The Back (Yard) Story, Part One

By suburban or country standards, my back yard is TINY. But owning even the smallest patch of open-air space in the city is a blessing, especially if your husband has a four-season hobby of smoking large cuts of meat. This townhouse came with its own wee patio, big enough for a grill and smoker, plus plenty of seating. Finding it felt like a coup. 

Of course, like the rest of the place, the yard was a hot mess when we moved in—plastic furniture and broken tiki torches, a falling-down fence, and a tangle of cables overhead. Only half of the yard was bricked; the remainder was dirt and rotting leaves. 

Within the first year, we teamed up with neighbors to remove an overgrown elm tree in the adjacent alley. The branches had become intertwined with the utility lines, posing a safety hazard, and the roots had begun to worm their way into the side of our house. Once the tree came down, the sagging fence that was leaning on it sagged even more, so it needed to come down too, and my handy hubby had to construct a new fence over a long weekend. (Note: There are few things scarier than your husband coming home from Home Depot with a rented truck, yelling "I got an auger!" and dumping six bags of concrete mix on the front steps so he can set fence posts.)

Our next step was to fill in the patio with 300 square feet of similar-looking brick found on Craigslist. I learned how to use sand to fill gaps between bricks, and Dave learned how, er, challenging it is to neatly finish a nowhere-near-square patio in a geometric fashion. Some cheap outdoor furniture from Ikea finished off the space. 

  The back yard post-tree removal, fence replacement, and brick work. Naturally, we're going to tear down all of it. Sigh.


The back yard post-tree removal, fence replacement, and brick work. Naturally, we're going to tear down all of it. Sigh.

That interim backyard stayed with us for about 5 years. We hosted barbecues, threw a sandbox out there for our kids, and generally ignored all future plans for landscape redesign. Every now and then during the first few summers, a root from the old elm tree would sprout a new branch, and bright green leaves would poke up through the gaps between our basement floorboards, right next to the laundry machine. I started to call the zombie-tree Fred. "Fred's back!" I'd announce as I transferred the wet laundry to the dryer. We entered and exited the house via a small back entry we called the doghouse, because, well, it looked like one. It was't pretty. It was fine. 

  The yard just before the last round of building. Doghouse on the left, markings for the soon-to-be-excavated zone on the right. Everything in this picture is broken.


The yard just before the last round of building. Doghouse on the left, markings for the soon-to-be-excavated zone on the right. Everything in this picture is broken.

About six months ago, however, it came time to renovate our kitchen and build out our family room below it. We needed to tackle both rooms together, since new plumbing and electrical upgrades meant running pipes and wires in between the two floors, and we made structural changes that impacted both rooms. And since both rooms were adjacent to the exterior, it meant it was time to tackle that project as well.

The up side to designing two rooms and a back yard at once was that we could really think through how we wanted to use and move between the three spaces. And so we hatched a plan for indoor/outdoor living. A new door would lead from the kitchen onto a small balcony, where we'd have a small bistro table--the perfect place to have a cup of coffee or cocktail while watching the kids play in the yard below. A spiral staircase would lead down to the lower level, and we'd open up the garden-level wall, excavate a portion of the backyard, and install a wall of sliding doors in that former basement room.

Our inspiration pics for mood and function included these:

  Love those black-paned windows and doors.  Source:  Ben Herzog Architects


Love those black-paned windows and doors. Source: Ben Herzog Architects

  Living the indoor/outdoor life.  Source:  Dwell


Living the indoor/outdoor life. Source: Dwell

  Balcony above, sitting area below.  Source:  New York magazine


Balcony above, sitting area below. Source: New York magazine

  Love that the garden level steps right out to the patio.  Source:  Gardenista


Love that the garden level steps right out to the patio. Source: Gardenista

Working with a landscape designer in our neighborhood, Andrea Nilsen, we formalized the plan (read: we told her all of the features we'd like, and she made it into something that's actually feasible and legal to build, not to mention pretty). She created these drawings:

  Aerial renderings of both levels, the balcony and the garden level.


Aerial renderings of both levels, the balcony and the garden level.

  Perspectives. 


Perspectives. 

Since the computer-generated mockups don't reflect finishes—they're more about layout—I also created a moodboard to show how I'd furnish the space. I want it to feel very Boston, yet vaguely French at the same time, since our house is a Second Empire Victorian. And of course I'm a sucker for a cabana stripe, but I'm planning to incorporate it in a muted gray so it's not so retro-resort.  

Patio mockup

All in all, it's a pretty big leap from where the backyard started, and the space is far from this finished look. But the plans are jazzy, aren't they? We've made some progress in the construction, and I'll post pics and updates on that on Tuesday. For now, I'm keeping my eye on this mood board, i.e. the prize. Because without it, there's no way I'd be able to endure the chaos it's taking to get us there. Stay tuned...