A dream backyard

By Kyle Brown

Landon Adair worked with his clients to bring a rough sketch into a stunning reality.

Most successful complex landscape installations start with a plan, full of painstaking detail and precise notes. Even if some of the particulars shift between concept and completion, the general idea is usually laid out on paper before a shovel ever breaks the dirt.

That wasn’t the case for one large installation finished by Adair’s Landscape & Maintenance Corp., South Jordan, Utah.

When the clients for this project came to Landon Adair, company president and winner of the Changing the Landscape Awards 2021 Landscape category sponsored by Ditch Witch, in 2016 after seeing his team work on a new installation up the street, all they had to work with was a sketch of an idea. Looking at it, Adair was fairly certain the project wouldn’t come together.

“It was an extremely rough drawing,” he says. “We threw a number at it.” Having received the bid, the clients disappeared. He assumed that either the homeowners had decided to take the project elsewhere or to skip the installation altogether.

Then in May of 2019, Adair received another call saying that they finally wanted to move forward with the project. He revisited the original drawing and got some additional sketches from the homeowner.

From there, his team met with their subcontractors to determine how the project could work and then started to compose something on the job site, he says.

Generally, Adair doesn’t ever like to work without a plan in place, especially on job of this caliber, he says. Usually, for projects this large he works with the client to look at how to tackle it in a few phases. Most homeowners are eager to take smaller steps for budgeting purposes.

“This wasn’t such a budget-constricted project,” Adair says. “They had the funds to meet what they envisioned, and we were given free range to move through the project that way.”

Without a full design in place, there can be a lot of hand-holding for the customer, with heavy involvement every step of the way. “With a design, that sets expectations of the bird’s eye view of the plan that the client can see,” Adair says.

Even though developing a plan at the start might take some effort, “I think it’s worth its weight in gold up front on a big project where monetary requirements can creep up on you,” Adair says.

The project was an addition to an existing house, which presents different challenges than a brand new building, he says. Not only were there multiple levels of the house to consider, the team had to work with an outdoor pool as well.

“Existing landscapes can be a little bit challenging to work around,” he says. “On a new slate, that area is kind of open to interpretation.”

Adair connected with his subcontractors for the deck and pergola pavers as well as other elements such as the barbecue. He worked in multiple meetings with the clients through every step of the process to keep the overall project in line with their developing vision. One tactic he used to help the homeowners was putting down painted lines in the backyard to block out specific areas in multiple colors, so they could get a sense of scale and space even without a fully developed plan.

“They can start seeing that 3D vision on-site instead of on paper,” he says. “Painting on the landscape seemed to do the trick.”

Using paint to block out the spaces for the project helped get a sense for traffic flow as well, he says.

“There were so many directional flows to that landscape, from the deck to the basement, to a second deck, to a basketball court and a pool,” he says. “If we didn’t paint those access points and directional flows, it just wouldn’t have worked.”

Even with full-time jobs, both of the homeowners made time to be a part of the meetings, sometimes in the mornings or during breaks. Their efforts to keep in touch made all the difference to Adair in keeping the project moving.

“Hats off to them for communicating and being a part of it,” he says. “They were open to meeting late or early in the morning or taking lunches to get to their goal.” Overall, Adair estimates they were meeting at least twice a week from June through early December.

Without that continuous interaction, the project would’ve struggled to come together at all, he says. But even without a fully developed plan on paper, the clients came in with plenty of thought put into the installation.

“At this stage, it was something they’d been thinking about for four-plus years,” he says. “I think they had really looked at their landscape, really thought about how they would like to envision it.” The homeowners had hosted parties in the home and already had some ideas about how traffic moved through the space and how an outdoor living area could change that.

Building a backyard

Initially, much of the backyard was nothing but waist-high weeds, says Adair. The house’s basement had a French door walkout to the backyard, but the clients hadn’t even put down concrete and there were some boulders in the yard itself. “At that point, they were just looking to start with some clean lines and to be more sustainable,” he says. They started with excavation and were able to sell the boulders locally to make back some money to use toward the job.

“From there, it was just excavating, laying things out and then working around the existing landscape, which was mainly the pool,” he says. The pool provided several headaches, as some of the equipment and the lines running to the pool had to be relocated. Though it was a good deal of work, Adair’s team was able to keep the pool running for the homeowners’ use throughout the installation process in the summer, a point of pride for him.

Drainage was another challenge, with multiple levels and surfaces to worry about, he says. “It was one of the number one things for us to solve really early on,” says Adair. “We had to deal with the entire roof, then we’re putting in a large deck and pergola. We have all this water in this surface area that we need to keep away from the pool, keep away from this walkout basement and try to filter to the turf area. That was a little bit of a difficulty.”

Adair used a drip pan with the decking to take the water away to allow the homeowners to use the walkout basement area below without spillover. Rain hitting the roof was directed over to a turf area to keep it from gathering on the bottom floor as well.

Safety in the tight spaces provided another obstacle for Adair and his crews. While there wasn’t much finished landscape in the backyard, some of the traffic from the house came close to a neighbor’s yard, and the verticality of joining deck and basement access points added a whole different dimension to the project, he says. There was a space of about 5 feet to work with from the neighbor’s existing fence, and a 10-foot drop between the outdoor living areas.

“We had dogs and kids to work with. This is their place of residence. Keeping us safe was a little bit difficult,” he says. “It was never an issue, but it was always in the back of my mind.”

Installing the retaining wall quickly and smoothly helped him handle that worry, but that left them juggling three main outdoor living spaces and the traffic that flowed between them.

The upper deck came out from the kitchen, and the basement’s French doors opened up from an indoor gathering space. The space immediately connected to the basement became an outdoor kitchen and barbecue area, then transitioned to a deck with a fire pit and pergola. The stairs connecting the upper and lower spaces needed to remain out of the way but still accessible.

“Trying to get all of those zones to flow one into another was difficult,” he says.

Creating an atmosphere

Developing those distinct spaces came down to talking with the clients about how each area would be used. “Before any new landscape came in, we tried to create kid-safe zones, conversational areas where the adults can be away while the kids are off playing. They’re not trying to talk over one another,” he says. “Or if there’s a transition from the home, to the pool, to the basketball court, we’re putting in alternative ways that don’t go through a conversational point.”

Keeping that in mind where people could enjoy these areas and have intimate conversations but still be able to visually see what’s going on all around them was important, he says. “We were designing things so they could be able to see the landscape all in one space at one time but also making them really private rooms, where you felt that you were in your own room versus being claustrophobic,” he says.

For instance, the pergola in the deck and the firepit is close to the basketball court. Instead of doing a 4-foot step down from that, Adair elected to do an 11-foot step down the side of the pergola to keep traffic from having to flow directly through the fire pit. “There’s plenty of room for movement when one person was trying to get from point A to point C without disturbing the people in point B,” he says.

Blending a basement walkout with a vertical space is always difficult, and with a lot of hardscaping surrounding the area it can end up feeling like a dungeon, Adair says. He used lighting and plant materials in the area to soften those edges and make the space more inviting. Subsurface drip irrigation maintains the potted plants to reduce overall homeowner maintenance as well.

Adair suggested some sustainable plant choices that would come back each year and provide some color and pleasant scents in the outdoor living space alongside some of the other potted plants.

“I think the pots are critical to softening all the hardscaping going on,” he says.

Overall, the plants include a mix of annuals and perennials throughout the area.

One horticultural touch is the inclusion of an area for growing herbs placed near the outdoor kitchen.

“We designated that bed the herb garden so they could have fresh herbs to use when they’re barbecuing, like rosemary or sage. It gets them to use the landscape when they’re in it and when they’re entertaining,” Adair says. “It builds a relationship not only with us, but with the landscape.”

One of Adair’s biggest tasks throughout was keeping clear communication among not just the clients but also the subcontractors he worked with, he says. From the start, he made certain to get as many of the crucial subcontractors together to meet and discuss the project’s approach and goals. Especially given the undeveloped plans early on, he had to prepare everyone to have some availability for changes to come as the work continued.

Looking back now, having a more complete plan to start with would’ve made the entire project run more smoothly, he says. “It’s so much easier to have a plan in place, and it sets expectations,” he says. “Nothing’s going to change faster than a plan, but at least it’s a starting point. It’s something you can mark up and take notes on to move through a general flow.” For this installation, it made a big difference to work with great clients who made the effort to be a part of the process and provided the budget to see it through.

Adair’s crew maintains the property on an ongoing basis now, and he’s seen some photos from parties held in the new outdoor living space shared on social media.

“It’s so nice to just have clients who are appreciative of the hard work that goes into this and that you can continue to have a relationship with them,” he says.

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kylebrown@igin.com.