A young family creates a plan to turn their multi-level backyard into an airy entertainment space outfitted with a dining deck, lounge area, a dog run, and play set.
By Thad Orr
When Lynda Chen and her husband Aaron Epstein bought their home in San Mateo, California, in 2018, they immediately started remodeling the interior. Before they even moved into the house, they’d updated the kitchen, electrical systems, bathrooms, and interior finishes. After about 6 months of remodels, they moved into their newly renovated home knowing that the landscape was next. “We’ve been trying to recover from one big project before starting the next,” Epstein says. “It can be stressful doing renovations, so we took a break for the first half of the year to make sure we were ready for the commitment.”
The couple began their landscape project by researching on Houzz to get ideas and peruse profiles of contractors. Chen and Epstein also cross-referenced landscape contractors they liked with Yelp reviews. “We were in search of one professional to handle everything for us—from design to materials to install,” Chen says. “We wanted to be involved in the planning, but after that we wanted to just give the go-ahead and have it completed—nice and streamlined.”
Planning the gardens was no small task since the terrace yard is small, at less than 5,000 square feet, and broken into different levels. Complicating the design are three doors off the back of the house—only one of which provides access to the garden. “There are two sliding doors that lead to a really narrow deck that’s not functional, and you can’t even access the backyard from there,” Epstein says. “We wanted to reconnect the house and garden in a seamless way. We want to walk out the back door and relax or dine in the garden.” Beyond the functional challenge of reconnecting the home and garden, the couple also wanted a variety of mixed-use spaces for lounging, dining, entertaining by a fire pit, playing with their young daughter, or letting their dog run around.
At first, Chen and Epstein met with a few traditional landscaping companies, but since the couple didn’t have a clear vision or rendering for what they wanted, “it got confusing fast,” Epstein says. In the midst of these meetings, they came across an ad for Yardzen, and Chen filled out a design profile on the Yardzen website. “The price felt right for the detailed 3D renderings I saw on their website,” Chen says. “I felt comfortable paying the up-front fee because of the portfolio of projects they have.”
After completing their design profile, the couple had an interview with their Yardzen designer. “It was refreshing to know that there were real humans behind the designs,” Chen says. Epstein, however, was more skeptical of the online design process. He wondered how the designers could deal with the complications of their backyard and the multiple levels of the space without sending someone out to see it. “But I was blown away by the detail and thoughtful design when we received the renderings. I said, ‘wow, that’s our exact house,’” Epstein says.
Through several half-hour long calls with their Yardzen designer, Chen and Epstein worked through some adjustments to the design they received. “The changes were minor,” Chen says. “I said to myself, ‘There’s some hope! Someone understands what we want.’”
The backyard design features a large contemporary deck that acts as the main element used to reconnect home and garden. Each of the three doors will open onto a large deck at a consistent elevation—there’s space for dining and a bar top for more informal gatherings. At both ends of the deck, small flights of stairs lead to the middle level of the backyard. “Now we’ll be able to open the back doors, enjoy the view, and easily bring food from the house to eat out on the deck,” Epstein says. “We’ll also be able to access any area of the backyard from any of the three doors.”
A new concrete patio will be added on one side of the garden with space for lounge chairs. On the lower terrace, a fire pit area, dog run, and space for a play set will be added—all accessible by stairs on both sides of the yard. “Accessibility and safety were key,” Chen says. “We wanted our daughter to be safe in the backyard and we wanted easy access to all levels.” Though the design now features five different seating areas, each with a different purpose, they are integrated into a cohesive layout designed for ease of circulation.
The spaces are tied together through plantings as well. The planting plan features a mix of drought-tolerant plants—including a number of Bay Area natives. Before this home, Chen and Epstein had only lived in apartments or townhomes. “This was all new,” Epstein says. “And the scope of this project was much larger than anything we’d taken on in the past. Before this, we’d only hired someone to install a few bushes and a crape myrtle in a tiny planting bed. It was nice to have the Yardzen designers and their horticulturist say, ‘here’s what you should do and here’s why.’”
The design team brought up a few adjustments to overall plan, and the couple had a few additional changes of their own. “We had a design created for the entire garden because we thought we’d redo the front yard too. But seeing the plan for the backyard was so exciting that we want to focus our budget there. It’s where we spend all of our time,” Epstein says. The design team also recommended that the couple rethink the bocce court they’d originally requested because they often go unused and don’t function as multi-use spaces. Chen and Epstein agreed. Instead, they opted for a grassy dog run that also left room for the fire pit area and a children’s play set.
Equipped with a plan, Chen and Epstein are excited about moving forward, knowing that their investment in getting a detailed design will be helpful in communicating with contractors. “It’ll be nice to show contractors a picture of what we want and know that everyone is on the same page,” Epstein says. “We also know roughly what the cost should be since Yardzen provides that, too. Honestly, we had such a great experience with Yardzen I wish they’d just build the backyard for us too!”
Homeowners Lynda Chen and Aaron Epstein share a few tips for landscape design success:
1. Plan First. Talk to Contractors Second. You can talk to someone about a deck and each person may have a different visual of what that deck looks like. It’s important to get more specific before talking to contractors. Plan out the size, materials you like, and design ideas early in the process. You can adjust with your contractor’s advice, but this way you have something to start with. It’s a good way to make sure everyone is on the same page.
2. Focus Your Budget. Evaluate whether you need to remodel your front yard and backyard. Chen and Epstein are focusing their efforts and budget on the backyard where they’ll spend most of their time instead of splitting their budget.
3. Create a Pinterest Board. Creating a visual board of spaces, materials, plants, planters, and other outdoor elements you like. This will help you and your significant other get on the same page regarding the style you want. It’s easy to sit in front of the computer for a few minutes and say, “we both like this, we don’t like that,” and so on. You can share your board with your design team at Yardzen.