Packing It All Into the Landscape Plan
A line on a page (or on the lawn) can turn into a three-dimensional landscape that makes everyone happy
The Concord Cottage, This Old House's 2003 project, presented any number of design challenges, not the least of which was how to fit a fully functional, comfortable home into a mere 1,200 square feet of living space. But outside that little cottage was another challenge: creating a landscape plan that visually separates two dwellings while keeping the overall property integrated.
Homeowner Jeff Bernard was clear on what he expected of the plan. "I want a rational separation between the two houses," he said. "This really will be two families, and we like some of the same things but not all. My in-laws should have privacy and their own view, so whatever we do at the cottage, it has to meet their requirements yet be integrated into the overall plan. It has to make sense for both of us."
Janet Bernard wanted a landscaping plan in the style of an English cottage garden. She and Jeff also wanted to incorporate their 100-year-old Concord grapevine into the plan. Janet's mother, Jackie Buckley, had an uncomplicated request—she wanted to be able to look out the windows of her new cottage home and see some greenery.
Jeff didn't want anything too fussy, and he didn't want anything that would block his view across his deep back yard to the park behind the house. "I like it open," he said. "It's comforting to see the hustle and bustle of the park. I like a good old plain lawn."
The town of Concord had some input for the plan, too. Each dwelling unit required off-street parking for two cars, so the main house and cottage together required four parking spaces, even though the Bernards and Buckleys combined didn't own that many.
"The parking court is the biggest challenge," Jeff said. " We used to park both cars in the driveway, on the street side of the fence, and we'd do the move-the-car shuffle in the morning. With the new cottage we need room for four cars, and we can't stack them in the driveway — code requires a turnaround."
Janet worried about the parking court from the beginning. "I don't want to be sitting on my porch looking at the side of an SUV," she said. Jeff agreed: "We spend a lot of time on our porch. It's a zone of comfort for me at the end of a long day, and you want it to look nice."
Okay, so that would be: parking for four cars, plus room for a car to turn around; an English cottage garden look—but not too fussy; make it look like two homes yet still feel integrated as one property; don't spoil the privacy and comfort of the porch or the view of the park; and oh, yes, keep the grapevine.
Enter Stephanie Hubbard, landscape architect, who sounded completely unfazed by the list of requirements. She listened to what everyone hoped for, looked at the town requirements, and got to work.
"Every client is different," says Hubbard. "We show photos of other jobs we've done, and get ideas of what they like and don't like. Some people will tell you they love a cottage garden, but then you show them photos of cottage gardens and they say 'no, that's not it.' Sometimes they'll tell you what they don't like, as in 'I don't want a lot of pink.' Then it evolves."
The first draft of a site plan is often more clear to the designer than to the client, Hubbard adds. "It can be hard to read plans and conceptualize what it will actually be like. We do what we need to do to help clients visualize."
In the Bernards' case, visualizing the new plan was especially difficult early on, as the construction was just beginning. The dreaded parking court continued to worry Jeff ("The SUV will have to live in the yard?") as well as Janet ("I was afraid this would be terrible, this will be a blight on the landscape!"). But not Hubbard, who could see in her mind's eye how it would all pull together and meet the many varied requirements of the job, and still be beautiful.
"I really was having trouble picturing how it would all work," says Janet. "I asked Stephanie if there was any way we could stake out exactly where the cars would go, and the walkway, so I could get a better feel for it all. So one Wednesday she brought over this special spray painter so we could mark it all out with big chalk lines, and I could actually walk it. I ended up thinking this won't be a blight — in fact, it will be an improvement."
"We do whatever we have to do to help clients visualize what it will be like in three dimensions," says Hubbard. "Sometimes it helps to do chalking—we went out with a can of spray paint and outlined where everything would go. Janet walked it, she got in her car and drove it, and she got it. She understood how it would work."
Elevations help, too, Hubbard adds, especially when you're trying to visualize not just where new elements will go but also how they'll look in three dimensions. For example, showing Jeff and Janet elevations that had the pergola and fence helped them get a feel for what the whole design would look like—not just as lines on the ground but as real, three-dimensional objects.
The master plan is a hit all around. It sounds impossible, but the plan incorporates parking for four cars (three in a court in front of the cottage and a fourth along the driveway, tucked into a nook on the side of the house), a cottage garden complete with an "orchard" of flowering hydrangea trees, separate private seating areas for both families, views of the park behind the yard, and even the grapevine. It also minimizes the impact of the parked cars, and it looks great from any angle.
"You're still able to see the cars, of course, there's not much you can do about that," says Hubbard. But the parking court is partly obscured from the main house by the grapevine on a new integrated fence and trellis, and it's off to the side of the cottage where it won't be right in front of the Buckleys.
"The view from the porch on the right is to the flowering tree 'orchard' and field beyond," says Hubbard. "On the left is a view to the cottage, garden, and flowering vines on the fence and arbor. You're able to see cars if you're standing at the edge of the porch on the left, but if you're seated the view to the cars will be buffered by the handrail."
With the parking dilemma solved, Hubbard was free to deliver a master plan that can be phased in over the years. The immediate needs—the driveway and parking court, the fence and trellis for the grapevine, and the cottage garden for the Buckleys' new home—are all merely Phase I of a long-term plan for the entire property. That master plan encompasses the entire lot, from end to end. It includes everything from the Bernards' front lawn, shown in the plan as surrounded by sweeping garden beds, to smaller perennial gardens for both families, in separate seating areas that are out of each other's view for privacy.
"The master plan is placeholder for all the things you want to do," says Hubbard. "It will take years to fully implement it, as they have the time and as they want to spend the money. They can pick or choose, and they can see how it relates to the big picture."
Ultimately, the Bernards and the Buckleys each get a private garden that not only provides relaxation outside but also looks great when viewed from inside the homes. Which makes Jackie Buckley happy, since all she asked for was to be able to look out her window and see some greenery. She got that, and quite a bit more, with this plan.
Updated May 2007