Steps and Sloping

aloha2009March 28, 2012

Even though this has to deal with hardscape within a landscape, I'm wondering if this question may be handled better in one of the building forums.

At the eleventh hour, we may be completely changing our original layout of a patio and making it considerably larger. IF we can do this, and I do mean IF, we have some steps that we will need to incorporate with a significant drop off.

The new patio plan, would have a 26" height difference between the end of the patio and the edge of a retaining wall 5 feet away. We will need steps to navigate down through this area to the area below the retaining wall.

We plan on embedding into the patio a few steps (maybe 3) that could drop us down 18-24". We will then have a 5' x 6' (or 5'x 8') landing area/ramp and then additional steps to get to the lowest level below the retaining wall. There will be a flower bed on either side of the ramp in the area between the patio and retaining wall.

One possibility is instead/or in addition we could slope the 5' ramp distance between the patio edge (raised) and the retaining wall. This could decrease the amount of steps. I'm thinking though steps would be the better choice "comfort" wise, but it would take away space on the patio.

How steep is comfortable to have a sloped walkway instead of steps?

Between taking away patio area for steps and dropping down in height comfortably, what are the best ways to get from height A to height B?

If you had a 26" drop down, 4' levelish, and then another 30" drop down, how would you lay out your steps.

We want to break up the steps instead of having an ominous 7 steep steps or 10 comfortable steps from top of patio to bottom of yard.

These steps will be 6-8' wide.

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You really need to post a picture that shows the context and conditions. It's impossible to speculate on so many unknowns other than offering generalizations that are basically meaningless.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 12:19AM
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I could post some pics of the current land but I'm not sure what angles would be appropriate. W/o the patio or steps in place all I could do is take a picture of a raw slope of land and a 30" retaining wall. If you think that would help, I'd be glad to take some pics and post them. Believe me, I wish I could draw it out in 3D.

Perhaps this is too difficult to try and get help in this context w/o being able to see the area IRL.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 1:06AM
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I finally was able to get to my pics of the backyard.

We are looking at laying a patio within 4' of each side of the house and 18' from the middle of the house. The steps in question would be centered in the middle of the 8' window (which will be changed out with french doors) between post 2 & 3 from the left. Though the patio will be large, having steps interrupt the area, will create some it's own set of issues. Deciding how to get the "sweet" spot of moving from patio to beach comfortably while conserving patio is the question.

Though we aren't real happy with having to use decking for the steps and ramp there doesn't seem to be any choice w/o extensively reworking the stone wall. The house and deck has been painted/stained since this pic but we are going to use the same tan & white colors for the treads/risers and railing (if needed) to "marry" the house with part of the stairs.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 1:53AM
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I don't know your property line in is my suggests.Maybe wrong.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 4:21AM
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To work out the step assembly you will need to draw it up in profile. But first, there needs to be some consideration of the slope between the patio and the top of the retaining wall to either side of the steps. If this area is to be soil, the 26 inch drop over a 4ft distance is way too steep. With the patio sloped away from the house, water from it flowing down the strip to the wall is almost certain to be a problem.

Is the 4ft distance from patio to the wall the dimension to the back of the wall or to the face of the wall? How thick is the wall?

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 11:12AM
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Do I understand correctly that the proposal is for three separate sets of steps arranged in an axis starting at the house wall, proceeding toward the water to the far side of patio, then to a landing and steps at/through the retaining wall...? (Was was this where you were previously exploring connecting walks to the right end of the deck? I see you have steps that connect to an upper level over there. Now I see the sense in a walk paralleling the deck, however, I'd be inclined to explore the idea of that walk being an adjunct to the deck.) I'd also be inclined to link walks on the right toward where the other steps and cut in the retaining wall already are.

Do you anticipate shade from any large trees in the future?

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 11:48AM
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Designlinee6, thanks for posting the pic. For now, if not forever, we don't want to disrupt the dry stack retaining wall. The stability in the wall would likely be compromised. It would look great but...

We will be tweaking the right end of the wall to straighten the wall out the last 10' or so. Since the wall gets fairly short, my DH can handle that (he had to do something similar in the front yard).

Pls8xx. Between the edge of the patio and front of the retaining wall, there is 4' of soil and the rock wall is about 1' thick (5' total). I too agree that 26" drop is too steep. My question though is, where is the sweet spot between steps that intrude on the main patio, comfortably walking down to the lower level, and controlling erosion. If you have a chance, most of the options were in my first posting PRIOR to my getting a picture up. Hopefully it makes more sense with the picture.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 11:52AM
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Yardvaark, I think we were posting at the same time so I missed your response.

Actually the axis point will be for a 15' sunken round patio on the right (in the grassy area that will be removed). I can't thank you enough for questioning that walkway in front. Though there was reasoning behind it, the advantage to incorporating it into the patio itself, would be MUCH better. With the axis point still being at the 15' patio, the 4' walkway seems appropriate for the short distance...providing we do the larger patio. The walk will go along the front of the deck posts, between the corner post and 15' patio to be, then join up to the 4' steps in the upper retaining wall.

There is currently a cottonwood :( in the neighbors yard that was placed prior to bylaws being enforced. The picture doesn't show it (that maple is in the upper area) but it does provide some nice shade in mid afternoon - hence the reason for the patio. The trees we will be putting in will provide, no shade to the patio areas because of the easements/restrictions.
We're also creating a flagstone/thyme firepit patio to the left of the main patio. The backyard is all about entertaining. I will have extensive plantings but NO grass.

We have a strict 10' easement from the lake where nothing is to be planted. 10-30' can have plants up to 3', 30+ can be whatever height you want.

EVERY neighbor has said that basically there is no patio that is too big here because they are USED!!!

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 12:20PM
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I'm having a hard time understanding the basics. Are there two patios roughly located where I've shown red lines?

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 1:16PM
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You must transcend a total of 56 inches in vertical drop (26' +30") less perhaps a 1 inch slope over the mid-landing. For something in a normal 7 inch riser, you need 8 risers. You could do 3 at the top , the landing, and then 5 down to the beach. Or it could be split to 4 then 4.

The horizontal distance is made up of the treads plus the landing. Using 10 inch tread spacing with a 1 inch back slope or bullnose gives a 11 inch tread. Add the seven treads between the risers (7 x10) plus a landing (48"?), plus a beach level pad, plus a tread at patio level if the patio surface doesn't serve as a tread: 70 + 48 + 11 + 11? = 129 or 140 inches horizontal.

The horizontal can be shifted into the patio or outward into the beach. The graphic below shows the relationship of the patio to the wall with two possible locations for steps (black and red) in a 3, landing, 5 configuration.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 2:11PM
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You guys rock!

Yes yardvaark, I will have the two patios plus an additional one on the left for a firepit. The third will be next to but not connected to the main patio.

Pls8xx. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Your graph shows exactly what I need but I couldn't figure out how to draw that out.

So now new questions arise as to the direction I should go. I'm leaning toward having no steps incorporated in the main patio for this area and do close to what you have Pls8xx. Since we want to minimize disrupting the beach as much as possible, fewer steps would be nice from wall to beach level. Does it make any difference aesthetically if it's a 3/5 set of steps vs a 4/4? Also we do want the steps to the beach to have a major visual draw, so should we incorporate the steps into the main patio for effect. So many options it makes my head spin.

Also to minimize the look of the trek stairs we were planning on having the riser open to visually see through to the stone (or is that just wishful thinking you'd actually see it). I'm thinking though it may look odd to see stone in the back for some risers and cement for the uppers. Am I over-thinking this or would it even be noticed. With the openness, I can only imagine what "friends" may move in. Perhaps we should just put an actual riser.

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 3:03PM
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I would invite you to design and draw your own version of the wall assembly. To get a head start, use the optional link below for a grid with just the patio and wall on it. Open and save it to your computer.

If you don't have graphics software, you can use the online editor at Select "Open image from computer", then find the graphic file you saved.

The drawing will open and look something like this:

This is a full fledged editor with many tools you won't understand at the start. I have labeled some of the tools you will first use.

Note that when you open the file the grid will look funny. That is because the image is zoomed to see the whole drawing. Use the zoom tools to see it at 100% and the area viewed tool to drag the viewed window to the part
you want to see/edit.

There is a brush tool and a drawing tool. Use the drawing tool to make straight lines.

For each tool there are attributes shown at the top that control what the tool does.

There are several selection tools to outline a part of the drawing you might want to copy/paste/move/or change the color. The magic wand tool selects a part of the image with a similar color, depending on the value selected in the attributes.

You can also use to draw on photos like yardvaark did above.

Don't forget to save your drawings!

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 5:17PM
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Still not sure if I grasp your general layout, but--operating under the general principle that fewer steps are better than more--why wouldn't you consider a linking of patios that avoids "transversing" the wall when there is already a "cut" that invites access? Such a scheme looks like it could be done with about 3 widely spaced step and modest "ramps" (if they would even be sloped enough to call them that.) (Please excuse the total lack of grace and details in the sketch. It's for schematic purposes only.)

    Bookmark   March 29, 2012 at 6:16PM
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Pls8xx. Thanks for the start. I'm going to pass it along to my DH. He prefers to use Vizio and I enjoy the old fashioned graph paper and pencil.

That said, I found my tattered, erased a billion times layout of the backyard. I carefully did some more erasing (only 1 small hole) and drew in the possible new patio size.

Though it's not perfect it's reasonably close. Our house fits on the lot at an angle, so lots of measurements! That coupled with the retaining wall being curved, just ads to the fun (not).

Yardvaark my DH and I were both confused by your question and what exactly you were asking. You ask very good questions, so I think it's important for us to be able to answer them. The questions was

"why wouldn't you consider a linking of patios that avoids "transversing" the wall when there is already a "cut" that invites access? Such a scheme looks like it could be done with about 3 widely spaced step and modest "ramps" (if they would even be sloped enough to call them that.)"

I've included some of the work previously done and tweaked with the new patio size.

This is my old, old layout...the wrinkles are as clear as the lines.

This is a close up of the proposed larger patio

Lastly is a photoshopped picture of our backyard. Plants aren't absolutes as much as the areas are designated for function. The patio area on the right though would be moved within 3' of the grass line at the beach.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 2:36PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

I think Yard is making a good observation. Why do you need paving and steps that cut directly from the center of the house to the beach? I can imagine kids running flat out across the grass and leaping off the retaining wall onto the sand and running splashing into the water. The photoshopped bushes are just obstacles to fun. Walking downslope to the beach seems so easy, logical, and cheap compared to slicing and dicing what little remains of your unpaved landscape.

About the fire pit area and grill -- where is your kitchen and which way does the prevailing wind blow?

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 4:18PM
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"my DH and I were both confused by your question..."

I think I now understand your general patio layout. I was asking, why penetrate the existing retaining wall with steps to access the beach when linking patios with walks that lead to the existing "opening" in the ret. wall (at right) is so much more gentle? If the answer is because you're after a "grand vista" while standing at the french doors... a path that leads front and center straight to some stairs that go down to the water, I'd say you need to widen those steps considerably. As in 12-15'. And flank them at each side with a wall opening that "curvingly" sweeps inward. Grand? Sure. But I think it'd be possible to find an even better place to put "extra" $.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 4:49PM
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I'll address you both since the questions are very similar.

Yes it would be much cheaper and easier to use the area on the right for getting down to the beach BUT it's been nothing but a pain to walk all the way to the West side of the yard, only to want to sit about where the steps are going or further East. Then decide you forgot to get the sunscreen, towel, or whatever. We then have to trek back West to the patio and come back East to retrieve the item. Then return via West and back East to the resting spot. After an hour in the sun, it's time for refreshments....I think you're getting the picture. If nothing else it doesn't function well. Neighbors that have docks have their access to the beach on the sides. All others have them in the middle for likely the same reason we do. We will NEVER have a dock for various reasons. Besides access, the water is about 15' away from the patio on the right, and it's about 25' on the left...more room to maneuver. We actually don't anticipate using the patio on the right except in the late afternoons on occasion because of the neighbors cottonwood shade.

The winds come from the West typically so the grill on the East (left) should work well and not smoke guests out. Our kitchen is on the main (upper floor) behind the angled nook (West). We'll be adding a full kitchen in the basement, likely in the same basic location. I'm not sure that matters since the doorway will be in the middle.

With the deck post being 10' apart (and a little off centered to the 6' french doors (2' sidelights), we thought it would be best to keep the staircase a tad smaller. We also don't want to ugly up the retaining wall any more then is absolutely necessary.

Since we would be having the patio layed and the steps would be after-the-fact, we can actually test things out prior to installing any steps, in case we change out mind.

One of my concerns with so much hardscaping was not having things lush with plantings. To only have 4' of vegetation growing in the back yard seems barely tolerable. The patio on the left, will be flagstone/broken concrete with wooly thyme in the cracks. I am xeriscaping, not zeroscaping.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 8:48PM
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catkim(San Diego 10/24)

Would it make any sense to add stacked stone steps coming down the face of the retaining wall? Same stone? No paved walk to them, just walk across the lawn and descend? Something of a more natural look?

There is a formula for steps as to risers and treads. It's rather important in making them functional.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2012 at 11:19PM
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Having so much concrete already, I can't imagine having steps using stone instead of decking would looking much more natural.

I found a picture in a book that had deck type steps among stone and it actually looked better then I imagined.

The steps on the slope (right), I was trying to figure out a good way to transition. We knew we had to have something loose like breeze on the top but the question of when to start the cement was in question. With all the movement that can happen with a retaining wall, I figured we'd have nothing but cracks in the steps. With exposed aggregate though it should hide cracks well. I thought we'd do the expose aggregate on treads and leave the risers smooth. My DH doesn't care for exposed aggregate but he thinks it would be a good way to transition. Any thoughts?

contemporary landscape design by san luis obispo landscape architect Jeffrey Gordon Smith Landscape Architecture

Catkim, I've got the formula bookmarked. Thanks.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2012 at 8:35PM
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I guess DEJA VUE week has turned into Deja Vue month...

"your suggestions are great, BUT...."
"I think thats a good idea, but it won't work BECAUSE..."
been there done that, thanks.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 6:55PM
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No drtygrl, you're just trapped in one of those time-loop continuums. Nasty things are cropping up everywhere these days...

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 10:22PM
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So again Yardvaark, you've had me thinking all week. Yes it's true that having the ONLY access from the main patio to the beach via the West patio, doesn't work BUT it doesn't mean stairs on the East side wouldn't work. Since we seem to prefer the East side of the beach, having a East staircase could quite possibly work. It would put us very close to the final beach destination instead of the wrap around the West side would take us. We'd still have the West access, which I would anticipate us using when we're using that patio.

What are the thoughts of having steps on the East side and nothing straight down from the back door of the house? The wall is a few inches higher the closer to the East we go so more steps, but the steps wouldn't be protruding out into the middle of the beach. Hopefully others can think of some positives and negatives that we haven't thought of.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 10:25PM
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I don't know the directions so can't answer your questions. If they were mentioned somewhere, I missed or forgot. Maybe--from the way it sounds--E. is to the left? In general, steps should be near to where they're needed. If you're coming over the top of wall (no cut) with wood steps, it might work to turn them 90* so that the descent is parallel to the wall, aimed to the destination and their projection doesn't need to exceed 4' or so. The answer to your questions would depend a lot on needs and desires.

The cooking patio is near the kitchen? Is that the West patio?

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 12:12AM
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"nasty things are cropping up everywhere these days..."

I have been dealing with weeds ALL week this week. Which is amazing, since crocuses aren't up, trees aren't budded but we got weeds!

I REALLY hate when I get caught in time loop continuums. I am still questioning whether my entire relationship with my husband is a time loop continuum. If you ask him, no. If you ask me yes.

On topic, maybe Yard is the man for the job...

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 8:19PM
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Yardvaark, Sorry about that, I think the info is buried somewhere in what is becoming a very long thread. But yes you are right the left is East.

I think the biggest problem with the placement of these steps is the wall will always look patched, which of course it is. The whole yard is a patch for that matter. I've been able to thus far, make things work, but these steps, not so much.

The sweet spot of the beach is right about where I was originally proposing the steps. The steps would be very convenient but concern arises as to dividing the beach in half.

An additional kitchen will be on the West (right) side a room behind the octagon window. Having to enter and exit out the middle though, I don't understand why it would matter on the interior. Both you and catkim asked about the kitchen so I'm not sure of it's importance being that there is only the one entry/exit. I'm thinking I may be missing something.

Since our yard is such a mess right now, it's hard to determine at this time which of the second set of stairs would function the best, middle or East (the West is a given). Since nothing else would change except the addition of wooden/trex decking, we can add it after we live with a patio for a few months. We've gotten by for 2 years, surely we can get by for a few more.

Yardvaark, I again want to thank you for helping me to have a MUCH, MUCH better patio!!! Yesterday I made up some "patio pieces" for the patio diagram. Having that extra 4' made a HUGE difference. No one had ever questioned the 4' walkway in front of the patio and there was some logic as to why we did it, but not enough to warrant keeping it. I hope you feel good that you were VERY instrumental in helping us have a patio that we will enjoy to the fullest for several decades to come.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 10:30PM
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There's always a lot of running back & forth between kitchen and grill for me when I barbecue. As you only have the one central entrance, it makes the kitchen location irrelevant to the other patios if they're equidistant. You have to figure out other ways --a cart or something--to make the kitchen things convenient to the cook-out area.

If the central part of the beach is THE destination, then that's where I'd locate the steps. Nearby & convenient.

You are very welcome and I'm glad I could help.

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 11:54PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

You made a comment about this rock wall on another thread that reinforced something I've previously thought but not articulated - not sure if anyone else has.

You are making a lot of compromises to "retain" (pun intended) this rock wall. I see from the other thread that you regard it as something quite special. Not having had an up close view, I can't say it is or isn't, but what I am getting is that it is not quite as high as you might like it, and that it doesn't have an opening in the right place. To me, that makes it less than the wonder wall that you seem to be treating it as.

Even if it is so fantastic, perhaps a good mason could create an opening in it that would preserve most of it and allow you to build stairs that are recessed that match fairly seamlessly with the existing work. Maybe even make it a little higher. Or use the same stone to build a new wall.

Finally, stone walls like this often do have a lifespan, and I wonder how old this one is? You might design your whole yard around it only to have it fail not too long afterward.

I have often found that design impasses resolve themselves quickly when you give yourself permission to regard your fixed elements as variable. So I would suggest you ask yourself, if the wall were not already there, where and how would you put the stairs? And then think about whether the compromises you are making to work around the existing wall are not, perhaps, more trouble than just amending the wall.

Karin L

    Bookmark   April 5, 2012 at 1:03PM
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Karin, that was very well said and, for the most part, I agree with you. The only point I might add is that it is present condition and forecast condition, more than age itself, which determines a ret. wall's lifespan. So many are poorly built and have short lives. Others are well built and last centuries. And then, of course, budget and "willingness to bother" factors in, too. But I certainly agree that one must ask themselves the "what if" (it weren't there) question to put the possibilities in perspective.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2012 at 1:44PM
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When you get comments from neighbors and landscape designers such as they have "wall envy", your wall is probably the nicest in the neighborhood, or this was beautifully done, you start to realize how valuable it is. I personally have never seen a prettier wall IRL. The wall is about 15 years old and shows no signs of failing any time soon.

We have "dreamed" of the raw land and what we would have done with it and you are spot on, we would have placed the steps directly in line with the back door and embedded the steps into the retaining question about it. When I was planning out our upper West side, it was exasperation that I "took out" the seemingly misplaced Maple in the plan, that a great plan was found, which incorporated the Maple in it's current home. I get my best ideas from dreaming larger. I think by the time I post anything here, I've already done my thinking outside the box, and I'm trying to have others get me over a hump.

The fact though, the wall has been built and we need to get from point A to point B. My DH and I have always been about value when it comes to purchases/decisions. Though I shared a pic of our house, this view is seen by only a few people during the summer. We of course see it up close and personal every time we venture down to the beach. Being up close to the wall, we will rarely see the view that I shared of the entire wall. A 4-6' blip in the wall, I can't imagine being unsightly. We will design the steps to be as transparent as possible.

I'm thinking long term, if we end up placing the decking steps down the middle and it ends up functioning just as we dreamed, we might just pony up the bucks to have the wall redone, lose some of the main patio to embedded steps, by cutting somewhat into the concrete. But then again we might just determine, the steps go unnoticed and we keep using the deck steps as is.

We find the longer we live here, the more things we THOUGHT we wanted to do for sure, are getting nixed. With the addition of patio, it will change the way we use the backyard a lot!!! Who knows while we wait for the steps to be put in, we may find out that the West entrance onto the beach will work after all. I doubt it, but I'm leaving it as a possibility.

I think again I might be missing something, if I have deck steps opposed to embedded stone steps, the only compromise I think we are making is aesthetics. Is there something else?

    Bookmark   April 5, 2012 at 2:01PM
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bahia(SF Bay Area)

I hadn't been aware that this thread has been so ongoing until Drtygirl brought it to my attention. I can see now that there is still a lot of uncertainty as to which design features should take precedence. For what it is worth, I would vote for placing the new access to the beach somewhere near the center of the wall, and build them of matching stone as the wall to make it look designed rather than just tacked on. If it is allowed, the new stairs wouldn't need to eat into patio space above, but could bump out into the beach with a sideways orientation of access down that parallels the face of the wall. Additional seat walls also built to match the stone wall could be incorporated at the edges of the patio or as an "L" layout to repeat the line of the wall at the beach, and also serve as a design backdrop for new plantings. You could still have a pathway/ramp winding down to the beach from the side.

On another note, "crazy paving" with gaps for planting something like Thyme doesn't work as well under a deck where it won't get full sun, at the very least you should reconsider using something similar yet more shade tolerant.

I also find the full across the house type patio with just a 4 foot wide sloped planting strip looks supremely uninviting as a space to look down upon or back at from the beach. If it were my garden to design, I'd consider an assymetric layout that wasn't the same width across the lot,but instead pushed out at one side and came back in at the other, using a sweeping double joined curve that allowed some planting or even lawn to extend under the overhead deck above at the right side closer to the end of the beach wall. A curved stone seat wall at the convex curve portion of a patio on the left side could really complement the wall at the beach.

The design restrictions against taller planting within the first 30 feet seem very arbitrary to me. I can see how the desire may be to give unrestricted views across each lot, but a few taller shrubs up close to the house and carefully avoiding blocked views from neighbors is fully possible, and would certainly help the design look less like a motel.

    Bookmark   May 23, 2012 at 1:35PM
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