From repairing a leaky pool to a mid-century masterpiece, this family is ready to create a backyard that’s not only stunning but safe for their young daughter.
By Thad Orr
After remodeling the interior of their home in Castro Valley, California, homeowners Dorothy and Connor Sears noticed their pool was losing water. “We started calling pool contractors and found out we had several leaks,” says Dorothy. “The backyard remodel snowballed from there.” The leaking pool wasn’t the only issue with their backyard. The modern home, located on a hillside overlooking the San Mateo Bridge in the distance, has gorgeous views—but an open-ended deck beyond the pool didn’t have railings. Terraces around the backyard were also a safety hazard for their 22-month-old daughter.
The couple, who’ve lived in their home for about 5 years, knew that a landscape update was in their future when they moved in, but they started with the interior. “I’m glad we did because the interior remodeling prepared us for the outdoor projects that we were a little less familiar with,”Dorothy says. While working on the interior remodel, Dorothy and Connor also learned about their Eichler home (Eichler homes are mid-century modern homes designed by the late architect Joseph L. Eichler), and discovered that many of the Eichler homes in South Bay and San Jose had become historic properties. “We made updates on the interior, but we were careful to keep the aesthetics intact,” Dorothy says. “So when we began figuring out the exterior, we wanted to preserve the style and bones of the landscape while bringing in modern materials and elements for safety.”
Though the kidney-shaped pool at the center of the backyard was leaking, it is also a key landscape feature that the family wanted to preserve because of its iconic style. “We sort of jumped into the project to save the pool,” says Connor. “We had a pool contractor come in and start jackhammering, patching, and fixing the pool shell. But we didn’t really have a cohesive plan.” As the couple got further into their project, they realized the decking around the pool would need to be replaced, too. Thinking about replacing the decking made them realize they’d need new stairs, railings, and plants.
As the project snowballed, Connor and Dorothy knew they needed some help visualizing the final plan. “We’d done a few sketches on paper to show our contractor, but we got to a point where it was hard to communicate what we wanted with printouts from Pinterest and our own sketches.” The couple also realized that major decisions were coming. Connor says, “When we started talking about pouring concrete and ordering hardwood decking, we decided it was time for a more holistic view.”
With the pool in the middle of being repaired, Dorothy was scrolling through Instagram and stumbled across a Yardzen post that showcased a beautiful design. She began researching the packages on the company’s website and found several other landscape designs Yardzen had done for Eichler homes. This put the couple at ease and gave them confidence that the design would be fitting for the mid-century modern aesthetic.
“Our pool was empty and looked like a construction zone,” Connor says. “Knowing we needed to move forward, we thought we’d give it a shot. For the price, we figured we’d be happy if we received a few detailed renderings to show our contractor.” The couple also wanted to get the plan done quickly so the project could be completed before winter when there’s more rain and work slows down. “We sat down together on the couch to fill out the design questionnaire,”Connor says. “Then we sent in some photos and videos of the backyard and said, ‘let’s see what happens.””
“We got the plan back and it totally exceeded our expectations,” Dorothy says. After seeing the 3D rendering, video fly-through, and plan that included proper measurements, Dorothy and Connor expanded the scope of what they wanted to update in their backyard. “Talking to the designer at Yardzen helped us better understand what was possible in the space and where we could make the best use of our budget,” Connor says.
There’s a retaining wall next to the pool and deck that Dorothy and Connor weren’t planning to update but they realized it would be an eyesore among all the other changes. Since there wasn’t room in the budget for a completely new retaining wall, Yardzen gave them the idea to retrofit the structurally sound wall with an ipe wood finish. “This was a great solution,” Connor says. The retrofit will save money that they can use in other areas of the backyard—they’re investing in ipe wood decking around the pool, adding modern cable railings, installing new concrete around the pool and on the upper terrace, and putting in a glass railing system on the upper terrace off the back of the house.
The couple really wanted to keep the views open. “We live on the edge of a nature reserve and there are terrific views of city.” The glass railings will make the upper terrace safe for kids while keeping views out the back of the home unobstructed. They are investing in the deck because it adds to their outdoor living space around the pool. “The slope is rather steep so to make the pool area usable the deck was a must,” Connor says.
The family also wanted some shade as well as space for barbequing and outdoor dining. At the advice of their designer, Dorothy and Connor kept the dining area simple. They are planning to install a modern shade fabric, a portable barbeque, and leave space for a new dining table. On this project, the pool and view from the deck are the main attraction. There was no need for a big outdoor kitchen or shade structure that would block views or compete with the architecture of the home. The dining area, instead, is tucked elegantly on the side of the backyard to keep the views open.
Plantings were also kept low on the upper terrace, with other plants hugging the perimeter of the patios and decks. Because this property abuts a natural space, deer, turkeys, and racoon can make their way into the garden. This was a main consideration when designing the planting plan. “We’ve had a lot of plants eaten and we didn’t want to keep replacing them in our new backyard,” Dorothy says. “We just wanted to have plants that would be resistant to animals and also safe for children.”
With a complete plan, Dorothy and Connor are ready to get their pool contractor started again. And now they have visuals to show him exactly what they want built—complete with measurements and specifications. “Our contractor will be finishing the pool, then the deck contractor will install the deck, update the retaining wall, and put in all the railings,” Dorothy says. There are still a few decisions the family needs to make such as what type of artificial grass to install and the finishes on the concrete. “But we’re in a great spot,” Dorothy says. “We can manage the project from here and I’m confident we’ll have a backyard that fits the aesthetic of our Eichler home and is also safe for our family.”
Homeowners Dorothy and Connor Sears share a few tips for landscape design success:
1. Make a List of Must-Haves: Decking to expand the living area around the pool and adding railings for safety that didn’t obstruct views were vital to making this design a success. These must-haves were discussed early in the process with the design team.
2. Expand the Scope Wisely: Sometimes to make the overall project work you have to adjust where you spend the budget. On this project, retrofitting a retaining wall at the center of the property was necessary because it’s a prominent visual element in the backyard.
3. Get a Plan Before Breaking Ground: Creating a design in the middle of the project worked out this time, but Dorothy and Connor say they would have preferred to have a plan before they started fixing the pool.
4. Spend Time Discussing Materials & Costs: There are a lot of options when it comes to materials. Different materials have different maintenance requirements, lifespan estimates, and costs. Spend time discussing different options with your designer and looking at local suppliers. This way the rendering can reflect the final materials you want to use, and you can get a more accurate price estimate. On this project, there’s a lot of wood, and ipe wood decking is different from engineered wood or a soft wood such as cedar.
5. Plan for Safety First: In addition to adding railings for safety, Dorothy and Connor are carefully considering the types of plants they choose. Some plants can be poisonous to children or pets; others have spines that can really hurt when you touch them or fall into them. Make sure you audit your yard for safety so the plan can reflect what will be kept and what should be removed.