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How your yard can be a space you actually use

A patio at the home of landscape architect Sean Papich; Built-in stone fireplaces and fire pits are increasingly popular with new backyard landscape projects; decks can help to hide tree roots or sloping lawns. nan & monty abbott/Nan and Monty Abbott

Ah, June. Here in New England, most of us have looked forward to this time of year for months. I know I sure have. Through winter and the dreary, raw spring, I stared out the sliding glass doors in my kitchen and dreamed of the day our dismal-looking backyard would be lush and verdant and my family and I could be outside relishing the landscape.

“More than ever before, people want to spend as much time as possible outside, enjoying their yards,” says Jack Shea, site work and landscape manager for Cambridge-based S +H Construction. “In the past, we often created elaborate gardens and stone walls for our clients that looked beautiful but weren’t usable. Now, people are focusing on having outdoor space they can actually use.”

Landscapes are thought out and well designed these days, adds Shea. “Yards are viewed as an extension of the indoor living space.” And the options for outdoor living areas are endless.

“Ten to 15 years ago, everybody wanted to build a big deck off the house,” says Shea. “But we’re not seeing that nearly as much anymore.” Because decks are elevated, he explains, they only overlook the yard rather than being part of it. “The bigger trend today is to build a stone patio that is integrated with the yard.”

There are data to back that up: According to the US Census Bureau’s Survey of Construction, in 2014 a majority of new homes — 56 percent — were constructed with a patio while 23 percent of new homes had a deck. Most of the decks Shea and his team build are used as a platform to exit the house and get down to a patio.


“Since patios and terraces are on the ground level, if you are having a party they handle an overflow crowd situation easily as people just flow into the lawn,” says landscape designer Tom Wilhelm of Wayland’s A Blade of Grass. “With a raised deck, you end up having people looking down at other people if there is an overflow situation.”

Most patios built in New England are constructed of bluestone, though brick and granite are also used, says Sean Papich, a Hingham-based landscape architect.


You will pay more to have a patio installed than a deck, says Shea. “But once the stone is set properly, a patio will be virtually maintenance-free for 20 years or more.”

Generally, the lifespan of a wood deck is about seven or eight years if it’s not cared for, though new lower-maintenance composite decking materials, like Trex, have extended the life of decks. “There are a lot of different color and textural choices out there now--they’ve come a long way,” says Shea. Also, since decks are built above ground, tree roots, wet ground, and sloping lawns — all of which can pose potential challenges for patio installation — can be easily overcome without adding significant expense.

Another consideration comes from Jim Finlay, general manager of Archadeck of Suburban Boston: Decks are often considered additions by cities and towns and permits and inspections are necessary to build one. Patios, on the other hand, are exempt from these rules, as they are considered a natural element of your yard.

Once homeowners get the foundation of their outdoor havens settled, it’s time to focus on the specifics. Read on for some of the trends local professionals are seeing.

Outdoor Kitchens

The concept of the outdoor kitchen has evolved considerably. “It used to be that an outdoor kitchen consisted of a built-in grill with an additional burner that may or may not work,” says Papich. Now, in addition to grills and burners, outdoor kitchens feature sinks, smokers, wine coolers, kegerators, and ample refrigerators. People are also including televisions and elaborate sound systems in their backyard havens.


Fire pits

A built-in stone fireplace.A Blade of Grass

Built-in stone fireplaces and fire pits are must-haves in almost every new landscape project Wilhelm is involved in these days. Fireplaces tend to be off to a corner or side of a patio because of the chimney. “Fireplaces tend to be more of an older adult entertaining element,” says Wilhelm. “They just feel more formal.” Fire pits have a more casual appeal.

There are both gas and wood fire pits. While Wilhelm sees the allure of “the snap, crackle, pop” of a real wood fire, “gas is hugely convenient. If you frequently host guests, gas can be preferable because you don’t need to worry about ash flying around and wood can get pretty smoky — your guests might not want their clothes smelling like the fire.” Gas, however, will incur extra expense — as much as $2,000 more than wood. (While custom built-in models are visually stunning, free-standing wood-burning fire pits can be purchased at garden centers for as little as $100.)

Water Features

Water features add another natural element. “All of a sudden everyone wants some sort of water feature,” says Shea. “There is a big range of what you can get — from simple prefabricated fountains to streams, waterfalls, and of course, swimming pools.” Water features, says Shea, can become a focal point in a yard. “Sitting around listening to the water trickle away can be a really lovely experience.”

Especially if you live in the city, adds Wilhelm. “For people who live in areas of Back Bay and Beacon Hill where there is a lot of traffic congestion, it’s really nice to have the ear go to something other than a siren or sound of traffic.” Don’t worry that adding a water feature in your yard will break the bank. A jardinière can be filled with stones and rushing water to create a simple, subtle sound and you can create a koi pond on your own by purchasing a pre-shaped plastic pool from a garden store. Shea said “the whole thing shouldn’t run more than $500 and possibly less. ”


Outdoor lighting

Big glary floodlights are no longer the sole fixtures available for exterior illumination. “Low-voltage outdoor fixtures cast a really lovely glow,’’ says Wilhelm. “At night, a little light can add a wonderful visual piece to a landscape; it sets a mood.” Consider adding down lights to a tree to cast an attractive shadowy pattern onto a patio or up-light trees in the distance so you’re not sitting outside staring into a black void. “It’s also a good idea to add soft lights down a walkway or if you have some sort of a garden sculpture, light it up for some dramatic wow factor in the evening,” says Wilhelm.

Outdoor rooms

Papich says that it’s often not just a single space in their yard that people focus on; rather, they want to create multiple outdoor “rooms” — distinct spaces that exist in cohesion. In Papich’s own yard, a screened porch opens to a bluestone patio. A few steps away, a brick patio is topped with a pergola that provides some cover from the sun. The lawn, lush with plantings, comes to the edge of the patio. The spaces have seating arrangements that accommodate both intimate and large gatherings — places for him and his family to be together. A swing Papich and his wife had installed several years ago on their screened-in porch remains one of his favorite spots. “My kids loved it when they were little,” he recalls. “Even now that they are teenagers, they love it.”


Decks can help to hide tree roots or sloping lawns. Michael Conway/S+H Construction/S+H Construction

Jaci Conry can be reached at jaci@jaciconry.com.