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San Jose Landscape Design Challenge: Tiny Townhome Transformation

Updated: Aug 18

Introducing The Space

The majority of our designs are executed on property that holds only a single home. However, Water and Earth is always excited by the chance to step outside of our typical box and try something new. For today’s San Jose Landscape Design Challenge, we want to take you through the smallest backyard space we’ve ever worked on–a small fenced-in yard off of a Palo Alto townhome.


While we love working on larger spaces, there’s something about the prospect of a small space that really gets us excited. Figuring out how to make use of the square footage, including everything the client is looking for, all while managing to create a backyard that is seamless in design and doesn’t feel cramped or claustrophobic? It’s difficult, but we’ve never been one to back down from a challenge.


A look at the entire space. You can see an old, worn patio as well as one of the existing trees to the right of the frame.

The owners of this Palo Alto townhome came to us looking to upgrade their existing outdoor space. Their current yard was largely bare bones, with some existing outdoor furniture, an old patio underfoot, and some old trees they needed to keep.


A view along the side of the fence, including the second large tree in the space. We knew our design had to take these trees into consideration and would affect how we used the space.

The clients wanted to transform the space into an area where they could relax with kids, gather with friends, and unwind before and after a long day. Landscaping, seating, and modern-minded design aesthetic were all important to them. The main goal was to make the space feel usable, more open, and increase function without compromising on design. After talking to our clients about their vision for the space, we hit the drawing board.


2D Renderings

After initial conversations with the homeowners, we came back to present two distinct design directions. These 2D concepts, Concept A and Concept A, both aim to make the most of the limited square footage, blending varied hardscaping and careful landscaping to turn a small backyard into an at-home getaway.


Concept A


Concept A

Seen above, Concept A blends a central green lawn space with a perimeter of functional hardscaping. From their back door, the homeowners step out onto a new paver patio large enough to hold a dining set. From there, they can either step down onto turf, or up onto a new composite deck, large enough for additional outdoor seating or a portable fire pit.


This decking continues around the perimeter of the property, leaving a cut out for the existing tree, and turning into a long boardwalk at the back of the yard. This boardwalk connects to a second, tucked away seating area where the clients can enjoy a cup of coffee while looking back over their space.


Also present in this design is a small reflecting pond, softening the overall feel of the design. This pond is bordered to the left by decking, and to the right by Mexican beach pebbles and smaller landscaping. Along the right side of the yard is more natural landscaping, as well as space for the second tree, all contained by a curved wall and floating bench.


Concept B


Concept B

While Concept A made use of the central space by including lawn space, Concept B takes hardscaping a step further. In this design, homeowners step out onto a paver patio similar to that in the first concept. From here, they step up onto a composite set, large enough for auxiliary seating. However, from here the design diverges.


In place of a reflecting pond and turf, this concept makes strategic use of concrete steppers, leading to a long, question mark shaped floating bench, punctuated in the middle of the space by a water feature. Instead of a perimeter of decking, Concept B softens the edges of the design by making use of extensive landscaping.


An injection of green landscaping along the perimeter and throughout the space allows the influx of hardscaping to remain soft, colorful, inviting and full of life. This effect is enhanced by keeping the floating bench a curved, organic shape.


After reviewing both designs, our clients decided they loved the modern, cozy feel of Concept B. Using this concept as our guide, we proceeded to 3D renderings.


3D Renderings

The 3D renderings for this space brought the initial concepts to life. In these images you can better see the small size of the space, and how each element of the design works with the next to create a space that is as beautiful as it is functional.


An overview of the entire space. From the new patio, to the raised decking and curved bench wall, 3D brings this design concept to life.

Seeing the designs in 3D allowed the softness and pockets of landscaping to really shine. Tucked behind the retaining wall and between every space is more green, bringing a splash of color and life to the modern concrete steppers and decking.



A look from the back door, out towards the fence and floating, question mark shaped bench.

Looking from the back door you can see how each section of the design feels like a distinct space without becoming disjointed. While the deck is separate from the patio, which is separate from the tucked away bench seating, no space is alienated from the next. Anyone in any part of the space can gain an eyeline and have a conversation with someone in another part of the backyard.


A night shot showcasing outdoor lighting.

Also showcased in these renderings is the outdoor lighting plan. It’s important for us to know that a space will be usable at any time of day. Creating a great lighting plan not only adds ambience and showcases chosen parts of the design, but it also is essential for functionality.


In this design, strategic lighting illuminates not only the beauty of the landscaping, but seating as well. The result is a space that is beautiful, safe, and fully usable to the homeowners long after the sun goes down.


The homeowners were only more excited about the design after seeing these renderings. Once we finalized materials and got the green light, construction began. The finished product was as incredible as we’d imagined.


The Final Space

We began with the smallest space we’d ever taken on. What we finished with was a tiny piece of paradise. From the seating, to the decking, to the landscaping, the homeowners were as thrilled with the finished result as we were.



Looking from the back doors over the finished space.

Stepping out of their back doors onto a brand new paver patio, the homeowners get a beautiful view of their little outdoor oasis. To the left, a raised deck leaves space to relax in the shade of the old tree. Landscaping dots the entire backyard with flashes of flowering color and green. From the large foliage to the hanging vines, there’s almost a jungle-like quality to the finished space.



Looking out toward the curved bench from the new deck.

One area where the final design diverged from the initial plans in the space between the concrete steppers. It was decided that filling these gaps with Mexican beach pebbles would be a more durable way to add visual interest while retaining a low maintenance feel.


The old tree coming through a cut out in the new decking to provide shade to the new seating area.

We knew that lighting would be important to ensure that this smaller space was still completely functional at night. In these photos you can see how strategically placed lighting takes this space from day to night.


Carefully placed lights illuminate the step up to the deck, as well as the perimeter of the yard.

When all was said and done, we couldn’t have imagined a better result for this backyard. At Water and Earth, we know that there is no space too small if you think outside the box. Strategic design, creativity, and collaboration are all on display in these final images, and we couldn’t be more thrilled.


A side by side comparison featuring a before and after of this small outdoor living space.

Check out more projects like this one.

Feeling inspired? There’s more where this came from. Check out more about our design process or get your most pressing question answered over on our blog.


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