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San Jose Landscape Design Challenge: ADUs, Elevation. A contemporary outdoor living space.

Updated: Aug 18

Introducing the Space


Every project Water and Earth takes on has its own focal point and individual challenges. It is these challenges that most inform the space, working as a rudder to guide the design process. In this San Jose landscape design project, we were faced with a total backyard renovation, anchored by a newly constructed accessory dwelling unit (ADU), and a unique challenge in elevations.



An aerial view of the San Jose property, during early stages of design conceptualization. The ADU is seen in the far right corner.


ADUs are common to San Jose properties. They allow homeowners to maximize and expand their livable space without the enormous financial leap of selling and buying a larger home. Often rented out or occupied by family, the clients in this project had constructed their ADU for the client’s sister.


The Challenge


The problem? Once finished, the ADU, which was supposed to have been constructed level with the main home’s backdoor, had been built at an improper elevation. This unevenness in elevation created both a functional issue and a design challenge.


So the question was this: How do we design a beautiful outdoor living space that not only creates natural cohesion between the main home and the ADU, but also allows for the necessary raised patio, decking, and practical drainage? And furthermore, how do we tackle these challenges without compromising materiality, visual interest, and day to day functionality?


The answer? Innovative design, determination, creativity, and the inspiration to play with groundbreaking materials in a way that had never been done before.


This project holds a special place in our heart. Not only is the final result incredibly beautiful, but it was one of the first projects that really put Water and Earth on the map. We’re excited to talk you through the process, so let’s get into it.


Conceptual Design Phase


After many meetings with our clients and familiarizing ourselves with the challenges of the

space, we began the conceptual design phase. In this phase, we present two, 2D conceptual designs to clients, accruing feedback to form a final design concept. In this project, both designs had many elements in common based on items we knew were on the homeowner’s wishlist.


Among these items were ample grassy space, a connective outdoor living area from home to ADU, a fire feature, and an emphasis on privacy and outdoor seating. Both concept A and concept B integrated these elements, albeit in slightly different ways.


Concept A



Pictured above you see our first concept, Concept A. A real focus for us in this initial design was figuring out how we could blend design components and give the client the grassy space they needed, while leaving plenty of room to relax. All of this needed to be done while creating a natural sense of transition from home, through the design, into the ADU.


In Concept A, you see we have created a long, linear living space with steps up to a raised deck that flanks the ADU in the bottom right hand corner. This masks the prior contractors mix up that left the ADU sitting higher than the main home. From both the linear living space and the raised deck, you are able to step down onto concrete pavers that guide you through a grassy space onto an auxiliary patio.


Surrounding the entire design is lush privacy plantings, as well as designated space for a fire feature at the bottom of the design, serving as a common, transitional space from the ADU to the main home. From this design, homeowners can picture both themselves and residents of the ADU stepping out of their home, and gathering around a fireplace just steps from their backdoors.


Concept B



After Concept A, we presented Concept B, pictured above. Concept B has many similar elements. Included in Concept B are the raised deck around the patio, the fireplace, privacy plantings, and the long linear patio.


Key differences in this design are the removal of the auxiliary patio in favor of another decking tier. This leaves more green space for the kids, but also allows the key design elements to continue to shine through.


In both designs, we were able to play with material and space to create a natural movement through the yard. Each family member is carefully considered. From the deck around the ADU, to the common gathering spaces, and the green for the kids, no one’s personal usage of the yard is overlooked.


Still, even with designs drawn up, we had practical questions to contend with. Among them was the issue of drainage within the context of our designs.


The Question of Drainage


In both designs, you will notice there is a unique strip of material running down the center of the linear living space. This strip is actually made from composite decking material, and houses the drainage that makes this design possible. But why is it necessary in the first place?



A closer look at the inside of this drainage strip, which not only flushes away water, but illuminates the space at night. This open space was covered by TimberTech composite decking.


In landscape design, it’s important that any patios are built at a 2% pitch leading away from the home so that water may properly drain. Because we needed to create elevation in the deck surrounding the ADU, we also needed to be able to create a step down from the hardscaping into the rest of the yard. But there wasn’t enough natural slope in the yard to create that step while retaining the proper 2% pitch.


Instead of abandoning our design for a less interesting alternative, we did what we do best; We got creative.


An aerial view of the finished space, highlighting the innovative drainage strip. This strip not only hides lighting and drainage material, but incorporates more TimberTech composite wood, bringing the deck of the main house and of the ADU together.


This strip, which is seen throughout the photos of this project, is built from the same TimberTech composite wood that forms the decking and the fireplace facade. But beneath this strip of composite decking is a drainage system that flushes water away from the home and into daylight. This bit of ingenuity allowed us to keep the elevated deck, retain the initial fluidity in design between the home and ADU, all while remaining safe and responsible in our design standards.


The Finalized Concept


After reviewing both Concept A and B, the clients liked both options. Ultimately, they opted for a bit of a hybrid, featuring a few minor design tweaks. This final conceptualization is pictured below.



The final concept for this San Jose landscape design project-- featuring the signature patio and deck, with additional planters and a diagonal paver path bisecting the lawn.


Here, you see the linear patio which connects a flush deck off of the main house to a raised deck surrounding the ADU. The auxiliary patio from Concept A has remained, but the pavers have moved to divide the lawn in a clean diagonal. Other additions were 18” planters and seat walls. These planters, like many aspects in our designs, serve multiple purposes.


They soften the design in the way that plantings do, and add texture and color. But at an 18” rise, they also provide the perfect opportunity for additional seating throughout the space. Now, even when all additional couches or chairs are taken, seating opportunities occur naturally amongst the design.


After seeing these plans, the clients were as excited as we were about the direction of their yard. We got the green light, and it was time to move ahead with construction.


Construction


Construction is different with every project depending on the design, the materials, and whatever unforeseen bumps that pop up along the way. In this San Jose project, it took careful monitoring of the process on our part to ensure that every aspect of the design was coming together as we intended.


A natural, bluestone patio is laid and construction of the deck is underway. The decking via the main home is flush with the stone patio.


With intricate designs such as this one, it becomes incredibly obvious why so many of our clients appreciate our willingness to act as project management even after the design phase has wrapped.


Looking out from the corner over the house toward the far side of the yard. The auxiliary bluestone patio has been laid, and artificial turf has been placed.


Throughout this construction process, we closely monitored and documented the progress of our trusted contractors. From laying the foundation, to building the planters, and finishing the turf, Water and Earth was there to ensure the end result was a true reflection of the design our clients had fallen in love with.


Materiality


Every design is different. Sometimes the focal point is a showstopping view. Sometimes, we’re working to disguise, or draw the eye from one area of a space to the other. In this design, the materials were the star of the show.


Water and Earth is proud to work with the best in the business. From masons, to carpenters, to suppliers, we know that to make the most of our designs, we need to find the best that the Bay area has to offer. That’s why we love working with TimberTech.


TimberTech Composite Decking


In recent years, composite decking has become increasingly popular. And we get why. It’s beautiful, versatile, durable, low maintenance...the list goes on. But to reap these benefits, you need to make sure you’re working with the best possible product. For us, that means using TimberTech.


While we’ve used their product in many of our designs, this one stands out. Why? Well, typically, designers will use one, or maybe two colors of decking in a project. In this space, we used three.

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A shot of the finished space, spotlighting the masterful blend of three shades of TimberTech composite decking. It is a highlight of the space, commanding attention without competing with the rest of the design.


This was the first time any design company in the nation had utilized three colors of composite decking in their project. And the results speak for themselves. The finished product is a beautiful blend of natural shades, drawing the eye without confusing the onlooker.


The composite decking is integrated throughout the space, composing both the flush and raised deck, but also covering the drainage strip and fireplace facade, as shown here.


In fact, the final result was so impressive that this project has been featured not only on the TimberTech page, but in the renowned Dwell magazine as well. Both articles provide even more in depth coverage of this product, as well as offering an opportunity to learn about the positive impact that composite decking is making in the outdoor design space.


At the end of the day, we strive to merge innovation with classic design appeal. This San Jose landscape design project is a perfect example of classic materials with a new age twist, and we love seeing how much people love it.


It’s always most important to us to know that a homeowner loves their space, but when a finished project resonates with an even larger audience, that’s the cherry on top.


Natural Stone


While the original concepts of this design included concrete pavers, as time went on, we decided to shift materials to feature natural stone instead. In the end, we chose a natural stone called Flamed Bluestone. This name refers to the process with which the bluestone is treated.

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The finished, flamed bluestone patio, bisected and enclosed by composite decking and capped on the far end by a remote control, gas fireplace.


In this process, the natural stone is cut and then torched. The end product is an aggregate, textured finish that not only looks great, but provides great traction for the homeowner. This Flamed Bluestone was used in the long linear patio, as well as the pavers bisecting the yard, and the auxiliary patio as well.


This is yet another way in which Water and Earth is able to consider not only the aesthetic of the space, but its functionality as well. Our end goal is to create the most beautiful, and most livable backyard possible, and choosing material carefully is central to this experience.


Design Details


They say the devil is in the details, and this project is full of them. Even past the main building blocks of the design, smaller elements of this space continue to shine through. From a pass-through bar on the raised deck of the ADU, to the choice of plantings, no corner of this space has been overlooked.


A bar was constructed around the perimeter of the ADU, creating a functional pass-through kitchen window.


Above you can see one of the most fun elements of this design. The ADU was designed with these congruent kitchen windows which face the main home. We used these pass through windows as an opportunity to create an outdoor bar.


Not only does this create additional seating, but it gives the ADU even more natural connection to the rest of the space. It helps the structure to feel like less of an addition, and more of a natural element. Something that has always been part of the yard, that is intentional, and in constant conversation with the main home.


The remote control fireplace, which ignites via remote control. Perfect for cozying up and having long conversations on a chilly fall evening.


Another highlight of this design is the remote control, gas fireplace. Anchoring the middle ground between the home and the ADU, a gathering space for family and friends forms. A press of a button ignites the feature, and illuminates chilly winter nights.


Beyond the hardscaping, considerable thought was put into the plantings as well. If you haven’t noticed by now, the lawn space in this design is actually artificial turf. When choosing artificial grass, we’re careful to find material that is as realistic in silhouette and form as possible. This meant filling the turf to obscure any base material, and making sure it overlaid the natural stone pavers as seamlessly as possible.


Artificial turf casts natural shadows on the bluestone steppers.


This meticulous care carried over to the planter boxes and privacy plantings as well. The Fern Pines chosen for privacy planting are native to the Bay area. At the time of writing, the plantings pictured below likely fill the entire fence, and are standing nearly 25 ft high.


A backdrop of Fern Pine privacy plantings, mirrored in the foreground by the planters, featuring lighting, Mexican pebble, and lavender. These planters form an 18” seatwall, creating even more usable space for socializing.


The planter boxes feature beautiful Mexican beach pebbles, and are filled with lavender, softening the space while feeling at home in the environment.


The Completed Space


When construction had wrapped, and all stone had been laid and washed, the lighting had been connected, and the finishing touches had been tweaked, we were able to proceed to our favorite part of the entire process-- admiring the final result.



As the designers, we have confidence in all of our concepts and ideas. But not even we can fully envision just how great something will look in real life versus on paper. And each time a project such as this one wraps, we are left feeling over the moon.


We were able to transform a backyard featuring a disjointed ADU and wonky elevation, to a beautiful, seamless space where family and friends can relax and unwind. From the impact of the tri color composite wood and natural bluestone, to the smaller details in plantings and bar tops, every element of this design comes together to create a truly connected outdoor living area.


Where some may see a complicated space as a barrier to design, we try to look at it as a chance to try something new. The end result in this San Jose landscape design project was a beautiful backyard, matched perfectly to our client’s unique wants and needs.


Thanks again to Dwell for featuring this project on their website, and to TimberTech for being a continuous partner in many of our outdoor living designs.


If you loved this space, check out some of our other design breakdowns, or head over to our Instagram for daily design inspiration!



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