A Hardscaped Backyard
When house hunters Misha and Kit Cooper went to look at a white-painted 1950s home in Pacific Palisades, California, they were faced with a scenario they hadn't expected: The backyard wasn't, well, a yard. While the lawn out front was large enough to kick around a soccer ball, the back of the house had no grass at all; two-thirds of the space was paved with brick, and the rest was occupied by a termite-infested, rotting wood deck. On the plus side, the entire perimeter was lined with mature ficus trees that gave the area a lush look and screened out views of close-by neighbors.
For a couple who love to entertain and spend as much time as they can outdoors, a fully hardscaped backyard would mean forgoing any plans for backyard baseball with the kids. "But we loved the neighborhood, and there was a lovely front yard, so we decided to make the best of the back of the house," says Misha.
They liked the look of the brick patio, which came with a log-cabin playhouse for the kids already in place. But the existing wood deck clearly needed an overhaul. Rather than try to rework its footprint, they would instead build a new one in the same place.
The Real Stuff
Working with builder Robyn Weeden, the Coopers had to decide on several key elements at the outset. For material, they wanted something weather resistant and attractive, and although friends suggested composite decking, the Coopers preferred real wood. After researching various hardwoods with a nice dark look, they ultimately decided to go with red balau. A plantation-grown Indonesian hardwood, it has a rich brown color they could maintain by treating it regularly—every six months, as it turned out—with a clear sealer.
Misha wanted a clean, contemporary design and asked Weeden to build both the deck and deck furniture for a uniform look. She also wanted to raise the deck so that it was on the same level as the French doors that access it. "The old deck had a funny step-down," says Misha.
Using the footprint of the existing deck but starting from scratch, Weeden set concrete footings, added a subframe of pressure-treated lumber, and then installed the deck boards perpendicular to the house, with a hidden fastener system.
Shown: Rosy brick covers a 20-by-30-foot patio area that includes zones for playing and casual dining.
Planning the deck-furniture layout just as one would furnishings for a room, the Coopers wanted a living area just outside the French doors and an eating area at the far end of the deck. Weeden built two pairs of oversize chairs—styled along minimalist lines, without arms—and an ottoman for the living area, all with thick outdoor cushions. He built a 10-foot-long table with a built-in banquette to span the back of the deck for the dining area. The slatted banquette has an ergonomically designed curved seat-to-back intersection and all-weather-fabric cushions for extra comfort. A set of dining chairs finishes off the dining area. "We can fit six or seven people on the bench alone," says Misha. "We use the deck as an extension of the house, for outdoor dinner parties or Sunday brunches."
Shown: The 17-by-20-foot deck, located off a first-floor guest room, is arranged like an outdoor room; a seating area is made up of two pairs of cushioned chairs and an ottoman that doubles as a serving table. Flanking the French doors are carriage-style sconces on dimmers for adjustable deck lighting.
Linking the deck to the existing brick patio, Weeden built a set of steps wide enough to make a comfortable perch for someone who wants to watch the action on the patio. To make that area more functional for entertaining, a grill with a brick surround went in near the living room door.
With two dining tables on the 20-by-30-foot patio (one adult-sized, one child-sized), the grill, and the playhouse, nobody misses the conventional grassy yard. "We have every playdate on the patio, it seems," says Misha, adding that the brick surface is great for her young children's wet play—splashing around in a water-activity table or a small plastic pool—because muddy puddles will never be a problem. Scooting around using ride-on toys and drawing with sidewalk chalk are other favorite patio pastimes.
Shown: The custom 10-foot table, the chairs, and the built-in banquette are screened from nearby neighbors by a stand of mature ficus trees. The banquette's seat lifts up to reveal handy storage bays for seat cushions. A square market umbrella protects diners from strong sun as well as falling leaves.
More Time for Entertaining
And for entertaining, the built backyard has proved to be a host's best friend, making it easy to set up tables and chairs without worrying about their legs sinking into grass. Best, with the Southern California climate making these outdoor spaces year-round favorites, there's the added bonus of less time spent mowing and more time spent lounging. Says Misha, "We're out here all the time."
Shown: A built-in grill with a brick surround was added a few steps up from the patio, right outside the living room. Stainless-steel doors hide the propane and extra grilling gear.
Deck Details Done Right
The thoughtful features of this deck give it a handsome, cohesive look and make it usable day and night.
Patinated-metal carriage lights cap the posts at the foot of the steps leading to the brick patio, providing both an attractive accent and welcome nighttime illumination. Wiring runs from the house, under the deck, and up the hollow posts.
On the well-traveled accessway from deck to patio, each stair riser has a discreet oil-rubbed-bronze domed light. Each light is configured to shine on the step below it, not in the climber's eyes.
Many homeowners choose to add a gate at the top of deck stairs to contain small children or pets. This gate opens onto a little-used side entrance; the design echoes the stair railings, with the same rounded handrail on top for comfort and safety.
A Stepped-Up Deck: Floor Plan
The footprint of the deck stayed the same, but it was elevated to remove a step-down that had been there. Now it's a seamless transition from French doors off the guest room to a sitting area, then on to the dining zone. A set of 5-foot-wide steps makes a gracious connection between the deck and the patio below. A built-in grill, several steps up from the patio and accessible from sliders off the living room, makes feeding outdoor diners a breeze.