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San Jose Landscape Design Challenge: Maximizing Functionality in a Small Space

Introducing the Space


An aerial look at the small, narrow backyard space. Visible is the existing outdoor kitchen which was refurbished, and the patio which was replaced with new hardscaping.

One of the most important parts of any great landscape design is making sure that the proposed design works with the layout of the property. While many homes have a traditional front yard, a larger backyard living space, and two narrow side approaches, this isn’t a universal formula. This home, in the Campbell neighborhood of San Jose, CA, had a main backyard space that was smaller and rather narrow, without much functional depth.


The space available between the home and the fence was limited, and the existing yard was piecemealed with different outdoor living projects that never quite came together over the years. The homeowners were eager to have one cohesive space that was custom fit to their yard’s unique shape and layout. We were happy to help.


Another look at the initial space. Visible at the end of the yard is an old elevated patio deck, which was removed.

As with all of our design work, the process began with a thorough conversation with our clients to understand their vision for the space. These conversations are essential to our design process to give us the feedback and insight we need to bring forward designs that are tailored to our clients’ everyday lives.


After speaking with these homeowners, we hit the drawing board and came back to present two, 2D design concepts.


2D Renderings


No matter how big or small the project is, all of our designs start with high quality 2D renderings before a 3D render is ever presented. 2D designs are important tools that allow us to help our clients see themselves in the new designs, without feeling locked in to any element.


3D renderings can sometimes feel overwhelming, as though the project is set in stone before any feedback is ever given. The 2D process allows for the back and forth conversations and trouble shooting with the homeowner that is critical to a successful end result.


Concept A


Concept A

In Concept A, seen above, the homeowners enter their new yard from a gate, stepping onto an expanse of turf that holds their existing trampoline. From there, the clients proceed onto a series of concrete stepper, walking past landscaping and their existing outdoor kitchen which is tucked into the corner against the home.


In this design, all hardscaping is at one level. Under the outdoor kitchen is an auxiliary patio, flanked by landscaping and benches around the perimeter. Stepping off the patio, the homeowners find themselves on the new deck. To the left is a fire pit area, complete with a gas fire pit and bench seating. Continue along the deck, and the spa is tucked into the far corner of the yard.


Reaching the end of the deck, the homeowners can step back onto a series of outdoor pavers, and move out of their backyard and around the side of the house.


Concept B


Concept B

Concept B sees many of the same design concepts and layouts as those proposed in Concept A. However, in this version of the design, the one-level hardscaping has been traded for something more dimensional. The homeowners still enter through the gate onto turf, and proceed along steppers to the outdoor kitchen and patio. However, the patio and neighboring decking are no longer at the same elevation.


Instead, the deck is gone, replaced by another stone patio that you step down to from the kitchen area. This gives the feel of separation of spaces, while keeping continuity in the materials. In this sunken area is a new proposed fire pit with bench seating.


Also different in Concept B is the placement of the spa. Instead of tucking it against the house as in Concept A, it is along the back of the property. From the spa, the homeowners can get out and step onto their patio, or walk along concrete steppers around the side of the house.


3D Renderings


After presenting both design directions, our clients like elements of each. While they preferred the idea of a space that was on one continuous grade, they liked many of the layout elements of the second design. Keeping that in mind, we moved into the 3D rendering phase.


Turf inlaid with concrete steppers leading into the space.

In these images, you can see how both concepts have been blended to create one cohesive design. As in the 2D concepts, the homeowners step through their gate onto turf, and proceed along steppers to the outdoor kitchen and auxiliary patio. From here, they move evenly along onto the new decking, complete with a fire pit and spa. The concrete steppers present in both Concept A and B move you around towards the side of the home.


A look at the 3D rendering of the final design. Seen here is the new, evenly graded hardscaping, pre-existing outdoor kitchen, and new fire pit and spa.

After presenting the 3D images to our clients, there were only slight revisions to be made. We are always sure to let our clients know that even in the 3D rendering stage, there is still room for adjustment. We always want our client’s to voice their opinions, especially when the feedback allows room for changes that will produce a better final project.


In this case, the homeowners were not pleased with the size of the proposed pergola above the dining area. They felt it was too small, and didn’t offer as much functionality to their space as a larger model could. Our challenge was to find a way to cover the entire outdoor kitchen space without making the yard feel closed off.


The initial pergola design was smaller, covering the fire pit and only a small part of the outdoor dining space. This was reimagined in the final design.

To do this, we decided to use a sky lift system pergola. As you will see in the final photos, this is a pergola that attaches directly to the home, giving it an elevation that is above that of roof. This creates much needed breathing room in the design, while ensuring the pergola is structurally sound..Hearing this feedback, we went back to design one final round of 2D before proceeding with construction.


Final Design



In this final concept, you can see how the design resolved. The even grading, mix of hardscaping materials, and layout are all the same as that reflected in the 3D design. However, in these images we have planned for a larger, elevated pergola to span the length of the outdoor dining space. Additionally, we have added bench seating behind the fire pit, extending to the right side of the spa.


With the green light from the homeowners, we moved to construction, and ended up with a beautiful space that was not only beautiful, but ticked all of the boxes on our client’s wishlist.


The Finished Space: San Jose Landscape Design


In the end, this space came together exactly as we had envisioned it. The homeowners step through their gate into a green, newly landscaped area finished with turf and space for their existing trampoline.


The final pergola was large, covering the entire dining area. Here you can see the lift technology, allowing for design impact and function without crowding the space.

From there, they walk along steppers directly onto their newly designed outdoor kitchen and dining area. The existing kitchen was refabricated and given a facelift, while the new patio came to life in a beautiful bluestone. In these images you can see the large new pergola that spans a large portion of the narrow backyard. You can see how it is anchored into the home’s roof, giving it lift. This allows the space to remain covered without feeling closed in or claustrophobic.


The pre-existing outdoor kitchen got a new life, trying in seamlessly to the pergola above and modernizing the feel of the dining area.

Along the back of the property is the new board form planter wall finished with OutDeco panels and Timbertech composite bench seating. Moving from under the pergola, you step onto the new deck that is finished with a fire pit, new outdoor furniture, and a spa. The homeowners can then step off of the decking on to more large concrete steppers that carry them through additional green space and around the side of the home.


A closer look at the board form wall and composite bench seating along the backside of the property.


Small Spaces with Big Impact


Water and Earth brought big design and maximum functionality to this small, San Jose backyard.

Every outdoor space is different, and presents different design challenges. In this San Jose landscape design project, our task was to take a small, narrow space and unlock its full potential. In the end, we not only created a backyard that looked great, but also managed to create a cohesive and extremely functional space for the homeowners.


At Water and Earth, there’s no yard too big or too small. We believe every space has its own untapped potential, and that great design is possible for every . To see more design walkthroughs like this one, visit our blog. To see what we’re up to and find more outdoor design inspiration, follow us on Instagram.



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