A few decades ago, an invitation to a backyard party probably involved a hot dog thrown onto a charcoal grill, a seat at a splintery picnic table and, if you were lucky, a dip in a swimming pool. But these days, increasingly design-savvy and busy homeowners — whether in the country, suburbs or city — crave exterior “rooms” that extend their entertaining options, with outdoor flat-screens, Food Network-worthy kitchens and lagoon-like water features.
“I spend so much time inside at work; when I’m home, I love being outside grilling for friends or watching TV on the patio with my dog,” says IT professional John Boyle, whose Capitol Hill back yard has both a kitchen and a “den” with a fireplace and TV.
“Outdoor entertaining has gone to a new level, with all the good-looking all-weather furniture, sophisticated appliances and decks wired for sound,” says landscape architect Morgan Washburn of Botanical Decorators, an Olney, Md., firm whose projects often involve outsize grills, built-in fire pits and artfully shaped swimming pools.
Still, the best accessory remains the open air. “As soon as guests enter the pavilion, their blood pressure drops,” says Michelle Morse, who hosts family, friends and the occasional charity bash in a stone-and-fir gathering space at her Emmitsburg, Md., farm. “There’s just something about enjoying other people’s company in the breeze and sunshine.”
Small space, big impact in the city
John Boyle’s Capitol Hill back yard is narrow, long and, frankly, not very big. But thanks to a clever, space-maximizing design, the area behind his 1876 rowhouse lives large with a pergola, outdoor living room, kitchen and ample space for celebrations.
“John had an inventory of things he wanted in a very linear area,” says landscape architect Mark White of GardenWise in Arlington, Va., who helped Boyle achieve his alfresco vision, which cost about $120,000, in 2013. “John likes to entertain, so he wanted it to function for events large and small.” And like many city dwellers, Boyle needed a space to park his car securely.
To create both living space and a parking space, White took advantage of the skinny lot’s grade difference, using an upper section just off the house for lounging and TV-watching and, a few steps down, turning a lower-level space into a paved parking spot/kitchen/party room, shut off from the alley by a rolling security gate. “I just move my car out and set up a table when I have people over,” says Boyle. An outdoor fridge and gas grill let Boyle hang out with guests while barbecuing or mixing cocktails. “I do mojitos with mint or white sangria with rosemary using plants grown in my herb garden,” says Boyle, pointing to a small plot of thyme et al. to one side of the parking spot.
Beds with easy-to-tend perennials line both sections, and Boyle adds annuals each year for pops of color. “We tried to make it lush by combining structural plants like boxwoods and espaliered Little Gem magnolias with low-maintenance grasses,” White says.
A western cedar fence with vaguely Asian lattice trim encloses the yard and breaks up the two spaces; cedar also forms a shade-producing upper-level trellis that, come spring, is covered with climbing antique roses. White varied the hardscape flooring to break up the “rooms,” putting down a terrazza-like blend of pea gravel and concrete in the parking zone/kitchen and installing a diagonal combo of bluestone tiles and bricks in the den, which Boyle has outfitted with mod love seats. On the upper level, a fireplace made of local Carderock and a ceiling fan keep things comfortable from spring to frost. “My life is so busy — this yard is where I unwind, either with my dog, Allie, or by throwing a party for friends,” Boyle says. “It’s my favorite place.”
A dip into nature in the suburbs
Decades ago, when she was a young lawyer, Karen Walker created what she calls a “mock hot tub” in her townhouse back yard. “Really, it was just a kiddie pool I filled with warm water,” she says. As grown-ups, she and her husband, John (also a lawyer), wanted to incorporate water into their backyard oasis. “Our jobs keep us so busy that it’s hard to get away, but out here, it’s an instant vacation,” Karen says.
Though the back yard in Alexandria, Va.,was steeply graded and abutted protected forestland, landscape architect Morgan Washburn transformed the heavily wooded, sloping zone into a verdant outdoor living room. The extensive project, completed six years ago, cost about $415,000.
The showpiece is a heated, free-form swimming pool with an infinity edge and an attached hot tub. The tulip poplars and oaks in the forest beyond the fence and water coursing over the edge of the pool summon a sylvan atmosphere.
Irregularly shaped Pennsylvania flagstones and rugged Western Maryland boulders outline the pool, further softening the area. And to complement the woodsy backdrop, Washburn added sweetbay magnolias and climbing hydrangeas. “They cloak the walls of the house and make it feel like part of the garden,” he says.
The pool lures the couple’s two grown daughters when they visit and serves as the inspiration for summertime parties. The Walkers fire up the built-in grill and make burgers while guests lounge on the lanai (the bottom part of a two-level deck off of the house) or around the table in the flagstone “dining room.” “It’s nice that there are so many different areas,” Karen says. “It means there are adult zones and kid zones.”
There’s one element everyone seems to delight in: a 50-inch TV mounted to the house near the outdoor dining area. “We’ve had people over to watch Nationals games and movies,” John says. “You can even see the screen from the pool.”
A grand pavilionin the country
From their home on a 200-acre spread amid the rolling hills of Emmitsburg, retired technology executives Michelle and Bob Morse overlook a luxe cabin modeled after a 1700s farmhouse, two old red barns, a man-made pond and a spa house devoted to exercise and indoor entertaining. But from spring to fall, the couple, who also own a home in Potomac,, Md., are most likely to be throwing a party in the open pavilion across from their stacked-log main house. “It’s just wonderful to be outdoors, to get the nature and yet to be protected from the elements,” says Michelle.
The challenge, says architect Jim Rill, of Rill Architects in Bethesda, Md., who also designed the main house and spa house, was to make sure the million-dollar project didn’t look like it had been uprooted from a park. “It needed to tie into the other buildings on the property, and to be something rustic and elegant.”
He built a 1,400-square-foot, gable-roofed structure of fir beams from Canada and fieldstone from Maryland. “Many of the rocks were taken out of the pond or from the property, which adds to the contextual nature of the building,” Rill says. The ceiling soars to 18 feet, lending a breezy vibe. The panoramic views include the pond, the Appalachian Mountains and lush native plantings.
At the back of the pavilion, Rill installed a rock wall that holds a rugged fireplace as well as two large charcoal grills and nifty copper dry sinks that, when filled with ice, keep drinks cool. A 72-inch TV slides down from a gable with the press of a button. “When it’s cooler, we’ll watch football and drink hot cider by the fire or have taco night with the family,” Michelle says.
The space can also go big: The Morses have held charity functions for 200 people, and “we even had a Fourth of July picnic with rows and rows of picnic tables in here,” she says. “It’s such an open plan, which means we can be very flexible.”
Jennifer Barger is a freelance writer in Washington.
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