May-June 2021 | Home & Garden

Relaxing made easy

Four backyards that were turned into cool gathering places

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Evan and Ashley Alexander, with baby Pauli, added an outdoor kitchen and a firepit to their Potomac backyard. Photo by Michael Ventura

Lingering over drinks by the firepit. Cooling off in a pool. Dinner in a screened porch (no bugs allowed). Lately, we’ve all been seeking out spaces where we can safely gather to socialize. For many, the backyard is the place to be, and the key is making this often underutilized area more versatile.

“People are looking at their landscape with a new lens,” says Bruce Allentuck, the owner of Allentuck Landscaping Co. in Rockville. “They’re looking at this asset they have and appreciating it more, and want to make it more compelling and more a part of their life and their style.”

Landscape designers have always pushed the concept of outdoor rooms, Allentuck says, but these days their clients are actually asking for them. Over the past year, landscape architects and designers and pool installers have been wildly busy fulfilling outdoor wish lists—firepits, hot tubs, open-air kitchens, pools, boccie courts.

Here are four reinvented backyards that offer homeowners great spots to gather.

Simonetta and Bruce Thorne in their backyard in Bethesda. Photo by Michael Ventura

Wooded wonder

Simonetta and Bruce Thorne’s property in Bethesda’s Burning Tree neighborhood had a shady and steeply sloped backyard; grass wouldn’t grow there, and they hardly used the space. Both love to entertain, so they wanted to enjoy their serene and wooded yard more fully. D. Blake Dunlevy, a landscape architect and president of D.A. Dunlevy in Poolesville, suggested an innovative solution: a tiered terrace.

Dunlevy met the challenge of making the large, multilevel stone area feel like a whole and flowing space by adding an elevated fire feature. The curved firepit helps to create a “visually stunning centerpiece that draws you down to that lower space,” he says. The hot tub’s position, “tucked off to the side of the more communal space,” was also strategic, making it more private. Users step down into the water from the terrace above.

Once the Thornes realized the breadth of their new backyard patio space they followed Dunlevy’s advice to include a kitchen with a bar, where Bruce could cook and chat with guests. Dunlevy suggested precast concrete for that countertop, which allowed the couple to pick their gray-green color. His company also installs annuals on the property every season, and they keep those plantings simple so they aren’t “overly fussy in the natural setting,” Dunlevy says.

Photo by Robert Radifera; Styling by Charlotte Safavi

For advice on bringing their furniture and furnishings together, the Thornes consulted Dennese Guadeloupe Rojas of Interiors by Design in Silver Spring, who was advising them on their indoor rooms at the time. “It’s a big space, and we couldn’t envision what we needed to put there,” Simonetta says. “So Dennese envisioned everything for us.”

Rojas saw the space as both an outdoor sanctuary and a fun entertainment spot. She helped the Thornes conceptualize the seating areas and how guests could flow between the upper and lower spaces. “It’s almost like having your indoors outdoors without a ceiling,” Rojas says. “The skies are your ceiling.”

Rojas also helped solve a safety issue. Dunlevy and the Thornes were concerned that guests might accidentally fall from the upper level, but the Thornes didn’t want more wrought iron fencing. Rojas suggested adding rectangular planters with tall grasses and blossoms to better define that area and keep guests safe. The lighting, designed by Dena Electric in Silver Spring, is incorporated into the masonry and includes step lights and under cap lights for the walls.

Finished in 2018, the terrace areas gave the Thornes the flexibility to continue hosting small social events, such as wine and bourbon tastings, throughout 2020 and into 2021.

“You never know what your backyard can look like until they show you the designs,” Simonetta says. “What we got out of that little hill was amazing.”


Photo by Michael Ventura

Warming up

Ashley and Evan Alexander, who live in Potomac and consider themselves “outdoorsy people,” realized in April 2020 that they wanted to get rid of their battered backyard deck in order to create a welcoming space. Spending more time outside would give their blended family, which includes 14-year-old twins, a 2-year-old and a baby, more options in challenging times.

The Alexanders approached Bruce Allentuck, the owner of Allentuck Landscaping Co. in Rockville, with a concept plan designed by Jeff Clark of Hometown Landscape in Silver Spring. Allentuck and the Alexanders combined their ideas and made the firepit—where the Alexanders were eager to gather with family and friends—a dominant feature of the new flagstone patio.

Evan enjoys cooking on both his gas grill and Big Green Egg ceramic cooker, so Allentuck built the kitchen area around those items. The family also wanted a pergola, which Allentuck crafted from his personal stash of clear cedar lumber, which has few, if any, knots.

With homeowners using their outdoor settings more often, including extra time there during the darker months, good lighting has become essential, both aesthetically and for safety. Along with illuminating the path and steps, Allentuck added lights that shine straight up, which Ashley describes as “subtle but strategic. The lighting creates an ambiance and defines the spaces.”

The Alexanders’ backyard lacked shade, so they wanted more trees. Ashley asked for low-maintenance landscaping that would provide seasonal splashes of color. On Allentuck’s advice, they chose a Japanese maple, a river birch and a saucer magnolia. They wanted to avoid providing the deer with an “all-you-can-eat buffet,” Ashley says, so Allentuck suggested limelight hydrangeas, Cheyenne spirit coneflowers and the sculptural foliage of the fernspray gold hinoki cypress to accent the space visually.

The Alexander family also added a retractable movie screen and a speaker set for more entertaining options. The space “totally reflects their taste and lifestyle: friendly, laid-back, and family-oriented,” Allentuck says.


Photo by John Spaulding

Backyard bliss

Michael Rusnak, who grew up in Florida, always hoped to add a pool to the backyard of the home that he and his wife, Cathy, bought in 2008 in Chevy Chase’s Kenwood neighborhood. They were disappointed in design suggestions they sought in 2017 that recommended only a lap pool for their fairly tight and narrow backyard. Their now 20-year-old son and 18-year-old twins (boy and girl) would soon be spending less time at home, so they wanted a backyard that envisioned that future. They also hoped to avoid winter views of a drab pool cover from their kitchen and living room.

After meeting with Anthony Cusat, a landscape architect and director of design at McHale Landscape Design’s McLean office, the Rusnaks liked his plan to position their pool at the edge of the couple’s property, overlooked by an existing screened porch rather than the main indoor living spaces. The design enabled the family to include a hot tub and patio and to remake their backyard into more of a retreat space. Cusat recommended a saltwater pool, and to set its depth to reflect their needs. Rather than having a deep end where no one could stand or play volleyball, he suggested a shallower and more versatile pool. Rectangular in shape with a depth of 3½ feet at both ends and 6 feet in the middle, the pool was installed by Town & Country Pools of Springfield, Virginia.

To add an element of sound to the area, Cusat included three stainless-steel custom scuppers, a special feature that allows water to flow fountain-like into the pool. “We have the scuppers on all summer long, and it’s a really quiet, relaxing area,” Michael says.

Cusat collaborated with Nature Unlimited, a Finksburg, Maryland-based company specializing in irrigation and lighting, to solve some drainage issues on one side of the yard, creating space for a hot tub. At Cathy’s suggestion, the hot tub was sunk about a foot, allowing the top of the stone wall that hides it from view to align with the other hardscape. The retaining wall has a quarry stone facade that, like the wall around the pool, echoes the stonework pattern and colors on the main house.

For the patio, Cusat used an inlay pattern to create a defined space within the larger area and offer the family versatile configurations for chairs and tables. He also added a path from the front of the house to the backyard, which allows family and friends to access that space without entering the home, a handy feature during the pandemic. Outdoor Illumination of Bethesda designed the lighting.

The Rusnaks wanted low-maintenance plants and trees to screen the space from the neighboring houses, so Cusat chose green giant arborvitae to create privacy. In 2018, the project won a Grand Award of Excellence for Total Residential Contracting from the Landscape Contractors Association.

“The design incorporated how we like to live as a family into the whole backyard,” Cathy says.


Photo by Melissa Clark

Under cover

In the fall of 2019, Jonathan Spector and Julie Friedman hired Cathy Carr, principal landscape designer at GreenHeart Garden Designs in Silver Spring, to help them reinvent their Rockville backyard. In retrospect, that request seems prescient; their blended family, with five kids ages 14 to 22, would soon be spending more time there as the coronavirus pandemic set in.

Previously, Friedman—herself a landscape designer at Exteriors Outdoor Styling in Clarksburg— would scatter patio umbrellas to create shade in the sunny and hot backyard, but the mosquitoes remained an ongoing issue. To counter the heat and the pests and to create a flexible space, Carr suggested building a pavilion with retractable screens that could be raised and lowered as needed.

Collaborating with Eric Wasli of SDF Builders in Thurmont, Maryland, Carr decided to build above the existing L-shaped rooflines of the rambler, which helped to minimize the loss of light inside the home. Her design was inspired by the floating roof of the Kogod Courtyard between the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum; both structures are supported by columns around the edge. The pavilion Carr designed is 14 feet high at its peak. Where roof meets roof, fixed screens were installed to keep mosquitoes out.

By using retractable screens, the project required fewer posts, which might otherwise have blocked the view. The screens, supplied by Maryland Screens in Keedysville, Maryland, have a fuzzy edge that fits tightly against the floors and, when raised, roll up inside a valance. The family can control the screens with a push of a button, even from their phones.

Having redone their kitchen two years earlier, the family wanted continuity between the spaces, so the gray wood in the pavilion coordinates with the indoor space. They also wanted as much natural wood as possible, so they used Douglas fir rafters for the pine tongue-and-groove ceiling.

To brighten the space, Friedman decided on both cove lighting (indirect, built-in illumination that is directed toward the ceiling to produce a diffuse light) and color-changing lights. The fun options, provided by Tony Weaver of Olson Weaver Lighting Design & Install in Arlington, Virginia, can set a festive mood.

Within the pavilion, the family enjoys three separate spaces: a lounge area, a dining area and a seated reading spot. Infrared heaters hang from the ceiling to warm the room in cooler weather, and an overhead fan provides cooling.

“Right now, we’re able to have the screens down and the doors [from the pavilion to the home] open to allow all that fresh air and flow, and keep the dogs in,” Friedman says. “We use the pavilion almost daily. It’s been a godsend during COVID.”

Amy Brecount White lives in Arlington, Virginia, and enjoys writing about how we gather in and explore the impressive variety of outdoor spaces in the mid-Atlantic area.