Natural Excapes

See how three homeowners built comfort, luxury and privacy by adopting the great outdoors as an al fresco living space.
Dr. Joseph Iannotti’s backyard is his indulgence.

He calls the time he spends puttering around, hosing off the patio or watching the pond full of enormous Koi fish “light recreation.”

“I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors as an escape route,” he says. So he converted an outdated deck attached to his Strongsville home into an entertainment oasis.

Today, Iannotti says people jokingly call the finished project “the local park.” His teenage daughter and her friends take advantage of the backdrop for prom pictures, and the barbecue pit has proven to be a draw for family and friends.

But the impressive space grew — ballooned, actually — from very different original plans. Decisions to add lighting and enlarge the patio to approximately 2,000 square feet came after ground was already broken on the project.

“We made a bunch of changes in the middle because everything seemed to get bigger,” Iannotti explains. “You know, this patio wasn’t big enough. Then this wall wasn’t long enough, and I wanted different steps.”

The 3-acre lot is secluded from other quarter- and half-acre properties in the subdivision by woods. Steep grades and uneven terrain presented initial challenges, so a sophisticated system of retaining walls and drainage tiles were used to prepare the land for all the “dressing”

Iannotti requested.

“We have lots of drainage behind those retaining walls, lots of backfill to support the retaining structure,” explains Chas Moscarino, president of Moscarino Outdoor Creations, the Strongsville company behind Iannotti’s backyard makeover. “The infrastructure of the project was a challenge, but the various levels are what make the project unique.”

Establishing those layers meant first stripping the backyard to bare bones.

“When we started the project, it looked like a bomb went off in the backyard,” Moscarino recalls. “But it slowly came together.”

Of course there were surprises, such as the discovery of a century-old tree stump that needed to be removed to excavate a site for additional patio space. The preparations also included cleaning up the wood line and cutting back wayward branches that could fall on the house or prevent proper sunlight from reaching areas where plantings would be


Iannotti’s backyard slopes, creating a natural foundation for the home’s three-level patio space. A waterfall with a rock bed tumbles down the hill into a Koi pond, which also grew in size with the rest of the project.

But maintaining a large pond with fish is a challenging task. The landscape crew spent a year tweaking water plants to reduce algae growth and establish a balanced aquaculture. (The Iannottis leave a water pump running all the time so fish can dwell in the pond year-round.)

Iannotti had a hot tub he purchased at the 2008 Home & Garden show installed in the backyard. Primarily a three-season feature, it did get some use this winter. But only when “I’m feeling bold,” he says.

The home’s previous deck had suffered from decay, and Iannotti knew maintaining the new, larger one would be a big task. So Moscarino built the new one using a poly material that looks like wood.

To give the large space a uniform look, rock used in the waterfall was incorporated throughout the landscape as outcroppings to stabilize planters and as decorative pieces along hilly areas, connecting the yard space beyond the patios with the focal point of the waterfall. Natural screening such as Colorado blue spruce help seclude the hot tub.

“We kept most of the soil dug up on-site and created privacy mounds for trees along the wood lines of the property,” Moscarino explains. Perennials and roses add a pop of color to stone-laden areas, and lighting fixtures were added to the landscape to show off its after-hours appeal.

“You sit in that backyard,” Moscarino says, “and you feel like you’re at a resort.”

A Barn Retreat
Walls of glass and lofty open space invite the outdoors in. Primary colors have replaced the previous thick country accents. Dr. Jeffrey Lamkin’s home — converted from an 1890s working barn — is a striking juxtaposition of modern and antique.

“What is nice about the house is that the inside and outside are the same space,” Lamkin says. The transition is seamless during the summer, when the barn house’s windows are open and breezes circulate through the open floor plan.

“The only problem was the outside was unattractive,” he says. “And there was virtually no privacy.”

For one, the modest yard had been neglected for decades. Construction of a subdivision behind Lamkin’s property had left behind a huge mound of dirt that, while serving as a decent barricade, was more of a weed-covered eyesore.

A rotting deck desperately needed attention, and Lamkin wanted more privacy screening for the property. Because the family entertains often, creating a backyard with conversation spaces was a priority. So Lamkin hired David Thorn, president of DTR Associates in Aurora, to turn his “shoe box” backyard into a private retreat.

The first step was tending to the dirt mound. “Because the site was narrow — a bowling-alley effect — we had to work from the back of the property to the front,” Thorn explains.

The grade change from the top of the mound to Lamkin’s yard was about 20 feet. Thorn’s design team created layers of plantings to soften the hillside, propping up these levels with rock so the area looked like a natural outcropping.

The slope provides an ideal foundation for a waterfall that flows into a pond with fish and aquatic plants.

Stones were also set into the mound as a way to create a path that Lamkin’s daughter and two nieces can use. “The mound is something for the kids to play on,” he explains.

Thorn’s careful selection of materials contributed to the rustic-modern mood of the outdoor space. His goal was to plant reminders of the property’s history — such as a seat wall surrounding the fire pit made from old barn risers topped with collected curbstone — while creating a design that complemented the modern interior of Lamkin’s home.

“At night, the outdoors is like another room of the house, so we tried to play on the contemporary style indoors while keeping materials that were true to what an old barn might have,” Thorn says.

Reclaimed foundation stone from southern Ohio barns are used as stepping stones throughout the property, as well as for a path that trails around the house.

“Barn stone has interesting textures and this aged feel from years of wear and tear from either people walking across it or animals’ hooves — that’s what adds the character,” Thorn explains.

Designers incorporated barn stone edging in the linear lawn space, suggesting the remnants of an old structure. Strategically placed boulders tie in with rock outcroppings at the base of the property. And because the back of the house serves as its main entrance, Lamkin also wanted a proper entryway. That was accomplished with a pergola and pathway that leads to a patio area.

Tucked away from the gathering space is a square, sunken hot tub, which follows the lines of the barn siding. A lush screen of evergreen trees forms a bowl shape around the yard.

Because of the property’s shape and size — about three-fourths of an acre — careful planning was critical for ensuring that newly installed features and plantings weren’t spoiled by construction traffic. For instance, when Lamkin requested a 5-foot, 2,000-pound urn for the terrace, it was craned over the house and set in place.

“I got to see the video afterward, and yes, it was scary,” Lamkin says. He can laugh now. “There is a lot of glass here, and one false move and the pot would be in the house. But they had it under control.”

Lamkin says he relied on the DTR team to guide the design and installation process. “We interviewed him, taking subtle clues from how he dresses to what artwork was on the wall,” Thorn says. “He put a lot of trust and faith in our design team to create a landscape that would reflect his personality.”

The final, unfinished phase of this property will be a work-in-progress for Lamkin. He is collecting contemporary artwork for the backyard. So far, he has acquired several metallic sculptures from Don Drumm Studios in Akron, along with some bird and squirrel feeders.

“The plantings attract birds and butterflies, making it a very natural outdoors space,” he says — again, that juxtaposition of modern and Mother Earth that he enjoys. Lamkin claims he’s not a collector yet. “But give me 10 to 15 years.”

A Cook’s Escape
No, it wasn’t only the quest for the perfect stone-oven pizza that led to Tom and Kathy Lloyd’s backyard makeover. But that certainly didn’t hurt.

A hand-molded terra cotta oven serves as the centerpiece of the Lloyds’ outdoor grill-and-gathering space. The fixture’s 23-inch mouth glows with heat and can bake a homemade pizza in 90 seconds.

The oven also serves as an attractive backyard fire feature that allows the Fairlawn Heights family to dine outside through late fall.

“We had decking that was in need of refinishing, and we wanted to add a fire feature, like a fireplace,” explains Tom Lloyd. His previous deck was attached to the back of the home and stepped down to a brick patio.

The Lloyds first hired an architect to create plans for a pavilion that would attach to the house — the idea was to create an all-weather space for cooking and dining. But Kathy wasn’t sold on the

solid roof.

“I’m very much a light person, and when we first discussed adding on a room or structure to the back of the family room, I kept saying, ‘You’re going to cut off the light,’ ” she recalls.

By the time James Arch of Vizmeg Landscape in Hudson came onboard, the pavilion draft was complete. Still, the couple was open to other ideas. Arch worked with the design but also discussed with the couple what kind of structure they needed and wanted.

“We looked at the pros and cons of each structure, not making any quick decisions,” Arch explains. “We thought of all of our options and alternatives: How can we place this structure? How can it be built? What kind of feel and character can it take on?”

Arch suggested a pergola cover for the space, about 10 feet from the home’s back door. It would not block views of the Lloyds’ wooded property or prevent sunlight from streaming into the home.

“The pergola gives you an open-air feeling, but it helps to define the space,” Arch says. “It gives you the sense of the walls and roof overhead, but there’s more of an outside feel than if you were sitting under a solid roof.”

After demolition of the old deck and the first few steps of construction — when footers for the 48-inch oven structure and pergola posts were set — Tom was a little nervous about the final product. “When we first saw the oven and chimney going up, we thought,This is just a massive structure,” Lloyd recalls.

But Arch helped ease their worries by providing computer-aided design plans and sketches of the project throughout the process.

“If you have never done a landscape project or any kind of building, it’s hard to visualize what the footprint of the landscape will look like,” he says.

Arch worked with California pizza-oven vendor Mugnainito understand the specifications and assembly details for the structure.

While the pergola layout looks relatively simple with its countertop, gas grill, pizza oven and seating space, a great deal of attention was also paid to the overall aesthetic, Arch says.

The kitchen space is made distinct by a bluestone floor. Recycled pieces of the home’s former clay brick patio were also incorporated into the pattern, creating a tie between new and old.

The bluestone is also included in the pizza-oven shelf, chimney caps and on countertop cooking areas.

Rhododendrons, taxus shrubs and perennials were transplanted from the existing landscape, and a whitespire birch, which helps frame the space, was salvaged.

New perennials, including azaleas, magnolias and other flowering shrubs, give the space a pop of color. Additionally, Tom maintains an herb and vegetable garden — key ingredients for his Italian pies.

Yes, it all comes back to that pizza oven. It’s been a hit with family and friends, especially when the Lloyds’ five children are visiting. Tom caramelizes onions, picks fresh basil and tomatoes from his garden, sizzles pepperoni and prepares a smorgasbord of toppings.

“If I have extras, I can cook pizzas to send to the neighbors,” he says. He also fires up the oven to cook salmon, ribs, roasts and chicken.

“My favorite part is toward the end of the evening when everyone is sitting around finishing dinner, and it’s dark, and the stars are out,” says Kathy. “It’s just really pretty out there. The conversation usually keeps going.”

Expert Advice

Spend time to create a strong plan by envisioning how you will use the property years down the road as well as today. “Every element must be considered, from trees to ornamental grasses that grow large and require maintenance,” says

David Thorn, president of DTR Associates in Aurora.

1.Get it on paper. Work with a landscape designer who can break a large project into reasonable, budget-savvy phases. “Without a plan, it’s impossible to come out with a project that feels fluid and cohesive,” Thorn says.

2.Partner with designers. Set goals for your project and keep an open mind about designers’ suggestions. “Some of the most exciting projects result when clients trust our design team to create a landscape that will reflect their personality.”

3.Think impact. Large plant masses are easier to care for than multiple varieties installed in a bed. “We might plant 15 or 20 perennials of one variety to create beautiful, wispy brush strokes of color that can be interwoven in the landscape,” Thorn says.
Expert Advice
No project is executed without changes along the way, often because a landscape in progress sparks a homeowner’s creativity. “I tell clients that nothing is set in stone,” says Chas Moscarino, president of Moscarino Outdoor Creations in Strongsville. “I’ll present different conceptual ideas, and together, we’ll come up with a final plan.”

1. Set a budget. Determine a budget range during the planning phase. Share this with the contractor so he can present materials options that fall within these limits.

2. Draw the lines. Ask your designer to map out the footprint of your landscape plan so you can better visualize the project. This exercise can help when setting a realistic budget. “I like to spray-paint areas and let clients get a feel for where everything will sit on the property to be sure they are comfortable with the plan,” Moscarino says.

3. Expect extras. “Whatever your budget is, figure adding 20 percent to it,” Moscarino suggests.

Expert Advice
An outdoor kitchen is no small commitment, so take time to investigate the possibilities and allow a designer to guide you through an interview to determine what features fit with your lifestyle. “A designer is there to help you achieve your vision and guide you through the process,” says James Arch, designer at Vizmeg Landscape in Hudson.

1. List the pros and cons. When deciding whether to incorporate a solid roof structure or pergola into the design, Arch led an objective conversation that helped the Lloyds choose based on the good and bad points of each option.

2. Consider alternatives. Every plan has a what-if factor: What if the structure was enclosed? What if there was no structure at all? “Take time to work through the details,” Arch says.
3. Imagine the space. Most people can’t look at a bare backyard and see their dream retreat. “Elevation and perspective sketches can be useful,” Arch says, adding that photos and sketches of finished projects with similar features are helpful.
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