One Yard, Three Visions

If you’ve ever visited or toured a home with an outdoor living area and wondered how you might have designed it differently, you’re not alone. We wondered how three home building and remodeling firms would design an outdoor living space for the same home. Would their ideas be identical, similar or completely different? We were about to find out.

We sent a floor plan for a 6,100 sq. ft. ranch home in the Southeast United States to three home building and remodeling firms. The floor plan for the imaginary home (shown at right) – provided by – is for a Mediterranean-style home with six bedrooms and five and a half baths on a 160 ft. by 100 ft. lot.

Each firm was challenged with the task of designing the outdoor living space with a few mandatory elements, including: pool, kitchen, sitting/gathering area, fire element, landscaping and patio surface. The budget for the outdoor space was between $50,000 and $125,000.

The three firms participating in our design challenge — Carlson Homes in Scottsdale, Ariz., Frey & Son Homes in Bonita Springs, Fla., and Architectural Resource in Ann Arbor, Mich. — delivered beautiful and interesting designs. Presented on the following pages are the designs created by our three builders and remodelers. Enjoy comparing their creations, while pondering what you might have done differently, or the same.

1. A Spanish Retreat

Design description by Taco Schmid, project manager, Carlson Homes

My thought process was to bring out the warmth, charm and vibrant color you would find in the Andalusia region of Spain. I wanted the homeowner and guests to feel welcomed and invited to experience the backyard. The elements of detail and the positioning of such gave visual site lines from the main rooms of the home out toward the yard. The main axis is centered along the home, pool and further out to the ramada with the fireplace as its central focal point.

As one explores the backyard, more and more comes to life, such as a great little wall fountain area off of the master bedroom where mom could read a book while the children played in the pool. The polychrome tiles are a true attribute to historical detail that borrows from the yesteryear golden age of elegance. You notice the outdoor kitchen area with its trellis providing cover only after you have been drawn outside with curiosity to view the pool. Because of the frothy bubbles on the sun shelf that were making some water noise, you peaked out back.

After noticing the outdoor kitchen you see a garden area behind a wrought iron gate to the likes of something Addison

Mizner would have designed on a grand estate in southern Florida. The tranquil sound of the fountain in the garden gives you a relaxing feeling and you forget the woes of the day. Maybe you’ll step up into the ramada and reflect on the enjoyable fireplace setting. It all feels welcoming, and the ambient details inspire you to pull up a chair and enjoy this cheerful setting while sipping on some refreshing lemonade offered by your hosts.

The outdoor kitchen consists of a 48-in. barbecue grill, sink, outdoor fridge and ice maker. I have granite countertops for some possible seating and a trellis above for some shade and added interest. The outdoor dining area is directly next to this space, and an herb garden is in the planter area adjacent to the trellis post below.

For furniture I have included seating arrangements at various locations of the yard. There’s a bench by the guest garden; an outdoor dining set with table and six chairs; the ramada with four oversized chairs or ottomans that can be easily moved; a couple of loungers for some sun tanning; four chairs with two side tables along side the pool; a large teak storage box underneath the patio for pool toys and towels; a couple of rocking chairs; and four large comfortable seats with a glass-top coffee table for your main patio area. Not shown would be four steel chairs at the wall fountain off the master bedroom.

Surface materials include pavers and concrete. The pavers would be laid out in a couple of different patterns. Anything under the roof would have a basket weave pattern and pavers not covered would have a herring bone pattern. Exposed aggregate would be used for the path toward the wall fountain and that area has grass in between the concrete. The ramada will have acid-stained concrete with a terra cotta color.

Carlson Homes

2. Sunken-living luxury

Design description by Ric Bonasera, general manager, Frey & Son Homes

In this outdoor space, the deck/pool area has added 1,541 sq. ft. The house centerline is critical here and runs from the entry all the way through to the rear, with all of the features keying off of this. Included in this design is a full masonry arched colonnade with a half-mansard bronzed aluminum screen enclosure.

To project the greatest effect, we have respaced the original structural support columns to present an unobstructed wide-open view from the living room that will carry all the way through to the outdoor fireplace. The entire area has been expanded to allow for a larger deck, providing the guest cabana its own semiprivate patio. The solid concrete support columns are trimmed with keystone. The decking material is a natural 3 in. by 8 in. Mandalay chiseled-edge stone bordered by keystone. The keystone is also the pool and raised planter coping material.

Adjacent to the pool is a sunken outdoor living room centered with an Isokern masonry fireplace using raised keystone trim. The fireplace is framed by raised planters on the inside and two coconut palms on either side at the rear outside. The same decking in an alternate pattern has been installed here.

Framing the sunken area and pool is a raised planter with the spa rising above, finished with native and tropical foliage to coincide with the Pebble-Tech “Caribbean-blue” pool finish, creating a tropical lagoon effect that is quite popular here. This entire raised area has a water feature that spills into a shallow wading area that is ideal for small children or just relaxing. The spa, heater, water feature, and lighting are operated from the Jandy remote located in the home.

We have relocated the master suite lanai door so the outdoor cooking area is somewhat larger and more convenient to the outdoor eating area. A Wolf gas burner stainless steel grill with a 1,600-cfm Thermador venting hood is included as well as a sink and Sub-Zero 24-in. undercounter refrigerator. The hood is finished in a faux stucco material trimmed in keystone.

Framing the grill is a tumbled stone offsetting the granite top. The ceiling is covered in stained 1x6 cedar. Ideally, there would be more wall space for an expanded cooking/eating area so this is a little smaller than I would have preferred.

The cost for this more elaborate design is $175,000, which exceeded the budget. This was necessary to bring the design up to par with homes in the area as well as Frey’s standards.

I’d like to mention the relationship we have with our main designer. Typically, builders and designers/architects have marginal relationships; too many egos and opposite areas of focus. Henry Gonzalez with The Design Standard and I have worked side-by-side for the past eight years and have both been able to express our independence without stepping on each other.

Before we finished the latest model or spec, we are pondering how to “raise the bar” for the next project. We have always managed to bring to the table a blend of abilities and talent that creates and delivers incredibly unique designs for the best value and quality.

Frey & Son Homes
Bonita Springs, Fla.

3. Green and sustainable

Design description by Michael Klement, AIA, principal, Architectural Resource, and Christy Rose

Our intent is to design an outdoor environment that is not only functional and beautiful, but is also green and sustainable. And in fact, gives back to the surrounding environment by supplying off-grid energy and natural resources for the outdoor living space.  Incorporating a natural swimming pool provides chlorine-free swimming with fresh, clean, clear water. Cleaning toxic environmental inputs (i.e. particulates from rain water and fertilizer runoff) and managing storm water on site, and using natural elements such as sun, and water to provide a beautiful outdoor living space and garden environment that runs on natural systems.

The site is located in southeastern Florida with an average annual rainfall of 54 in. We are assuming that the adjoining properties are residential sites. The design will focus on a Mediterranean style that will complement the architectural style of the home.

Components of a Mediterranean garden that are incorporated into this design include pergolas and verandas for overhead shade, a site perimeter green wall privacy and enclosure, terra cotta pots with citrus or olives, rustic wood furniture, container plants in large tubs or barrels, and/or traditional statues. The formal centerline of the garden has been arranged on axis with the port-cochere of the home in order to provide a beautiful long view into the outdoor living space through the home from the front entrance. This strong central axis creates one long vista with various garden features revealed to either side (in keeping with the Mediterranean style). Plants were strategically placed to obscure sections of the garden as they grow over time, creating a more informal feel.

Typical hardscape materials for Mediterranean gardens include stone, concrete, ceramics, and timber. We will source these and/or similar items locally in order to reduce excessive energy use that results from shipping materials over long distances.

The predominant colors are sun-bleached earthy tones such as whites, terra cottas, and sandstones with splashes of bright colors such as brilliant blues used for contrast. We see inclusions of these colors in tilework, on the Chadar, and mosaics. In keeping with the Mediterranean style, most ground plane surfaces are paved with permeable paving or covered with gravel (also permeable). This also reduces use of water within the garden and allows water to naturally percolate through the surface below grade. We introduced a small amount of low-water consumption, turf grass for lawn play space and entertaining.

We incorporated simple traditional water features as would be customary in a Mediterranean Climate. We introduced a natural, or eco swimming pool, small fountains, water channels or troughs, and a clarifying pool, as opposed to watercourses. The use of a cascading water wall element is a key visual and functional feature as part of the eco swimming pool concept development.

Plants are secondary to hardscaping. They will be hardy and drought tolerant. The plant material palette consists of those indigenous to Florida that provide food and habitat for local wildlife. Fruit trees, and other wild edibles are integrated into the design, and proved shade and substance for the homeowners as well.

Design Elements:

  • The site was developed with multiple outdoor living/gathering areas relating both to the various different living spaces of the home with an outdoor connection and to out door activities. The primary space is the central gathering pergola. On circulation axis with the main east-west, it provides the connection of the main living spaces to the outdoors transitioning from interior, to covered porch, to semi-covered pergola, to gardens and water features beyond. It also provides a framing element to the natural swimming pool, fire pit and focal point tiered fountains.

    South of the central pergola, protected from south sun exposure by the site perimeter green wall and an overhead pergola is the outdoor kitchen space with dining. At the north east corner of the site, a small retreat space was developed which was removed from the more social areas of the outdoor living spaces to afford a more private experience for the homeowners, with direct access from the guest room. Off the master suite side of the home, two private patios were developed: one for the main master suite and one for the exercise area for outdoor fitness activities such as Pilates, yoga and meditation.
  • One of the main organizing and functional features of the outdoor living space is the eco pool natural swimming pool, sometimes called a swimming pond. Pool water is topped off from roof rain run-off that is collected in storage barrels and then delivered to the clarifying pools for biological cleansing. From the clarifying pools, the water is delivered to the source fountain at the apex of the central axis at the rear yard west wall. From the fountain, the water is delivered to the natural swimming pool via a stepped trough. From the pool, it then cascades over a semi-circular plan layout spill wall, which is designed in the manner of a traditional Mediterranean Chadar or cascade.
  • The Chadar is tilted at 45-degree angle so that it always catches light, no matter the position of the sun. The inclined surface of the Chadar has a raised pattern of recycled glass tile, shells, and other indigenous rocks, which would increase the sparkle, and sound of the water. The spill water is then delivered to clarifying pools that surround both the natural pool and the central pergola. In addition to functional purpose of the natural purifying of the water, evaporative cooling from the surrounding pools reduces the air temperature surrounding the central pergola
  • Solar collector hot water piping is located above the cross purlins of the central pergola where the heated water is stored in holding tanks inside the four large columns of the pergola. This provides heated water tempering the natural pool. The same solar collection design is used at the outdoor kitchen pergola for all heated water at the outdoor sink.
  • The roof above the covered patio integrates solar photovoltaic panels which provide the necessary electricity for the natural pool's water recirculation pumps and fountains. The natural pool is intended to be entirely energy and resource self-sufficient.
  • At the central focus of the east/west axis on the western side of the main gathering pergola, is located the fire pit. Immediately around the fire pit is a circular water-conducting trough covered with a decorative metal grate. The water then flows towards the home via a shallow exposed trough lined with glass tile. It ends in a small round collecting pool with a central fountain in the center of the covered patio.
  • The full featured outdoor kitchen includes a wood-fired adobe baking oven; stainless steel gas grill with adjacent gas, two-burner cook top; stainless steel sink, faucet and plumbing; below counter exterior storage cabinets with weather resistant stainless steel doors; below counter exterior refrigerator with stainless steel face. The kitchen hot water is generated from solar collection tubes located at the new pergola and stored in holding tanks concealed in the columns (similar to the main gathering space). The kitchen sink wastewater is filtered through a sand filter and then delivered as grey irrigation water to the adjacent planting bed. The walls of the counters are terra cotta tile with cast concrete surface with embedded mosaic of seashells and recycled glass remnants.
  • We incorporated rain gardens that help facilitate infiltration, nutrient recycling, and storage of storm water. This feature was designed in a creative/artistic way that brings the garden to life while representing historical, Mediterranean methods of water catchment and transport.
  • Native plant materials are beneficial to local wildlife and insects.
  • Local materials used for structures and pavements so that less petroleum is used during the shipping process.
  • Local vendors and community service organizations, and or students provide the talent and labor necessary for project completion. This should provide a long term benefit to the community by educating young people and tradesmen about sustainable development methods.
  • Recycled materials are incorporated into the project where possible such as in the timbers for the pergola structure salvaged from hurricane aftermath building salvage.
  • A composting toilet is incorporated into the cabana that provides compost for the garden.
  • Mature vegetation is preserved in the final plan.
  • Innovative garden structures and plant materials are placed in such a way to utilize or mitigate the effects of wind and sun.

For the complete design description, visit