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Regrading a damp, shady and sloping backyard has transformed it into an attractive outdoor entertainment area

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While a gently sloping lawn may look pretty, a level garden generally offers more opportunities for use as an outdoor entertainment area.

The owners of this condominium, one of two in a historic mansion conversion on the edge of a tree-fringed city lake, had been remodeling the interior gradually and making changes to the backyard along the way. However, these small changes didn't address the main problem of a poor relationship between the house and its shady, sloping garden. A big, old oak tree grew on one side of the largely unusable grassy area, between the house and garage, and the area also had a view of the lake that was worth preserving.

Landscape architect Shane Coen and his team were asked to redesign the backyard so the owners could access and enjoy it more easily, and entertain guests. The owners wanted the area to have a modern look, with a minimal palette, but also to respect the home's historic context.

"The first thing that needed to be done was to organize the space to correct the gradient issues," says Coen.

However, raising the level of the garden meant the basement of the wood-clad house would be below ground level. To keep the earth and ground water away from the home, architect Deborah Everson designed a precast concrete platform and retaining walls. Piled with rocks and soil, it supports the level new lawn, and a grate between this structure and the house lets in air to ventilate the basement.

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Coen says once the garden was regraded, the various spaces had to be arranged appropriately for use, with regard to sun and circulation.

With the higher grade of the garden along the front wall of the home, three pairs of French doors, previously well above ground level, now open out onto a flat, paved terrace.

"The main terrace of the house now has a strong central geometry, with three parts working together – a central pool flanked on both sides by panels of lawn.

"And to catch the best sunlight, the pool and upper terrace are located away from the shadow of the house, and set against the backdrop of the renovated garage wall," he says.

A paved terrace, fireplace and pergola, which are now the focal point of the view from inside the house, were built out from the garage, which was renovated.

To the side of the house, at the lower grade of the old yard, is a small terrace, accessed by a flight of bluestone stairs floating on structural steel supports. Behind the stairs a dry stack stone retaining wall blends into the paving along the side of the pool on the main terrace. This wall draws the eye towards the lake at the end of the garden, behind the house.

"Colors ranging from blue to bronze add warmth, while random lengths of stone provide texture and variation," says the landscape architect.

For privacy, cedar fences on the east and north boundaries of the property were painted white to coordinate with the house, while a custom steel and cable fence ensure unobstructed views towards the lake.

The same style of fence has been used around the new rooftop deck.

First published date: 26 April 2011

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Credit List

Landscape architect Shane Coen, Coen + Partners
Architect Domain Architecture & Design (Minneapolis, MS)
Project team Deborah Everson; Lars Peterssen
General contractor Reuter Walton Construction
Landscape contractor Landscape Renovations
Paving Tompkins Bluestone, Hancock, New York
Outdoor furniture Blu Dot
Pool contractor Jerry Kalin, Olympic Pools