Landezine
International
Landscape
Award
South Mountain

This small backyard addresses the shortcomings of suburban walled backyard gardens:
– Lack of privacy
– Lack of problem-solving design
– Habitat displacement by the use of exotic plants
– Lack of a sense of place

In a move toward sustainability, the client purchased a new home that reduced her work commute by 80 percent. She was excited that the site was across the street from a massive urban park; a park trailhead was two houses away. Unfortunately, the yard was seven feet below an adjacent sidewalk and totally lacked any privacy—on weekends a steady flow of pedestrians could look down into her house and yard on their way to the trailhead. As a result the client never opened the curtains. She was a prisoner in her house while she searched for a solution. The modernist and pragmatic inspired solution needed to immediately transform this ‘fish bowl’ of an environment into a private refuge. The landscape architect’s first priority was providing privacy to get the owner outside and comfortable in the space. Sight line studies were studied to establish a privacy strategy and options that provided screening from the street to the house and yard as well as from the adjacent houses whose windows were higher than the shared six-foot high property wall. Screening needed to be immediate and at a specific height to block the pedestrians’ views, but at the same time preserve views to the mountains beyond. Trees were unsuitable because they would grow too tall; the solution needed to be man-made. To make matters worse, the city zoning ordinance only allowed for a maximum six-foot high wall at the property lines, which was worthless for privacy considering the grade change and the neighbor’s higher windows.

The landscape architect’s knowledge of zoning regulations allowed him to create three modern garden sheds that could, by code, be up to 15 feet tall and only needed to be three feet from a property line. The landscape architect calls these garden sheds a designer’s ‘wild-card’ as they are free of most limiting zoning restrictions. The three contemporary garden sheds were designed for privacy while creating the dramatic back drop to the house and garden; they are the backdrop that transformed the space from being a small exposed yard to being a large, private outdoor room. The three garden sheds were narrow but long to maximize their screening effect in this small garden. The fire place shed creates a private shaded sitting area. The observation shed’s form was inspired by the “Casa Malaparte” house in Capri. To soften the face of the tall walls, holes were added for interest and to play with light. The sheds are so effective that the street has disappeared from the experience of the space. The third shed is on a side yard. The elements were designed to create shadows and to focus the house on the garden. The design creatively solves the privacy problems. A raised reflecting pool creates a soothing sound, which is essential in the desert and is a water source for birds. Native plants are used to create a self-propagating garden that attracts wildlife. The trees were salvaged; rescued from a roadway project and recycled into this project. A highly efficient drip irrigation system is coupled with native plants for maximum water conservation and growth. The informal crushed rock paving allows for all storm water to be captured and retained in the garden. The entire landscape lighting system is low-energy LED fixtures and the mid-century canvas chairs reflect a casual life-style that is quite appropriate for the desert.

This small, but ambitious, project dramatically transformed a small privacy challenged back yard into a stylish outdoor room and private refuge. The sheds have in effect transformed this small backyard into a stage where plants and people become the actors. The garden creates an alternative model for the standard suburban backyard – one that is appropriate to region and the climate and solves the privacy problems. The design is straight forward, sustainable, and dramatic—the client does not close her curtains now.

Entrant office name: Steve Martino Landscape Architects
Role of the entrant in the project: Landscape Architect
Website: www.stevemartino.net
Other design firms involved in the design of the garden (if any): none
Project location (State or Country): Phoenix, Arizona, United States
Design year: 2011
Year Built: 2012

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