This article appeared in the Summer 2023 Issue of This Old House Magazine. Click here to learn how to subscribe.
Despite an earlier update to his 1923 home in South Pasadena, CA, Joe Davis’s backyard still wasn’t hitting a home run. “It was just kind of an afterthought for us,” says the FOX Sports and LA Dodgers sportscaster. “We had a nice deck, but it felt fenced in.” Adds his wife, Libby: “We didn’t even want to be out there.”
With two young kids—and another on the way—the family longed for a more free-flowing alfresco experience. So they turned to System Pavers, a local design-build hardscape company, for a patio revamp that would add an outdoor kitchen. They also enlisted contractor Abe Nabbout to open up the deck with wide steps for a better connection to the backyard and to add a second pergola over new dining and cooking areas.
Figuring out how the two overhead structures would mesh was particularly tricky. “You couldn’t drop the pergola roof too much, or it would obstruct the view from the kitchen—and you would have to duck coming down the side steps to the patio,” says Janine McCormack, a landscape architect with System Pavers. Arriving at an outdoor kitchen layout was equally challenging, says Joe, who used tape and lawn furniture to get a feel for the plan before signing off.
The results? “Just awesome,” Libby says. Adds Joe: “We didn’t realize how closed-in we were feeling until we saw how open this is.”
Multifunctional Outdoor Space: Landscape Plan
With the improved entertaining spaces and indoor-outdoor flow, “it really feels like we added square footage to our house,” says Joe Davis.
- Removed enough decking and railing to allow for 14-foot-wide steps opposite the French doors; revised the pergola so that the rafters now cantilever over them.
- Built a patio that wraps the back and side of the deck, meets the garage wall, and steps down to the lawn.
- Set up a seating area below the new set of deck stairs.
- Added a 16-foot island with two grills and bar seating; built a 5-foot prep island opposite it.
- Put a dining table just off the deck’s side stairs; built a second pergola just below and perpendicular to the first one to define and shelter the dining and grilling zones.
How to Maximize Your Outdoor Space
TOH landscape contractor Jenn Nawada’s tips for designing outdoor living spaces that add beauty and function to your yard.
Put pavers in context
“When adding a patio, you want to consider the look and feel of the house and landscaping,” Jenn says. Smooth concrete pavers with clean edges have a sleek, modern vibe, while tumbled pavers or free- form flagstones add a more natural, aged look. Don’t forget to check local codes—some municipalities’ water-saving measures mandate permeable pavers that allow rain and stormwater runoff to percolate back into the soil.
Throw some shade
“Adding a pergola creates a sense of place and sets the stage for relaxing and entertaining,” Jenn says. Whether crafted from natural redwood, traditional painted cedar, or weathering steel, a pergola can also provide shelter from harsh sun. You can filter the light with retractable fabric shades or by layering slats or lengths of 2× material perpendicular to the rafters; the closer they’re spaced, the more sun they will block.
Cook up a kitchen
To bring focus to an outdoor kitchen project, Jenn suggests picking the appliances first. “Think about how you want to use the space, what kind of things you like to cook,” she says. “Do you just need a grill and a countertop for setting out food and drinks? Or do you really want to add a refrigerator, and maybe a sink?” If you need to run electricity and plumbing to the kitchen, that may affect how far away you want to place it from the house.
Light the night right
With a little planning, outdoor lighting can really transform a space. “Lighting adds subtle drama,” Jenn says. “So start by illuminating what means the most to you, such as a seating or dining area.” Layered lighting, set at various heights, creates the most impact, so in addition to soft lighting overhead, consider adding downlights along the perimeter of paths and patios and uplights on ornamental specimen trees.