Making the Most of Outdoor Living

So what makes a backyard oasis? We find out from Dave Marciniak of Revolutionary Gardens and Drew Crowder of NVblu.

By Jennifer Shapira

Northern Virginia Magazine Outdoor Living
Pool designed by NVblu in Chantilly. Photo courtesy of NVblu.

Dave Marciniak’s love of creating artistic, verdant outdoor oases grew out of a background in interior design, and years of working on the temperate west coast have led him to maximize outdoor living spaces in Northern Virginia.

In terms of design elements, Marciniak, owner of Revolutionary Gardens, based in McLean, says the most important aspect of a successful outdoor space is the conception of the perfect gathering spot, while providing a connection to the landscape.

“The first thing I ask [a client] is: ‘How are you going to live in this space? What’s the story you’ve been telling yourself for how a summer night is going to be for you here?’ Then it’s my job to take that information and give them what they want functionally, but also help them make it look great,” says Marciniak.

“Through trellises and tall plantings, you want to feel sort of tucked in and enclosed. On the other hand, if you’re trying to celebrate the house and welcome people into the house, then it becomes more open and creates more of a showpiece for the house. Sometimes I get really artsy-fartsy about it,” he says of his outdoor canvases. “That’s kind of what I go for: people who really want their landscape to fit them like a glove, let their personality shine through.”

Northern Virginia Outdoor Living.
Pool designed by McLean’s Revolutionary Gardens. Photo courtesy of Revolutionary Gardens.

So what makes a backyard oasis? It’s a thoughtful combination of a number of elements, no matter the square footage. From a cozy condo balcony to a landscaped pool on number of acres, each space can be well-thought out and tailored to the dweller’s desires.

The first rule, if there are any rules, is to use what space you’ve got. Then think about how the space can better suit your needs. Follow some DIY suggestions, or enlist the help of a team of professionals. To achieve what you want, that might call for a little of both.

There’s a real significance to “outdoor living and entertaining and how people spend their time together, in their off hours,” says Marciniak. “There’s just so many neat things out there.”

Certainly, the star of any outdoor kitchen, large or small, is the grill, sometimes built into the stonework. It’s followed by a cast of secondary appliances—a smoker, a pizza oven, rotisserie grill, refrigerator, a beverage center (complete with a Kegerator, wine coolers, warming and cooling drawers, ice makers)—any of those favorite, hard-working kitchen appliances amped up and reimagined for the outdoors.

Marciniak, who loves to cook, is working on the plans for his own outdoor kitchen, which will include a wood-fired pizza oven, a smoker and a 65,000 BTU power burner, which he says can “rip to a boil” in no time. He puts his work into practice, so he’s all about auditioning the newest grills and cooking techniques that sizzle al fresco.



Northern Virginia Outdoor Living.
Beautiful Garden Retreat Design and built by Exquisite Exteriors and pool constructed by NVblu. Photo courtesy of NVblu.


Outdoor kitchens, already outfitted for evenings of relaxed entertaining, now include new-fangled grill options that encourage social, communal cooking and eating.

“I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet,” says Marciniak of a flat-top grill, a big, round cooking slab, much like what you might see at a Mongolian barbecue restaurant—where everyone makes their choices then prepares them communally. “It’s actually kind of neat because if you’re having a party you can have four or five guests sitting around cooking,” he says.

For a historic home in downtown Fredericksburg, Marciniak worked with the homeowners to realize their ideas of backyard bliss. The pool, with its decorative fountains, was the focal point, but they wanted to be sure to incorporate intimate seating and play areas for entertaining and family gatherings.

Northern Virginia Outdoor Living.
Landscape designed by Revolutionary Gardens in McLean. Photo courtesy of Revolutionary Gardens.

“They are both people who love landscape,” says Marciniak. “They love gardens and so it was important to them to have enough space for that.”

He recalls another outdoor area he did for a client who was very sun-sensitive. The solution: a custom pergola which helped define the space, and provided needed coverage. Marciniak installed a remote-operated retractable cover that shaded the client from the sun’s rays.

Drew Crowder, vice president of management and construction at NVblu in Chantilly, has seen his work in commercial design reflect many of these residential design trends. Responsible for the design and landscaping of pools in many of Loudoun County’s newest developments—Brambleton, Stone Ridge, South Riding—he says outdoor living amenities like fire pits, spas, pergolas, gazebos, outdoor kitchens and rockscapes are all finding their way into pools for entire communities to enjoy.

His father, Jack Crowder, president and CEO of NVblu agrees. “What’s been interesting to me is that we’ve been able to infuse a lot of the fun components,” he says, of residential pools into the commercial side.

Known for their artistic takes on those glorious backyard swimming holes, the elder Crowder says that rectangular pools area coming back in style. For a time, he says, freeform pools were the trend.

But now, with features like heat-retaining automatic safety covers and breathtaking negative edges, pools possess a real backyard wow factor—creativity abounds with step entry, benches, spas, built-in tanning ledges and waterfalls—each pool is a work of art.

Jack Crowder recalls one project which included a projection TV, perfect for poolside viewing. At night, a pool can take on a different look entirely: it can be set to glow with color-changing LED lights. Lap pools, with an on switch for resistance, are popular in the backyards of the more-than-recreational swimmer.

But even if your backyard is little more than a postage stamp, it can still become a great spot to unwind. Add an all-weather fire pit with circular seating. Have blankets on hand for chilly nights. Update your after-work perch with an intimate bistro set for toasting the sunset.

Northern Virginia Outdoor Living.
Photo courtesy of NVblu.

No matter a garden’s size, containers always fit. Whether you’re interested in harvesting edibles like herbs or tomatoes or growing gorgeous ornamentals like colorful cabbage or Swiss chard as accents, do so in terracotta pots or industrial-look galvanized steel tubs; whatever fits your style.

Marciniak is currently working on a row house in Northwest that will include a garden and a parking space for future resale value. “For me, it’s such a problem-solving puzzle,” he says. “The projects in D.C. are always interesting because you end up with these really bizarre, narrow, chopped-up little spaces. It’s kind of fun to turn them into something.”

“What’s great about small spaces,” says Marciniak, is it’s “kind of a challenge of: how do you pack as much function as possible into a small space?” 

(June 2014)