Twenty years ago, the neighborhood where this remodeling project took place, about 15 miles outside Philadelphia, did not exist. Today, the site is dotted with new homes in the 4,500-sq.-ft. range. Most were built with large single-level cedar decks jutting out back, many perched high above steep slopes and hillsides. Such was the case with this home, where the owners, a family with four young children, were separated from their overgrown, grassy backyard by a monumental set of stairs down from the deck.
For the client, the challenge was how to remake the deck and yard so it would be highly accessible and usable — with places both for the children to play and for the entire family to gather comfortably with their friends. In the end, the client chose to build a pool and pool house with a new multitiered deck gradually stepping down from the house. Additionally, the client placed a great deal of emphasis on landscaping. Beyond the aesthetics, the right landscaping would allow proper site lines so a children’s play area — safely fenced off from the pool — would also be visible from all parts of the yard and deck.
Like many residential remodeling projects, a stay-at-home mom was in charge. First, she selected a well-respected architecture firm in the area, Warren Claytor Architects, of Wayne, Pa. The firm’s principal, Warren Claytor, AIA, along with project architect Stephen Foley, provided some initial concepts for the deck and pool house based on her vision for the space.
“The program needs for the pool house,” says Claytor, “were a comfortable bathroom to use before or after swimming and a wonderful entertaining great room that includes a gourmet kitchen with an indoor/outdoor fireplace.”
Later she hired a noteworthy mother-daughter landscape architecture firm — Julie and Sally Wood — to provide concepts for lawns, trees, shrubs and flower beds. Lastly, the project was put out to bid.
Devon Remodeling & Construction, also of Wayne, Pa., won the job, even though they were not the low bidder. The main reason: Devon had previously updated the client’s kitchen, so there was a certain level of trust and comfort, says Peter McKenna, CGR, CAPS, vice president of Devon Remodeling.
“The intention was to have a house outside of the main house that was pretty much self-sustaining,” McKenna explains. “It has a kitchen. It has a full bathroom. It has an indoor and outdoor fireplace. So they really use it for entertaining.
“They have four children. Part of the intent was to have a place for the kids to hang out with their friends. Since they have opened the thing up, they have had tons of parties with kids from school. The client really uses it for the community. And it is ideal. They don’t have to walk up to the main house.”
The Pool House Design
The design for the pool house was an evolutionary process, says architect Warren Claytor. In this regard, he compliments the client’s willingness to take the time to see several iterations of the design for the 940-sq.-ft. structure.
“Most good architecture evolves throughout the design process,” notes Claytor. “Too often the client wants things done too quickly and they don’t have the patience to let things evolve. And the client in this situation was really terrific to work with because each new idea led to another idea and just sort of grew and grew.”
Originally, the client had sought to construct a tower-like structure over the covered outdoor portion of the pool house. This tower would serve as a visual and programmatic focal point. The tower would also serve as the primary entry point to the pool area. And according to Claytor, very compelling drawings of the tower-version of the pool house were ultimately scrapped as a mutual decision by client and architect because the traffic pattern through the tower would have detracted from the retreat-like goals of the covered outdoor area.
“It was going to be a dual-purpose main entry into the structure, but it was robbing the interior space of wonderful light and views. It became cluttered because we were trying to use it as a destination, but it was also being used as a main point of circulation in and out of the pool house area,” Claytor explains. “That is a wonderful example of how all parties involved loved that earlier design but as the project was given time to evolve, the outdoor enclosure nestled itself into the hillside, which has a much better site line.”
The inspiration for the massing and style of the pool house is a radical departure from the stucco-sided main house. The pool house draws on the look of stone farm houses that were common in the area going back 150 years or more. Its shape, says Claytor, can rightfully be taken for an older carriage house building that had been remodeled, its carriage doors replaced with French doors. Indigenous field stone walls and reclaimed antique beams from a barn in New York complement the rich texture and symmetry of the cedar-shingle roof.
Knowing the roof would be in clear view from the main house above, Claytor and project architect Stephen Foley paid close attention to the “bird’s-eye” perspective of the pool house. The lines of the roof, with its hips and large dormer, are meant to be as dramatic and pleasing visually as the interior spaces.
“It is on a slope and it is competing with a house that is on the property,” notes Claytor. “So there is a transition of rooflines that helps relate the proportion of the structure to the site. By adding hip roofs and a clear story dormer to bring in more light, it helps to bring it into a personal human scale when you are down in the pool area. But in a general site context, the proportion of the house to the pool house is in a comfortable relationship.”
On the inside, the center of attention is the dramatic fireplace. It is the focal point both from the kitchen area as well as the in the dramatic, high ceiling, great room that it occupies.
“The client’s dream was to build a gathering place for friends and family. We spend so much time in our homes today. They have every creature comfort available. But there is something incredibly enriching when we can go outside and enjoy nature and watch children play in the water or to sit by a fire and not be contained by four walls of drywall. You’ve got views. You’ve got wonderful natural materials of stone and rustic beams and cedar roof. And you have can watch the birds and all by the warmth of your fire. And even if it is raining out, you are dry and you are warm.”
Deck and landscape
The flat single-level deck that preceded the new structure was somewhat akin to a cliff, and far removed from both the house and the yard beyond and below. The new deck steps down gradually from the main house to the pool and pool house below. The landscape designers from Wood Design played an integral role, as did Devon Remodeling, in designing the deck. It fits well with the flower beds, lawns and new bushes and trees.
“The new deck was at least twice as big as the one before,” says McKenna. “The earlier one just had a long set of steps that went down from the second floor. This one had three layers and then masonry steps. So the challenge was just making it work out to grade. The site plan was such that they were pretty specific about where they wanted the elevations to come out.”
The choice of materials for the deck was also an area of intense focus. The deck sits on a brick and stone masonry foundation. Painted cedar railings and balusters are sturdy and substantial and add greatly to the richness of the overall project. And the deck itself is an unusual but increasingly common Brazilian hardwood called Ipe. Its tight wood grains help it resist buckling or cracking, while also providing a splinter-free surface for bare feet. Ipe is also a deep red that many homeowners are coming to appreciate.
For McKenna, the project was extremely successful for all parties involved, especially the client.
“They were thrilled with the project and they were thrilled with the end result,” says McKenna. “You walk back there and it is outstanding. The landscape package is phenomenal, the pool house, the way the landscape architect put everything together. It just worked perfectly. The clients really love it. They use it a lot.”
Extra coordination required
Remodeling outdoor spaces can often be more complex than room additions or even whole-house projects. The complexities arise from the number of professional disciplines involved, particularly at the higher end.
Devon Remodeling won the right to build a new multitiered deck and pool house for a total price tag of $320,000. And even though their scope of work was limited to those two elements, McKenna and his team took the lead on scheduling and phasing of what was a rather complicated project.
“There were several occasions when the different contractors involved in the project needed to meet on-site and simply establish timing,” says McKenna. “For example, when we excavated for the pool house foundation, we used that fill to lift the grade so the pool contractor could build the concrete pool deck. Also, we had to lay a lot of utilities in the ground from the house down to the pool house, long before the landscaping went in. So there was a lot of logistical communication. A lot of phone work, a lot of site work. We had someone on-site full time.”
The site conditions also created some challenges.
“It was quite a sloped site so there was a fair amount of site work,” says McKenna. “Additionally, there was not a real clean access to get to this backyard. The trucks had to come down a sloped area and we had some problems with that. There was a lot of tree work that had to be done pre-construction.”