The Green Living Room

Experts say there’s a developing trend in outwardly expanding living space. The comforts of home now extend to both front and backyards, in an effort to maximize and enjoy surroundings.

Eye-catching Curb Appeal

By Jennifer Shapira

Outwardly expanding spaces encourage relaxation by weather-proofing pieces traditionally found indoors. Courtesy of Charles Luck Stone Center

Experts say there’s a developing trend in outwardly expanding living space. The comforts of home now extend to both front and backyards, in an effort to maximize and enjoy surroundings.

Northern Virginians are embracing lush landscapes, in part because outdoor living encourages togetherness and relaxation and appeals to those seeking to spend quality time with their families and friends.

The home’s exterior is now viewed as a popular space for entertaining, said Abby Buford, spokesperson at Lowe’s Home Improvement. “We’re seeing more furnished courtyards and decks instead of bare or neglected decks. And backyards that are gardens, instead of wide, open spaces.”

Outdoor living has become much more elaborate, said Lisa Ladson, project designer at EXPO Design Center in Fairfax. “With Virginia being fairly temperate, you can extend the time you spend outdoors,” she said. “When we go about designing these spaces, it’s typically based on the family’s lifestyle.”

A broad rainbow of hues can be incorporated into stonework to personalize a yard’s appearance. Courtesy of Larry Ruggeri/Petro

The pace of life today is generally a busy one, Alexandria interior designer Karen Luria said. Even when people take vacations they want to relax. And they often want to recreate that feeling at home, inside and out, with plush furnishings and eye-catching landscapes.

Front yards in particular are enjoying a renaissance, said Luria, who’s happy to report the revisit. There’s a sense of return to the community in chatting with neighbors and taking the time to breathe in fresh air. In the 1950s, she noted, “people used to take walks after dinner or have a drink on their front porches.” After all, a morning coffee or evening cocktail becomes infinitely more interesting on a hand-crafted stone or wooden bench.

Chalk it up to curb appeal, but there’s no doubt homeowners are now investing more in such features as manicured entryways, paved stepping stones and artistic brick walkways. The result? More spaces, small and large, to feel at home.

Mitch Picciano and Karen Sandburg of Oakton know a thing or two about decor. The two have always prided themselves on the interior of their 1970s contemporary home. But Sandburg always hated the drab exterior. On a trip to Venice, she was inspired to send an email to the eponymous home makeover show on HGTV.
“The good news is, they picked our house,” Sandburg said. “The bad news is, they picked our house because it was so ugly!”

Decks, which can place parameters on space, are being replaced with open eating and seating areas. Courtesy of Merrifield Garden Center

Because of her interest in mosaics, Sandburg commissioned an artist friend to cover the home’s lamppost and front steps with pieces of the hand-painted tiles. To keep the theme going, they chose durable flagstone and flecked the walkway, as well. Her neighborhood’s integrity in mind, Sandburg wanted something new and different that could also be seen from the street. “They are just little jewels! It looks so cool!” she said.

Sandburg exhibits the enthusiasm feeding the current surge in outdoors interest, said Kathleen Litchfield, president of Petro Design/Build. “Curb appeal (makes) people want to get out of their cars and into the front yard.”

When it comes to a home’s entryway, it’s not just about the traditional tall evergreens greeting you at the front door, she said. “You know them; they look like soldiers,” she observed of the trees, pointing to their branches as breeding grounds for her biggest pet peeve: spider webs. Overgrown or uncared-for shrubs can be equally burdensome, as well as dangerous. They’re an obvious hiding spot for people and bugs alike, and can automatically drop a home’s resale value. “Checking the energy and the flow into the front door, it has to be exciting. It’s not just about shade or privacy.”

Litchfield recalled one home where the client requested a patio but already had a walkway that was 50 feet long. A patio can be a front-door hub, she said, but an attractive portico can serve as a guide, offering protection from rain and other outside elements. She also recently completed the transformation of a non-functional driveway into a useable one. And Alexandria resident Omar Abdul-Baki had no idea his home’s surroundings were so rich in annuals and other mature plants and trees before Litchfield hauled 50 azaleas out of the ground, swaddled them in burlap and watered them as needed throughout the eight-week job. They were transplanted and now thrive in their new landscape.

Courtesy of Merrifield Garden Center

Patio Push
People are moving away from decks, and there is a shift now toward patios and walkways, said Steve Rosko, project sales manager at EXPO Design. “We’re seeing that decks confine space. People want to open up their whole backyard with an eating area, a sitting area,” he said, adding that patios are now spilling naturally into walkways and flower beds.

Mark Whitfield, senior product manager at Richmond-based Luck Stone Corp., said when it comes to foundations, there are loads of new colors and new finishes. He pointed to a limestone product called Scabos that is “practical and unique in its color.”

The spectrum, which used to focus on traditional browns, tans and golds, has further expanded to include charcoal gray, brick red and vibrant gold. Such bold colors provide the perfect transition from outdoors to in, serving as a few seamless steps from the patio to the sunroom.

In addition, cobblestones can create a nice effect as a patio border or an accent surrounding the landscape, Whitfield said. For do-it-yourselfers, there’s patterned flagstone. Cut on five sides, it offers the look of solid stone, but makes for an easy installation.

Slip resistance is often the finishing touch to the perfect patio built of stone or material that is durable and not likely to chip. Rubberized mulch is another alternative, said Doug Brock, manager of Betty’s Azalea Ranch in Fairfax. Made from recycled tires, it’s a good play surface for children.

Gone are the days of rigid plastic passing as patio furniture; today’s outdoor furnishings are bringing cushions and an emphasis on comfort. Courtesy of EXPO Design Center

Take A Seat
Accent benches have found their way into front yards. For a formal look, try bluestone, sandstone or limestone, Whitfield said. In the market for something more natural in appearance? Select weathered fieldstone for its patina, covered in moss or lichen. Or go one step further and choose boulder from a quarry. Stone slabs can serve as garden features that are just as eye-catching as some of summer’s brightest blooms.

But if plush seating is your fancy, you’re in luck. “Outdoor furniture now has the look of indoor furniture, but with weatherproof materials,” Buford said.

Outdoor living spaces are being finished with couches, chairs, coffee tables, dining sets and outdoor rugs. In keeping with comfy interior couches and pillows, the pieces often include details like piping, cording and fringe trim. Loveseats and sofas puffed up 4 inches thick can entice just about anyone to slink off to a garden hideaway.

From stainless steel to wrought iron or classic wicker, outdoor furnishings now exist to create any look and feel homeowners seek. According to Doug Peppler, furniture company Agio’s vice president of sales, “Five, 10, 15 years ago people bought five- or seven-piece dining sets, stuck in an umbrella, and that was it. Before that, there were $10 white resin chairs. That sufficed as patio furniture.”

From the concept of outdoor chat areas have emerged spaces of “bold, deep seating,” and “wonderfully comfortable cushions,” Peppler said. But you don’t have to break the bank to create such settings. Even today’s mass market tables and chairs consist of better materials, he said.

Thought, time and consideration are also being put into small-space pieces by the design industry. Condos with micro-balconies have different needs than mansions with several acres of estate. “We make these enormous seats with deep seating,” Peppler said, but settees and small dining sets are also important.

Designer trends are now seeing both patios and walkways spilling into and amongst flower beds and garden arrangements. Courtesy of Merrifield Garden Center

How Does Your Garden Grow?
Everyone wants four-season appeal when it comes to plants, said Robert Woodman, landscape designer at Merrifield Garden Center. While the effect can’t be achieved with one plant, the possibilities are endless with mixed planting. “I often use evergreens like supporting actors,” Woodman said. “Their job is not to be front-liners, but rather to show off their companions.

“One expression I have heard is a ‘living calendar,’ where you get excited because in the middle of February your witch hazel is getting ready to flower.”

Popular tree choices in Northern Virginia include crisp white or magenta crape myrtles for their summer flowering, bark coloration and overall shape. Virginia’s state tree, the dogwood, is a favorite for its shape, hues of soft pink and white and resistance to disease.

Experts agree that landscapes have to be low-maintenance. Even if you love plants and love to garden, it’s not realistic to put in plantings that require a team of round-the-clock workers.

And even low-maintenance greenery takes work, Brock warned. The first year for any plant, tree, shrub or lawn requires constant maintenance until it’s established, he said. There’s no way to tell if a plant is drought-tolerant until it’s experienced its first year and its first full weather cycle. Constant care is required: “People want to go on vacation and leave their plants,” Brock said, but for that first year, “it’s just like going on vacation and leaving the kid at home.”

Creating an area of seclusion with plants can be difficult, but is often what’s desired in this population-dense region. Renatta Holt, a second Merrifield Garden Center landscape designer, said if homeowners don’t have the property to screen out neighbors with plantings, they should put in something pleasant-looking. The human eye will see what it wants to, and stop there.

It’s another good argument for mixed planting. Should a storm fell a tree or a disease take its toll, it’s easy to plant something else in that spot. And from a general design point of view, Woodman said, one should think of the landscape like scribbles on a heart monitor. “In the medical world a flat line isn’t good … It’s the same in planting design.”

Recessed, low-voltage watts serve as a practical improvement to appearance when illuminating a walkway. Courtesy of Larry Ruggeri/Petro

Outdoors Aglow
Nightfall can be the best time to highlight a landscape. Spotlighting a front stoop’s container garden of culinary herbs, or illuminating a koi pond from below lets homeowners show off their favorite outdoor features. At once a gorgeous addition and conversation piece, a soothing, backlit water fountain can cast a radiant glow onto guests mingling at a cocktail party.

“Dramatic outdoor lighting can create magic when specimen plants or architectural features of the home are accented,” said McLean interior designer Barbara Hawthorn. And then there are the added benefits of safety and security.

Consider going green with solar-powered, low-voltage lights and motion sensors. Light the stone walkway to the front door, the backyard garden path, or dine under an umbrella’s solar bulbs. More playful touches that are party-perfect include tiki torches, candles and decorative strings of lights.

Lighting is aesthetically essential, Buford said. “It not only offers functionality and improves the safety of the home at night, but it can add depth and beauty to the landscape.”

Overall, the best advice experts are able to offer is to retain the home’s original environment. The style and the materials should complement the home, not contrast. If you live in woodlands, respect their integrity and consider embellishing with stones and boulders. Think about your home’s inner and outer workings. Creating an outdoor life and design is important, and the feel has to be right for you, Litchfield said. After all, it’s home.

What Made You Decide to Do the Work?
Oakton homeowner Karen Sandburg describes the process

What made you do the job?
The trees we started out with 13 years ago were not thriving. We had a front walk of pavers, and the ants had burrowed into the sand. The roots of the trees had come through, so the front walk was dangerous. We knew we had to do that.

What was your overall vision, drive and reasoning behind the project?
I wanted to have a front yard that invited me to go into the house, and I wanted to incorporate mosaics into the whole project.

Why and how did you want to take part in the process?
I’m a hands-on person. We took out all the old landscaping, and my daughter and her friends created the mosaic inserts on the walkway. We used the techniques that Bonnie Fitzgerald (of Maverick Mosaics) taught us. I’ve never seen a custom lamppost that’s been mosaic-ed!

How do you feel about the finished product?
Merrifield’s Robert Woodman listened continuously. I told him I wanted year-round color and low maintenance. I wanted plants that seemed very natural to the woodland setting, as well as having some pizzazz. We couldn’t be happier with the end result.

What suggestions do you have for others?
The design landscape doesn’t just have to be about plants. When people redo their front yard, they put in a bench, or a pot. Instead of that, we actually incorporated artwork into the landscaping. It’s another way of creating interest and distinctiveness.


Lowe’s Home Improvement

EXPO Design 703-691-2433;

Merrifield Garden Center
Merrifield 703-560-6222; Fair Oaks 703-968-9600; Gainesville 703-368-1919;

Betty’s Azalea Ranch 703-830-8687;

Petro Design/Build 301-249-9000;

Luck Stone 1-800-898-LUCK;;

Barbara Hawthorn 703-241-5588;

Karen Luria Interior Identity Inc. 703-329-6262;

Bonnie Fitzgerald Maverick Mosaics

(May 2008)