Spa, Bench Seating, Fire Pit–How a Small Backyard Can Have It All
Updated: Feb 15
If we’ve said it once, we’ve said it many times–you can make a big design impact in even the smallest of spaces. In today’s Richmond, VA landscape design challenge, we take a small backyard and maximize creativity. Many times homeowners with small yards think that their possibilities are limited. Our goal is to help them realize that with smart design and some ingenuity, even the tiniest backyard spaces can become everyday retreats, perfect for relaxing, unwinding, and even entertaining.
The 2D rendering phase of any project is important. However, it is uniquely important when it comes to small spaces. In small designs, use of space is paramount. A great 2D rendering acts as a guide for the client, allowing them to see how square footage is being used and giving them the opportunity to change it.
In a way, great 2D renderings remove some of the initial limitations homeowners might feel when thinking about the size of their yard. They can see that everything they want is possible. And not only is it possible, but there is more than one way it can be achieved.
The first design concept, Concept A, plays with space and materiality to create a design that is both seamless and functional. Ample seating and living space was especially important to these clients. They also wanted to make sure that there was room for a firepit and outdoor spa.
In Concept A, homeowners step out of their backdoor onto a raised outdoor deck. Immediately, they are greeted by an outdoor living and dining area. The deck is laid out in a backwards C position, anchored in the middle by a brand new outdoor spa.
To maximize space, we have used the spa as an anchor point for other aspects of the design, as well. Branching out from this new spa is both the new linear fire pit, as well as an additional bar to accommodate stool seating. Behind the long firepit is the deck, fully outfitted with comfortable furniture to allow guests to cozy up to the fire and engage with guests in the hot tub at the same time.
Moving around the back of the spa, along the far perimeter of the yard, the raised deck ends in a series of stairs that lead down into a paved landing. These pavers begin the visual and material separation of the raised living space from the other half of the yard.
In the other half of the space, we’ve kept things simply. A long series of concrete steppers allow room for green turf between them and act as a parking pad for a vehicle. Our clients then step off of these concrete steppers into a larger turf area, perfect for pets and kids. From here, the homeowners can exit the space toward the front of the home.
While the first concept we presented, Concept A, creates a space that exists on two main levels, Concept B takes this separation even further. This is very intentional. When you don't have a lot of horizontal square footage to work with, your vertical square footage becomes even more important. Thus, a great way to create dynamic visual interest as well as clear division of space is to place different design elements at different grades. This is well documented in our Concept B design for this Richmond backyard.
Stepping out of the home, the clients again find themselves on a raised deck. The deck in this design, however, has been divided at different levels into separate spaces. Off the home, it is separated from the second half of the yard by a long seat wall, which provides seating to the far half of the brand new dining space. From the dining area, the homeowners step out of the dining space to the lower deck via a series of stairs.
Along the perimeter of the lower deck is a floating bench and new bar seating. Along the far edge of the wall is more bench seating, including handy built in storage. Anchoring both the upper deck and lower deck area is the spa, centering and softening the space.
Stepping down again from the lower deck, the homeowners find themselves on a brief concrete stepper landing. From here, we gave them the option of including a turf or a parking pad. Finally, the clients exit the yard along a series of diagonally positioned concrete steppers–a reversal of the second half of the space seen in Concept A
Revisions and The Final Design
After seeing both designs, our clients were excited about how much could be done in what seemed to them to be a very small space. Ultimately, they loved elements from both designs. They were excited about the multiple grades shown in Concept B, but preferred the general layout of Concept A. After some discussion and revision, we finished with a slight revision of Concept A that included tweaks and elements presented in our secondary design.
As you can see, in the final design our homeowners step out onto a deck that is broken in several places by a series of stairs which change the elevation. The upper deck allows open space for seating, as well as accommodating a long bar beneath the kitchen window.
From the upper deck, the homeowners step down onto the lower deck, passing by the remaining central spa, fully equipped with the bar seating seen in Concept A. However, the firepit has been moved to a more central location on the lower deck, giving a more insular, cozy feel to this section of the space.
From here, the homeowners step down and off of the large deck on a rectangular square of pavers, perfect for additional seating or a more formal dining area. The remainder of the design is true to that presented in Concept A. A line of linear steppers is broken up by turf. This turf blooms into a large green area, leading the homeowners out of the yard and around to the front of the home.
Once the design and layout had been finalized, we were excited to move into the next stage of design–3D renderings. Often the most exciting stage for our clients, 3D renderings are our first opportunity to bring the client’s new backyard to life before their eyes.
While 2D is important in small spaces to show what can be done, 3D helps make this real. It gives homeowners the frame of reference to realize that, not only is the proposed design possible, but it will look great once fully brought to life.
In this series of 3D renderings, you can really see how the multi-level deck works to bring both separation and movement to this small space. Stepping out of the house onto a landing, the clients continue down into their backyard space. Simply this initial action creates separation between the indoor and outdoor living experience. The light color wood suggested for the deck keeps the space brighter and more open, creating a larger feel even on this small footprint.
Another design choice in this space was the continuity of the decking material between both levels, as well as in features such as the seat wall and perimeter of the spa. This allows the upper and lower deck to flow into each other, suggesting connection even amongst the more physical separation of stairs.
Continuing the light wood up onto the perimeter seat wall and spa works to open up the space more, giving the visual illusion of more space underfoot. Using a new material would have the effect of bringing the perimeter of the space further in, and creating the impression of less overall square footage.
From overhead, you can really see how this design gets the biggest bang for its buck. A central point is easily located in the brand new spa. From the center, in all directions, there is functional and distinct space. From a cozy corner firepit to two separate bars, to space for formal outdoor dining, wasted space does not exist in this Richmond landscape design challenge.
We are big believers in working with a space instead of fighting against it. Here, the spa opened up an opportunity for what is known in pools as a kind of swim up bar. In these renderings, you can see how it creates more functional space, but also serves a design purpose, tying together the otherwise at odds spa and dining area.
Above you can see how the continuous light wood allows for a large seat bench without breaking the eye’s movement throughout the space. The effect is more functional seating while keeping things feeling and appearing as open as possible. The new corner fire pit allows for a more insular, cozy moment in an otherwise continuous space.
Finally, the perimeter design of the yard should be as dynamic as the space it contains. To help create more visual interest, a series of three OutDeco panels are set off a large brick wall. On either side, tall fences create privacy, while greenery and planter boxes add a softer, more natural touch.
Small Backyards Have Big Potential
At the end of the day, we want our clients to know that having a small backyard space doesn’t mean you should be excluded from great outdoor design. In most cases, you incorporate everything you’re looking for without compromising on style. All it takes is working with designers and a team that realize small spaces hold huge opportunities.
At Water and Earth, we look at every challenge, big and small, as a chance for us to get creative. We love finding and unlocking the unique design potential in every homeowner’s backyard. In this Richmond, VA landscape design challenge, a small backyard was given a major upgrade. By using tiered decks, continuous materiality, and making creative use of the space, we were able to give these homeowners a backyard that was big on function, style, and fun.
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