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Seat Walls, Steppers, and Right Angles in a Small San Jose Backyard

In today’s design breakdown, we visit the Water and Earth vaults for a unique design done for homeowners in San Jose a number of years ago. As we discussed several times on this blog, we see small and unique spaces as an opportunity to make a big impact.


This space offered us the chance to flex our creative muscles. After collaborating with the homeowners, we settled on a design that not only made the most of the uniquely shaped yard, but created cohesion where there was previously disjointed square footage.


While this blog may not be the longest project breakdown we’ve ever done, the impact of this earlier design can be seen echoed in projects we’ve done since. Let’s dive in.


Introducing The Space

When you envision an outdoor space, you probably think of a house positioned linearly on a lot. This positioning creates a rectangular backyard and front yard, with two narrow side approaches. The bulk of houses are positioned this way, but not all.


This home was positioned in such a way that the lot was split not into linear front and backyards, but into irregular geometric shapes and triangles. For most homeowners, irregularly shaped lots like these present a challenge when it comes to determining the best way to lay out and use the space.


Where many would see this as frustrating, we saw an opportunity to take this funky division of space and turn it into something great. From hard to use, to an outdoor dream, this small San Jose backyard underwent a big transformation, and it all started with two proposed design directions.


Concept A

2d rendering water and earth
Concept A

In the first design direction, Concept A, we played into a geometric division of space in both functionality and in material. The property takes on a very self-contained feel as privacy plantings line the entire perimeter of the property, including the small side lawn to the left of the home.


Stepping out of the back of the house, the homeowners find themselves on a concrete path. They can follow this around to the green space of the auxiliary lawn, or step to the right into the elbow of their yard’s most prominent point. Here, a seat wall outlines the right angle of this triangular space. Plantings soften these harsh lines.


From here, the homeowners can step back onto the concrete steppers and move towards the right side of the home. Here, another distinct division of space is introduced both in function and material. A departure from concrete, the client’s are greeted by their new deck that is home to a modern outdoor kitchen and dining area. This space is also sheltered from neighbor’s prying eyes by privacy plantings.


Stepping off of the deck, the clients move back onto the concrete steppers and exit toward the front of the home.



Concept B

2d rendering water and earth
Concept B

Where Concept A emphasized functional division of space, Concept B aims to create a more open concept layout in this naturally closed-off property. This is done not only by reducing the amount of hardscaping materials used, but by creating more open green space on both sides of the property.


While the first design direction included a lawn only on the right side of the home, Concept B ties the two yards together by laying a lawn in both spaces. This echoing in both color and material unites spaces that would feel otherwise isolated from each other.


Adding this lawn space means that the deck from the initial design has been removed. In its place, the concrete paver patio has been expanded to include a long, linear fire pit, outdoor dining, and kitchen along the back side of the property. Like in the first design, the whole of the property is lined in privacy plantings to soften the space and allow our clients to use their space without any unwanted attention from neighbors or passerbys.


The Final Design


After reviewing both directions, the homeowners decided they liked the more distinct separation of spaces presented in the first design concept. Once this was settled upon, we went to work making any requested tweaks or changes suggested by the homeowners. These changes can be seen in the final design concept, seen below.


final 2d design water and earth San Jose
The final design concept, chosen and revised through meetings with the homeowners.

Changes seen above include a revision to the perimeter plantings in the original concepts. The plantings in the left side yard have been minimized, and a long raised seat wall and planter now define that corner.


In the back triangular space, the overarching concrete paver patio of the Concept A has been revised. A small raised composite deck leads the clients out of their home. The concrete paver patio is now abbreviated by areas of Mexican beach pebbles. The overall effect is a softening of the space that feels more organic than the original design.


Additional changes can be seen in the addition of a small patch of added lawn on the right side of the home. These small touches link these distinct spaces together without changing the overall impact of the design.


3D Renderings


After the design was approved, it was time to bring the space to life in a series of 3D renders.


3d rendering of a lawn
The auxiliary lawn and seat bench.

You can see how these renderings are less detailed than versions seen in our more recent design walkthroughs. It’s always gratifying to see how we have progressed as a team over the years as our resources and skills grow with us. In the above image, you see a simple rendering of the home with the auxiliary lawn and angled seat bench.

3d aerial rendering of outdoor space water and earth
An aerial view of the main space, reflecting changes in material shown in the final design.

One of the most exciting aspects of 3D is seeing the full impact that plantings can have on a space. Here, you see how shrubs and grasses work to soften the points and right angles of this otherwise sharp property. Additionally, these renderings show how effectively landscaping introduces color to an outdoor space, even when a hardscaping palette is largely neutral.


3d rendered fire pit and seat bench water and earth
A closer look at the natural plantings and added beach pebbles which work to soften the overall design.

3d rendering of a deck water and earth
A closer look at the auxiliary deck and outdoor kitchen.

In the above images you get a closer look at both the cozy corner firepit, and outdoor kitchen and dining area. The clients appreciated how this design allowed them to capitalize on the natural shape of their lot, creating distinct spaces that were separate in function but similar in aesthetics.


A Creative Approach to Non Traditional Spaces

At Water and Earth, we’ve always been about finding creativity in the oddities and complexities of every outdoor space. Whether it’s challenging elevations, historic homes, or unusually shaped lots, what makes a backyard different is what makes it special.


In this uniquely oriented home, small, angular spaces came together to create a backyard that was not only beautiful, but functional for the whole family. From colorful, natural plantings, to modern concrete and organic wood, this San Jose home has something for everyone.


For a closer look into more unique California backyards, visit our blog. For day by day updates on our latest projects, be sure to follow us on Instagram.


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