Tuesday, June 26, 2007


My Backyard Renovation

10 years after I moved into my Capitol Hill house, I've finally conquered the backyard. The above are befores, though slightly better than the real befores. I cleaned up before I took the picture.

The space is a bit awkward -- the useable area is roughly 18 wide by 11 deep.

I've consulted several landscape architects, hip design friends and spent many an hour just sitting in what I dubbed the Pit.

Here were the problems:
1) 2 walls of bamboo and no possibility of removing it. I don't have alley access, and I'd need to get a bobcat in there to dig it out.
2) 2 walls of house -- mine and my neighbors.
3) not much light or breeze
4) all brick floor that for bobcat reasons also cannot go.
I like both the brick and the bamboo, and didn't mind having those be givens in the final plan. The more restrictions you have, the more challenging and ultimately better the design is.

I've rarely used the Pit, although the times I did were memorable and wonderful. I gathered my firends for take out thai in the pit the day I went off to Afghanistan in 2002; I gathered about 75 people for my friend Meg's rehearsal dinner, and I hosted a memorial service for a friend who was murdered in Iraq by a car bomber.

Most days though there is small reason for me to venture into the Pit -- if i want to eat or get sun, i do it on the third floor deck where there is a nice teak table and chairs and an umbrella . for mornings and hot afternoons, I have a small deck on the east front of the house, also on the third floor.

I've more or less written off using the Pit in the summer -- it's too hot and blocked from breezes, and can be buggy. But it is nicely contained for spring and fall and even winter...the trick is having something to draw me down there.

I finally figured it out: a hot tub. But not just any hot tub -- those plastic nightmares are hideous, and all that mixing of electricity and water freaks me out. I found, however, a teak soaking tub heated by a propane tank (the kind you use on your barbecue). Very Japanese...which fits nicely with the bamboo.

That would be the draw: a hot tub -- someplace warm to go when the weather is cold.

When I got back from Iraq in March 2007 I ordered it. (Going to war has a clarifying effect on your priorities. Having squeaked by once again unharmed, $2500 didn't seem like too much to spend on myself, although now...)

It FINALLY arrived (cracked) last week, and despite the (crack) it is a thing of great beauty, and needed the appropriate setting.
I work by inspiration rather than reward. The tub's arrival was the inspiration I needed.

I've drawn the backyard lay out over and over again, and decided there were a couple of things the space needed. First, the rectangular brick yard is completely exposed when you walk down the steps. There is no sense of unfolding or discovery. Just plop: there you are -- so I needed to break up the sight line a little, to give it a sense of arrival - that it feels like a place, rather than just a holding area.

The space also needed a "new" ceiling. The bamboo is 30 feet high; the houses are 40 feet high. It makes you feel ant-like, insignificant, and exposed. Not conducive to coziness, or lounging, or relaxing.

The answer came to me all at once -- a pergola. It would divide the bathing area from the lounging area, giving an impression of a small arrival, of a transition.
I investigated building techniques and quickly determined that I'd have to pour concrete footings to support the posts. Not interested in that. I can work a chop saw and a drill but pouring concrete was a bridge too far.

Last week, in a fit of borrowed creativity, I worked out a better option: a pergola/day bed. It would provide both the ceiling and the lounging and the dividing and make efficient use of small space. As a rule I like large furniture in small spaces; I don't like lots of little bits and pieces... feels like dandruff.

I say borrowed creativity because a friend, who works for the architect of the Capitol, suggested something very similar months ago sitting at a coffeee shop (I've been thinking about this backyard, literally for 10 years, and roping in dates, boyfriends, friends and strangers in trying to figure out what to do.)

In any case: here's what I came up with and built last weekend with the help of a date, who came down from NY expecting I'm sure a luxurious couple of days of movies and eating etc and instead was put to work hauling lumber, tweaking the design, drilling and driving in bolts. A true saint. I cooked great food for him though.

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