San Jose Landscape Design Challenge: Modern Spanish Revival Backyard
Updated: Jan 28
For a landscape design company like Water and Earth Landscape Design, one of the most equally interesting and challenging projects we can be given is the task of designing a modern outdoor living space for a home and property that is decidedly not modern. That is the dilemma we faced with this Spanish Revival Home in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose. We came across this project after sharing another recently finished design to the Willow Glen neighborhood group on Facebook. It was in that Facebook group that we met our clients.
Originally from Denmark, the owners of this home had moved to the San Jose area for tech jobs. After finding and purchasing their home in the Palm Haven neighborhood, they made plans to completely redo the outdoor living space, as well as redesign the front yard of the home. In Denmark, they had been immersed in Scandinavian design and contemporary spaces, as has been the norm in many other countries for a long while.
Keeping this in mind, they longed to create a similar modern feel to their newly purchased Spanish revival. However, there was a catch. Looking at the space it was difficult to envision how they would transform the traditional Spanish style design into something more contemporary, (Spanish tile roofs doesn’t exactly scream modern!). This is where we came in.
When the clients originally reached out to Water and Earth, we were ecstatic. Not just because of the project, but because of the challenges this project presented. Not only were we confronted with the task of creating a forward thinking space in an outdated yard, but the property also shared property lines with neighbors on all three sides. On one of these sides sat the neighbor's shed/studio, large and demanding attention as soon as you walked onto the property.
Many houses in the Willow Glen area share property lines, and much of the community is a zero lot line neighborhood, so challenges like this often are encountered in outdoor design projects in the area. To add an additional consideration, there was a considerable change in elevation between the two properties. This is fairly common in San Jose, but can present unique obstacles of its own. Already existing on the property in question was an outdoor sauna, a unique feature to properties in the Willow Glen and Campbell area.
Fortunately, it’s exactly these unique challenges that require the kind of creative problem solving and client collaboration that we love. Over the next few months, we discussed design ideas, materials, budget constraints, and all of the challenges that come along with a project of this kind and eventually settling on a design we believed in.
Many of our San Jose projects, especially those in the Willow Glen or Campbell area, include a similar wishlist. Covered seating, a second auxiliary sitting area, and space for dogs, kids, gardens and landscaping complemented by beautiful lighting solutions all are high priority. Some lists expand to include pools, and water or fire features. In this project, we focused on meeting all of our clients design requirements, while navigating the unique challenges the property presented.
Conceptual Design Phase
After we reviewed the property and ran our site analysis, we finalized this client’s wishlist and began work on the conceptual stage of the landscape design. This conceptual stage is always the first part of the design process and allows us to introduce initial ideas and leaves the project open to collaboration and feedback from the client. For this project, we presented two conceptual designs with the same wishlist, but in different layouts with different vantage points. We’ll refer to these layouts as Concept A and Concept B.
In this design, it was important to create a multi faceted space capable of hosting entertainment features such as a fireplace, as well as landscaping and lawn space, complete with modern touches to tie it all together. The client’s home is laid out so that the living area and master bedroom are within 20 feet of one another. In this design, we connected the two spaces with the same deck, giving homeowners the ability to enter and exit the home at two different points all at the same elevation. From the deck, you would step down onto the paver patio which contains a fireplace in the corner, and is covered by a classically styled pergola, giving our clients both covered and uncovered seating.
Once sitting and enjoying the fireplace, this design provides lawn space featuring modern steppers to guide you from the decking and patio area to the walkway around the side of the house, and through to the sauna. Concept A was developed early in the overall design process, and in this conceptual design, we took note to not make the space feel too busy, as we knew that busier designs take away from a modern feel. To achieve this simplistic feel, we used few colors, opting to play with varying shades, and took a more simplistic approach to landscaping and planting. We also chose not to draw certain elements such as the pergola to allow our clients to focus on the most important view of the design, uninterrupted.
With Concept B, we went in a different direction. While the lawn and landscaping looks largely the same as a whole, you will notice a large paving patio in place of the connecting deck. This creates a space that is almost completely level, and creates a more private space, as the lower the elevation creates a taller fence taking you completely out of a neighbor's line of view. Yards become more separated and close windows feel farther away.
In this design, we moved the fireplace closer to the house so that our clients would be able to view it from the master bedroom in the evening. We also included a wooden bench beneath the pergola, where the patio and lawn are divided by a planting bed. Even though this space has less usable real estate than Concept A, it gives the client the opportunity to have a larger lawn and more space for planting.
Overall, this conceptual phase was a success and after some conversation, the clients ultimately chose Concept B. We used this conceptual design to continue to flush out the rest of the design, adding and modifying elements as needed. By approaching the process this way, we were able to present a big picture idea to our clients, without presenting them an overwhelming or overcomplicated series of details and steps. We find that the more accessible the first stage of design feels, the more the client feels that they understand and are able to give constructive feedback.
Edited Concept Design
While initial concepts allow our clients to see the two directions we’d like to bring the outdoor space, the edited concept may be the most important step in the conceptual phase. Here we are taking the discussion and feedback from the first two options and boiling it down for a revision. In this edited concept, the deck that connected the master bedroom door to the back door remains. The clients step down into their covered outdoor fireplace/patio area that is covered by a pergola. To give the design more substance and some interesting elevations, the posts of the pergola terminate into the raised beds surrounding the outdoor living area. Additionally we are playing with material layout here running the decking boards and the slats of the pergola and competing 45 degree angles. The perimeter of the yard is surrounded by yet to be determined privacy planting.
Once this step is completed, it’s fair to say that we have a very close ideas of where this design is going and a preliminary ideas of the materials and color options.
With all concept feedback gathered, we only then began to move forward in preparing the clients a 3-D rendering. Unlike many other local landscape design or design build companies, we prefer to figure out the infrastructure in a 2D world and visualize how the space will be used as well as obtain feedback from our clients. To us, this is more important than immediately visualizing a design in a 3-D world. Starting out of the gate with 3-D can cause confusion and take focus away from layout and function and immediately in to thinking about details that don’t need attention yet.
Once the 3-D rendering is created, clients are able to see their space come to life. In this rendering, we can show how the space will look at different times of day, with varying shadows and light, and gives clients a great idea of how their space will really look once it is finished. Below, you can see a few different slides from our 3-D presentation.
This first 3-D rendering above shows the vantage point from the left side of the yard, walking up from the garage. The client will see all the aspects agreed upon from the conceptual design, also including the connecting deck from concept A, the paver patio, and the pergola crown with a fireplace and surrounding planting beds as shown in the edited concept. The perimeter of the patio is lush to create privacy for our clients, as well as block the aforementioned shed.
In this next rendering, you can see a view that starts beneath the pergola, next to the fireplace and looks towards the other end of the property to the sauna. Doors on the right lead into the master bedroom and the existing lemon tree remains. Also visible is the walkway leading to the sauna flanked by raised garden beds.
The next vantage point looks toward the main outdoor living space, and shows the view from the existing sauna towards the new installation. Here, clients are given a better view of the raised garden beds, the steppers, and the plants against the home.
When we showed these renderings to our client, they were thrilled. Being able to see all of their feedback from the conceptual phase applied to the 3-D design was exciting, and they were able to have a great idea of what their space could look like. After viewing, the client decided they wanted their outdoor living space to resemble this 3-D design. From here, we moved into a material discovery process where we could compare what they wanted, versus what we had in mind, and how both of those things correlated to the original design challenges.
When it comes to materials, we typically have an idea of what direction we want to take the project. Some of these material ideas we include in the 3-D renderings, even if we haven’t necessarily presented them to the client quite yet. In this stage, it’s crucial to consider all available options.
From paving, to concrete, to decking and outdoor lighting, there’s a huge variety of choices. It’s important to us to run though all of these options with our clients. Some options can be viewed sufficiently online or at a distance, but most of them require physical interaction or in person evaluation. Luckily there is a ready supply of samples to share with our clients that we provide regularly.
For the connective deck, it was important to use a composite or lumber product. Additionally, we wanted to use a hardscaping option that would complement both the existing Spanish tile of the home, as well as the new outdoor installation without being at odds with other homes in the Willow Glen area. Our biggest concern in material selection was determining the decking and paving materials, and ensuring our choices would be complementary without becoming homogenous.
Because our clients desired a low maintenance option, we decided to go with a composite decking. The timber tech composite decking shown in the final project photos are made from recycled plastic materials which are then colored and textured to look like processed lumber. This decking has become a very popular product for eco conscious customers for it’s lower environmental impact, especially here in the San Jose area. To complement the decking, our clients opted for a popular natural stone, bluestone, which you can see samples of below against the decking color options. The competing yet complementary colors of the material play off each other, add interest to the space, and make the design pop.
In the next photo, you can see a sample of a tile option to be used in the fireplace design. We knew the tile chosen here would play a big part in bringing the design full circle and making all the elements cohesive, so we took our time making the choice.
We wanted many of the materials in the space to differ, but play off of each other texturally and color wise. Keeping this in mind, we chose a gray subway style tile, as shown in the rendering below for the veneer of the fireplace design and extended the bluestone of the patio up onto the wall as a cap. We finished the space with a light gray paint to tie the space together.
Contracting and Communication
With the materials chosen, planting dialed in, and outdoor lighting determined, we put together the final plans and began to reach out to our construction partners to have the project priced. Once we introduce the projects to potential contractors, we make sure to go through every detail so that contractors understand the intent of the design, what they need to build, and what they should price for. Below, the final plans include a site plan, material plan, planting plan and lighting plan.
Because of the complexity of the project, we decided to bring in two separate companies located here in San Jose. The first company, the carpenter for the project, was brought in to handle fencing replacement, the pergola, fireplace as well as the deck. The second company was a landscape and hardscaping company brought in to handle all of the stonework, stucco, landscaping and planting, and lighting installation. Though this was a necessary step, bringing in two separate contractors presented new challenges.
In this case, the two companies did not know each other, so designing a working relationship meant juggling scheduling. Often, one company would finish one aspect of the project just so that the other contractor could come in to complete another section. For example, the landscaping company had to execute demolition in order to prepare the site for the carpenter. Once the carpenter finished, the landscaping company had to come back and pick up where they left off.
This type of coordination can be a trying process, but it’s one of the many reasons we keep our clients engaged and informed throughout the construction process. Informing our clients of scheduling issues, as well as complications and changes is a way for us to inspire confidence and trust in our working relationships and keep all essential personnel in the loop.
Throughout this project, we were confronted with many necessary changes to materials, layouts, orientation, and the overall concept. The reality is that it is rare for a project to be completed 100% as the plans originally showed. This is one of the many reasons we stay engaged with our projects throughout its execution.
During construction, different opportunities and complications are realized, and decisions must be made about what and how to mitigate them, and we know it’s important to keep our clients involved in these decisions. Doing so allows us to have seamless communication that allows these big decisions to be made quickly without compromising the satisfaction of our clients or the forward mobility of the construction process. Decisions in this project included the orientation of decking boards, slats of the pergola, and planting changes, as well as ideas on how to mask the pesky shed on the property line.
Throughout the installation process, our emphasis on communication allowed construction to run smoothly. This afforded us space and the opportunity to expand on existing ideas, collect client feedback, and make the final design even better than the initial concept. Its easy to believe that as designers we have the best ideas, but the truth is that after consulting with our clients we may often realize that this isn’t quite the case.
In this project, the additional time for client feedback prompted some last minute design edits that brought the space full circle in a quicker and more interesting way.
The photos below show different ideas for the vegetable beds, raised planting beds, and the relation between these features and the Pergola. Throughout construction, we played around with this spacing, the deck stairs, as well as how to cover the intrusive shed.
Ultimately, we decided to stick with the original design, but it was incredibly fun to explore other options, and our emphasis on both contractor and client communication is what made this exploration possible. In the end, the installation was beautiful.Our client relationships are what make our work possible. Without them, we wouldn’t be a successful landscape design company. When we are able to have them involved with the process from start to finish, the results speak for themselves.
After the demo was completed, the carpenter came in and began his work. First on the agenda was to begin the new deck construction. Often in a project of this magnitude, we begin by building the outdoor living space that is closest to the house. This allows us to set the elevations for the rest of the property, or match the deck with the bottom of each of the doors. It’s impossible to build out the patio without understanding the elevations of the deck design. If one were to go about this process backwards, they could end up in a situation where dimensions are unequal. It’s important to keep in mind that if one thing isn’t correctly dimensioned, then symmetry is lost in many places, and the entire design can lose balance quickly. Additionally, having to make up for an inconsistency in one place will lead to many inconstancies throughout the space.
We knew that the deck would look amazing in the end, but the complexity of the project led to quite a bit of babysitting on our part. We were slightly concerned that our choice of a four-color deck design would look too busy. We had been careful to pick colors that complimented each other, but had also decided to add a contrasting gray to the mix. To our relief, it looked great as it began to take shape, but we were eager to see how it would look with the rest of the space which hadn’t yet been built out.
The photo below shows the decking completed and the composite laid, as well as the beginnings of the fireplace and pergola installation. Behind, you can see the horizontal cedar fencing going into place next to the neighbor's shed. From this photo you can imagine walking out of the home, and stepping out onto the deck. From there, you step down to the walkway and out into the front of the property, or continue through the space.
The Completed Space
From the corner of the deck, we can see the finished four color deck, the beginnings of the bluestone patio, the seat wall, and the raised beds with the blue stone cap and white stucco. The fireplace in the distance with the gray subway style tile is surrounded by the pergola up top, and the horizontal cedar fence to the rear of the property.
The outdoor lighting illuminates the steps of the deck, as well as the seat walls and trees which surround the space. The space was designed to give a cozy feel in the evenings, something which was achieved. The cover of the pergola, the fire pit, and the seat walls create an immersive experience. Rather than sitting on top of the living space, our clients feel like they are truly sitting within it.
A detailed shot of the pergola roof shows the beautiful cedar wood designed to match the fencing. Traditionally, slats of a pergola run either horizontally or vertically. We decided to take that idea and spin it, running the slats on a 45 degree angle to complement the space. This way, at high noon when the suns shine into the space, the pergola throws shadows which travel across the space giving additional visual interest.
Also clearly seen here is the lack of hearth, or mantle to the fireplace. This once consistent face was designed to make the application appear as more of a wall with a fire inside, rather than a traditional fireplace design, which adds to the modern feel. Hidden underneath the blue stone of the wall, wall mounted lights shine down and illuminate travel areas as well as giving ambience. Watching lighting take shape is exciting, as no matter how we explain it, the effect it gives to the space is always more moving in person than it ever appears on paper.
Looking at the home from the rear of the fireplace and sitting area, you can see the single steel planter chosen by our clients. Using weathering steel was another way we added contemporary flair to create a more modern space. As time goes on, this steel will continue to weather and rust, adding more to the space. Also noted here is the unique post design of the pergola, which terminates into raised planting instead of the earth.
The final photo displays the completed deck design, the sunken outdoor living space, and all of the surrounding features.
We fell in love with this design throughout the construction process. As we neared the finish line, it only became more and more apparent that it was going to turn out beautifully. Though we’ve included many images of the final product, photos simply don’t do this project justice. When it comes to outdoor living spaces, no camera can match the impression a design like this leaves on the human eye.
Water and Earth landscape design is located in San Jose, California, and specializes in outdoor living spaces, landscape design, and consulting. Whether it’s a shared property line in Willow Glen, or simply an outdated yard waiting for a unique design to give it new life, we love rising to the challenge and working with clients that share our vision and passion for creating unique, complex, and interesting spaces.
There’s no question that backyards are expensive to construct. This is a universal truth. Given the opportunity to invest in a stereotypical design offered by so many companies, or one that is developed over several months with you, the client, specifically in mind, we believe the choice becomes clear. Water and Earth loves to help people realize their dream outdoor space, turning challenges into opportunities, and leaving you with something truly beautiful in its wake.