charlestown house project
This Old House TV's Charlestown house project
As in many neighborhoods that surround the historically significant cities of the country, private outdoor space in Boston is usually modest and inconspicuous. What precious opportunities for light and air that these spaces afford are often hard to visualize, and the restraints of an urban setting can seem overpowering. Issues of privacy, proximity to neighbors, orientation and security compound the challenge. Nonetheless, I've found that with every restraint I encounter in these lackluster courtyards, there is an equally rewarding solution. In Charlestown, landscaped courtyards are the urban "diamond in the rough." With a little forethought, these cramped spaces can be transformed into intimate gardens that give sanctuary on a hot summer day. The initial step in designing the courtyard on Bunker Hill Street was an inventory of the existing site conditions and restraints. Sandwiched between the house, a rear walkway and a neighboring firewall, the courtyard is a L shaped parcel that slopes from front to back following the steep grade of the side street. This three-foot drop along the rear of the courtyard would dictate the construction of a retaining wall and the location of two proposed patios, one for each apartment, at different levels of the slope. Fencing would be required for both privacy and security. This is a lot to consider within only 550 square feet. The courtyard design needed to take these restraints into account while also providing an enjoyable garden setting. To this end, I designed the courtyard as an outdoor room. Entering from the street, homeowners will walk through an arched arbor and continue along meandering walkways that connect to the patios as well as to the staircase to the second floor and the first floor entrance. The upper patio material, sited to allow water to drain away from the house's foundation, is made of colored impressed concrete, which comes in a variety of surfaces and colors and can be formed to meet any patio design. Plant pockets along the perimeter fence soften its impact, while traditional details help reduce its scale. A retaining wall winds around the second patio to accommodate the change in grade. The wall serves as seating and will allow plantings to be terraced, creating a more dramatic effect. Undulating walls and walkways in a small yard can soften the space and provide a variety of planting areas. The walls and walkways are made of colored, pre-cast concrete, a durable, good-looking alternative when your budget prohibits traditional paving material. It's available in an assortment of styles and colors and is tumbled to give it more of a natural effect. In an urban courtyard, planting is the ultimate weapon in adding scale and softening walls. Mature plantings, in particular, give a sense of permanence and tame uncomfortable proportions, such as the neighboring three-story brick wall. I've espaliered (trained and attached) plants and climbing vines to accent and minimize the fence's impact. Plantings should contain a good mix of evergreens, deciduous flowering shrubs and broadleaf evergreens. I like to blend sizes and varieties so the garden will look beautiful throughout the year. In this case, because of the courtyard's northern orientation, I made sure to allow for varieties that will thrive in shaded conditions. In a dense neighborhood like the one in Charlestown, open space is precious. No matter how small, a well-landscaped courtyard can provide residents with a small oasis of green in an urban ocean of brick and concrete. It just requires a bit of imagination and forethought.
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