas of the yard come together. Our dilemma was that we needed to maintain the driveway, but didn’t want to actually give away that much space to parking. We decided to create a scored concrete driveway that looks like a patio but also functions for cars. There’s a manually operated gate at the street, as well as gates which divide the driveway from the garden if we want that separation. In the above image, you can also see that there’s a bike shed made to look like a fence next to the house. We tucked some acrylic paper lanterns in the tree for a festive lighting element, and squeezed in some narrow white planters along the driveway to house bamboo for additional screening.
This private little garden is what we see from our living room and used to be a spot for overflow parking. It is now one of my favorite spots in the yard. There’s some great stonework here and some awesome bamboo along the property line to provide for screening from the neighboring property.
Looking back from the little cottage, you can see the view of the driveway beyond.
When the gate is closed, this garden is a little, private oasis.
Moving to the public side of the yard, we wanted to transition from the more-urban areas south of our house to the more-residential-feeling areas north of us. Where I pulled back the upper deck for seating, I carved out an area for a tree and some landscaping. We also left some space along the sidewalk for planting to help soften the lower concrete wall as it met the street.
The fence itself is fairly straight forward: a 1x4 ipe wood fence mitered at the corners. We let some plants tuck between the gap at the bottom to help spill over and soften the concrete wall.
For the gate, I designed a custom piece that was fabricated by the awesome team at Architectural Elements. The back panel is painted the color of the house and is visible through the art piece which represents our family tree. It also helps break up the harsh lines of the metal planter and the concrete and wood fence adjacent to it.
At the rear of the house, we modified a design that we had built when we first moved in over a decade ago. Custom planters help provide barriers at the steps and create a lush backyard.
Abundant planters — including a custom over-sized one to follow the steps built by Architectural Elements — help frame the space and provide options for planting and spatial organization.
Overall, this project ended up being even more amazing than I had hoped for. This connection to the outside has drastically increased our living areas during the warmer months, and given us something awesome to look at and walk through in the colder months. Space is at a premium in urban
areas like Seattle, and this has been an successful experiment in proving that even tiny lots can have great outdoor spaces.