Los Altos Landscape Design Challenge: Funky Ideas for Unique Backyard
Updated: Jan 28
Introducing The Space
Every town in the Bay area is a bit different. When we first saw this Los Altos property, we were struck by the potential. This home featured a long backyard, and two auxiliary side yards to play with. The homeowners had renovated their house, and had previously had a concrete pad poured in the backyard. Still, they were looking to do more with the property.
A straight on view of the original property. The owner’s had previously had this concrete pad poured, but were looking to add a pool, outdoor kitchen, and more living space to the equation.
After some discussion, these homeowners made it clear that their priority was a pool for their kids, as well as outdoor living space that would allow them room to relax and gather with friends and family. Green space was less of a concern, and the clients felt comfortable delegating lawn space to one side of the house for the family dogs to use.
As with all of our projects, this space presented some unique challenges, the biggest of which was the elevated grade running along the back of the property. Many, less forward thinking, design companies may view this change in elevation as a downside. We liked to think of it as an opportunity to do something different.
Instead of simply installing a lackluster retaining wall and filling it with some less than inspiring landscaping, we knew we wanted to think bigger. We believed there was a real opportunity to turn this higher ground into usable, and beautiful, space.
The original backyard. In this image, you can see the existing side yard and concrete pad, as well as the higher graded land running parallel to the back of the property line.
After several trips to the drawing board, valuable feedback from our clients, and even pushback from the city of Los Altos, we arrived at a finished product that was anything but run of the mill. Still, the process to get to this end result wasn’t exactly simple.
Conceptualization & Revision
If you’ve seen any of our other design challenge breakdowns, you’ll know that the beginning stage of our design process is similar each time. We assess a project, have a series of meetings to discuss the space, and then regroup with our clients to go over initial 2D conceptualizations.
The conceptualization process is important, as it allows our clients to give us their constructive feedback that informs our final designs. Typically, we reach the final concept fairly quickly. However, some projects take a little bit longer to pin down. That was the case here.
This project went through multiple rounds of revision. Even after a concept had been decided upon, forces beyond our control prompted us to change what we had intended to be the final design.
This project was a great reminder that not everything will always go exactly to plan. But that’s where the flexibility, creativity, and patience of our team really shines.
Initial Concept A & B
As is our procedure, we approached the clients in this Los Altos design project with two preliminary conceptual designs, dubbed Concept A and Concept B.
In Concept A, seen below, you enter the side yard and proceed up a series of concrete steppers through the gate, into the main space. In front of you is a pergola-covered outdoor kitchen, which sits atop a paver patio that is flush to the grade of the house. In both Concept A and B, the homeowner moves towards the back of the property in a series of tiered design elements.
Thus, the pool coping is graded at a half a foot taller, allowing the deck toward the back of the property to become elevated, flush with the water. In Concept A, a spa sits on top of the raised deck, cascading down into the pool below. Proceeding even further up towards the property line, you see two additional decks, raised even further, allowing you to look out over the pool and entire property.
Stepping down off the raised deck to the far side of the yard, you come to a seating area complete with a firepit and pergola. The entire design is lined with plantings and careful landscaping.
Initial Concept A, featuring covered outdoor kitchen, raised pool, spa and waterfall, and tiered decking.
Concept B, seen below, features many of the same elements as A, with notable differences. The most obvious departure from the first design is the organic lines of the pool, which curve and offer contrast to the harder, modern lines of the rest of the design.
Initial Concept B, featuring an L shaped kitchen, organic pool, and raised and covered outdoor seating.
Also different in Concept B is the location of the kitchen, raised deck, and outdoor seating area. The kitchen has become a sleek L shape, pushed further into the upper righthand corner of the design. The deck has moved to be elevated at the far right hand side of the yard, allowing the covered seating area to occupy space where Concept A’s raised deck had been.
This design allowed for less changes in elevation as the homeowner walked from one side yard to the other, which was a plus. However, our clients were not excited about the prospect of an organically shaped pool.
Why? Well, as beautiful as organic pools are in their lines, they do not play nice with automatic pool covers. And when kids and old animals are part of your family, an automatic pool cover is a must.
After presenting both designs, our clients were excited about the ideas, but wanted to see some revisions made to elements they weren’t entirely sold on. Water and Earth is always focused on making sure our clients are completely on board before we proceed. So, we went ahead with another round of designs, eventually settling on a new round of concepts.
A reimagining of the Initial Concept B. This conceptualization features a unique raised lawn area. Ultimately, the clients decided this did not make sense for their needs, but we loved the idea of making green space a feature of the property, rather than purely a utilitarian asset.
We presented a reimagining of Concept B, seen above, alongside the original Concept A, seen again below. The latter became our baseline moving forward, though ultimately, it did not end up reflecting the final design. The clients decided that they really valued the idea of a flatter space, without so many tiered decks or steps. However, the layout of this design was the base from which we worked to create the final concept.
Concept A, presented again in a second round of client meetings.
Once we determined that Concept A would guide our designs moving forward, we moved on to a series of 3D renderings. Many of the elements seen in the concept were changed moving forward, while many of the integral elements remain.
Most often, only one set of 3D renderings are necessary before construction begins. In this project process, these next initial renderings are one of a handful.
Once we felt confident in a concept the homeowners loved, we moved on to present an initial series of 3D renderings. In these renderings, you note several departures from the 2D conceptualizations.
As pictured below, looking from the far end of the property you gaze over the long, linear pool. Notable is the water feature wall, with the retaining wall pushed as far as possible toward the property line. This leaves a large amount of level patio space available close to the home, and creates a stunning view of the water feature from both inside and outside of the home.
A view of the property as a whole. The pergola stands at the far end, while the long, linear pool is backed by a large water feature wall.
The one aspect of design that never changed was the retention of the grassy, fenced off area around the side of the home. From the vantage point in the rendering below you see the kitchen has been moved to be placed against the property fence, leaving room for a dining area.
The grassy, fenced off area was important to the homeowners as a space for their dogs. Also visible in this initial rendering is the outdoor kitchen which sits flush to the fence. This placement would later change in an additional revision.
Looking in the opposite direction, you again see the broad water feature wall, viewable from a fully integrated spa. This gives a clear idea of how thin the elevated area at the rear of the property has become. This retaining wall affords the homeowners as much level space in the rest of the yard as possible.
A view from the spa, overlooking a bold water feature wall, and showing the narrow retaining wall at the rear of the property.
In the next photo, you see the initial renderings of the covered seating area. A custom pergola blocks the sun, throwing shade on a fire pit and outdoor seating at the far side of the property. From here, friends and family can chat around the fire, without losing sight of the kids in the pool.
A custom pergola provides shade for a comfortable outdoor seating area next to the pool. Beneath, you see a gas powered fire pit perfect for late night discussions or bonfires with the kids.
Ultimately, this round of renderings was exciting for our clients. We had not only created a flatter space for them, but also one that still creatively utilized the elevation at the back of the property via the statement water feature. Typically, this is where the conceptualization phase would end, and we would move to materiality, bidding with contractors, and ultimately construction.
But such as life, things don’t always go according to plan. In the case of this Los Altos landscape design project, one more round of revision was in order.
Last Minute Revisions
Sometimes even plans that seem "final" can go through one final reimagining of the circumstances ask for it. Water and Earth is committed to seeing our designs through from start to finish, no matter how many twists and turns the process takes. In this case, two late in the game changes were introduced right before construction began.
Prior to breaking ground on this design, we discovered that the kitchen needed to be moved back off the perimeter. This was an easy fix. We simply moved the planned unit forward to create a tight, functional island space. The second revision took a little more creative thinking.
The first set of final plans, featuring the original pool allocation, and the perimeter kitchen.
The original pool design, seen above, positioned the pool farther back, leaving more patio room for our clients. Ultimately, this plan did not end up working, and we were faced with the task of moving the pool nearly ten feet forward in the design. Unlike the kitchen repositioning, moving an entire pool is not a minor design change.
But this is a great example of why Water and Earth really likes to stay involved with our projects from beginning to end. If, at any point in the process something comes up that impacts the design, we are there to problem solve. Without the designer's involvement, clients at this point would have been faced with a difficult decision of reconfiguring the space without an expert, or nixing the original design altogether.
Instead, we worked to create a new final rendering that incorporated the necessary changes and input from the client. The result was a space that solved the problem of the repositioned pool, without eliminating any usable space in the process.
Final Concepts and Renderings
In talks about how to solve the pool relocation, the client had mentioned they may be interested in using an idea from the initial concepts, and creating a raised deck behind the pool. This sounded great to us.
The pool, pushed forward 10 feet. In this extra space at the rear of the property, a raised deck was formed, allowing room for tanning, relaxing, and cannon balls over the three new sheer descent water features.
Without wasting any time, we re-rendered the project and created an elevated deck that doubled as a jumping platform into the pool. This rendering turned a bump in the road into a design everybody loved.
A closer shot of the added deck. In the background you see the pergola from the last set of renderings.
Aerial views of the final rendered concept, included the narrow, tiered retaining wall, raised deck, and new sheer descent water features.
Of course, last minute revisions can be stressful. But we viewed this as opportunity to get creative, and become problem solvers for our clients. In the end, these homeowners got the functional space they needed, and all elements of the design were where they needed to be. Everybody hopes for smooth sailing, but we know better than anyone that in this business, that's not always realistic.
Still, after seeing the final product, we think you’ll agree that a little bit of extra work was well worth the trouble.
After such a long design process, it goes without saying that we were over the moon when this space was finally completed. From conception to construction, we went through many different imaginations and iterations of this design. What we ended up with was an incredible, innovative, a little bit funky, and entirely what our clients were looking for.
The finished space, overlooking the pool. You see the raised deck which doubles as a launching pad for jumps into the pool below. In the background you see the covered pergola at the far side of the property.
Throughout this complicated design process, we were careful not to lose sight of materiality. Our clients were as invested in the material that made up their space as they were in the design of the yard itself. In these finished photos, you see the alternative diamond TechoBloc pavers, in multiple shades.
Looking out over the pool from the raised, IPE wood deck.
These diamond pavers are broken up with larger pavers to divide the space, and prevent a feeling of complete uniformity. IPE decking ties in seamlessly with the cedar pergola cover, seen below, supported by powdered coated steel. This same cedar is then used to mask the air conditioning unit.
The custom pergola, constructed with powdered coated steel frame and cedar roofing. A discrete outdoor shower is visible in the right hand edge of the frame. The cover gives our homeowners privacy and protection from even the brightest midday sun.
The photo below shows that retained grass space, as well as the repositioned kitchen which has been pushed forward off the fence. This resulted in a functional island with built in bar seating, providing friends and family with a place to eat and socialize.
A look towards the backyard from the retained, grassy space. The kitchen is seen, moved forward off the fence to create a functional island unit.
Lighting is an important part of any well-designed outdoor living space. In this Los Altos landscape design project, it guides you from kitchen, to pool, to deck, to covered pergola. Even the new, sheer descent features are outfitted with LED lights to bring excitement and visual interest, as well as navigability to this yard long after the sun goes down.
The new, sheer descent feature. All three waterfalls are outfitted with bright, LED lighting to make them visible once the sun goes down.
Water and Earth is Committed to Our Clients, and Our
Life doesn’t always go exactly to plan, and neither does the landscape design process. But at Water and Earth, we are committed to our clients. That means valuing feedback, being open to revisions, and acting as advocates for our clients when complications arise.
Some companies may be happy to design a space and let the pieces fall where they may. But we love our designs, and care about our clients. We want to see a finished space, and a satisfied homeowner, and we will put in the extra legwork to make it happen.
For this Los Altos space, every revision and workaround was well worth the effort. The final product is an undeniably functional, beautiful space that meets our client’s needs and looks great doing it.