Landscaping without curves - passe?

EngineerChicApril 3, 2012

We're 1/3 done adding a new second floor and porch to our modest cape. I need to figure out the landscaping so the porch stairs are set correctly (there will be a concrete pad for the stringers to rest on). I've been looking at pictures to get some ideas and I have noticed that nearly every picture has sweeping curves for walkways, borders, etc.

Are straight lines ... out of fashion? Are they generally seen as poor design or unimaginative?

Here is the inspiration for our remodel:

And here is our house & front yard as they are today (again, construction is still underway):

Additional things will change in the future, like the existing stairs/deck that lead from the breezeway to the driveway. And again - this is a work in progress - I'm not looking for feedback on house/garage since we're working with what was here when we bought the place (I know the garage is ugly, we'll get to that later).

But what I could use feedback on is this ... do we NEED curves or can I just work with straight lines for the walkway to the porch & plants around the house?

Common wisdom is to "design it for your own taste" but on the other hand, if I'm missing something let me know. I like front yards that look neat & tidy as opposed to natural & rustic, and I think that's why the straight lines & right angles appeal to me. I'm just not seeing many good examples of this online.

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"Are straight lines ... out of fashion? Are they generally seen as poor design or unimaginative?"

No! Straight lines make sense here. A curve for the sake of a curve would look contrived.

I hope you realize how ridiculously skinny the walk is in your inspiration photo. You can do something better. A walk is better if it allows two people to walk to the house side-by-side. Also, the tree there is allowed to grow with limbs much too low.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 1:16PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I tend to be a bit(!) out of sync with the current love-affair with curving lines everywhere! A straight line to the door looks fine to me! A wider path than in your inspiration picture would be better though - 4' is usually considered a good width as it allows for two people to walk side-by-side. As for curves in your situation, I'd have the beds along the front (assuming you intend to have them....) curve just before they intersect with the walk - i.e. rather than have the bed meet the walk at 90 degrees, make a concave curve at the intersection. Take a look at a T intersection of two sidewalks - the grass is almost always worn away in a curve where people cut across the corner! So make a corner curve that looks like that. It will be easy to mow along and let your eyes easily flow between the straight 'vertical' of the path to the 'horizontal' of front beds. (And do make any beds there wide enough and planted with interesting things so they are not boring :-)

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 1:23PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Yardvaark and I were posing at the same time...

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 1:25PM
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Ditto to the above straight, 4' wide and removing lower branches. In addition the 4' walkway LOOKS better as it draws the 2 columns into the entrance look thus making the entrance grander. Great street appeal!

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 1:41PM
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I think the push for curves came along with SRW retaining walls. SRW construction is compatible with curves in a way that many other materials would be more expensive. If a contractor can convince a homeowner that curves are better, he has an advantage over contractors that build with other materials. Over the years, a lot of homeowners have been led to believe curved is good, straight is bad.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 3:04PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Important difference between your house and the inspiration one: symmetry, or lack thereof, of both house and property.

It still doesn't mean that you can't use straight lines. I think what Woody described is a good balance - straight lines softened with rounded corners.

I'm no house designer, but I'm thinking it would be important to centre the door between posts, and centre the stairs on the door. Your walkway can go straight from there; if it's off-kilter it might bug you. It also might not - it's a bit more private if there are some offsets along the route.

If your arrangement of door/posts/stairs is centred, you can actually go either way with the walkway - straight or curved - and it would look perfectly logical. You have the advantage that since the property is not symmetrical, your landscaping need not be.

Karin L

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 3:14PM
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Thanks for the feedback, I appreciate it.

And you have a great point about the path. Our stairs down from the porch will be 7' wide & I figured on a 5' wide path. I know that might seem TOO wide, but ... The steps are that wide because if we want a gate that matches the porch railing then we're limited to 3.5' or 7' in width. 3.5' seemed too narrow, so we're going with 7' wide stairs.

I want a gate on the porch so that I can have our dog on the front porch while I'm out there (or while I'm weeding in the front yard, once we have plants). In theory I could tie him, but then he'd just get the leash wrapped around porch furniture every 5 minutes.

Also - good point on the tree in the inspiration photo. I want to add some smallish ornamental tree (maybe a redbud) but will place it in between the large trees we have & the corner of the house. I'm thinking roughly where the pile of concrete rubble is in front of the dumpster (in the pic below look above the hood of the blue car).

This is a bird's eye view of what I think we'll do. The planting beds are as deep as the steps, so about 6'. That should give me room to put in some plants without encroaching onto the pathway. The back corner of the house is where the backyard fence ties in, so the planting bed can end abruptly there without looking weird.

And eventually we'll have to rebuild the steps to the breezeway (3-5 years from now):

Either way we end up with an area that will probably be a dead zone between the house & breezeway but maybe something will survive. Heck, previous owners put a daylily there and the poor thing actually blooms (barely). It looks miserable, but it blooms.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 4:09PM
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Karin - good point about the symmetry. I really, really wanted to move our front door to be symmetrical. What we came up with was a compromise on the column placement that sort of cheats the difference, it lines the columns up under the midpoint of the 2nd floor windows ... which aren't centered either. Our stairs aren't centered, so if we centered the middle window it would have created a really weird jog in the floorplan upstairs.

This is what we came up with. The beams in front of the porch are oversized (triple 2x8's that span less than 6') so we have a little wiggle room on where the support posts go. What do you think? With the sorta symmetrical layout & having the walkway go perpendicular to the inspiration photo, I think it might work out in the end. We weren't going to run the walkway to the street b/c we don't have sidewalks on our side of the road. They only run on the other side of the road (which means we don't have to shovel them so I'm not complaining).

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 4:27PM
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I like your proposed 5' wide paver walk. However, if you're going to grow shrubs at the porch foundation (not saying you have to) I think it would be an improvement if you make the planting beds 1 more foot deep (total of 7). It would look better where the walk meets steps and be easier to incorporate a groundcover or any annuals in front of the shrubs. Shrubs will take up more like 5'deep by the time you add everything up. 2' left over for other plantings is better than 1'.

It is common for houses to have centered porch steps that do not align with the front door. No one will give it a 2nd look. I find your "compromise" solution with the unbalanced porch opening to be much less acceptable. It's disconcerting. I think if you look around your neighborhood, you'll see lots of houses where porch and front door opening don't align.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 5:27PM
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I think the difference is that the bungalow pictured still has the door clearly visible through the opening in the porch railing.

Here are the 3 versions I tried. Option A is the one you have seen:

Option B has the porch columns & stairs centered, which I think is what you are suggesting?

Option C has the columns centered on the house but the stairs centered on the door:

Oddly, option B is the one I dislike the most. I think it's because the end post for the railing overlaps the door.

What's your perspective on it?

    Bookmark   April 3, 2012 at 9:17PM
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For myself, I prefer the equal column spacing of schemes B and C. I will venture that C looks the best. However, what I don't like is that the rail penetrates so much into the step space. If B had cheekwalls that would carry the railing, then I think I would vote for it. Anyone ever seen wood cheekwalls on wood steps?

    Bookmark   April 4, 2012 at 1:20AM
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karinl(BC Z8)

I have NO artistic eye but I will say that when I look at the options, the position of the posts relative to the upstairs windows makes no impact on me at all, though the Tyvek may have something to do with that. But my attention is all about the posts relative to the door and the stairs relative to the door. Especially the latter. There is something in the brick bungalow that makes the offset door work there but NOT on your house. I think it is that you have railing between the posts. So I could live with C or A but NOT with B.

The fact that there are different amounts of blank wall beside the door makes it OK that the posts are different distances away. But anything that does not centre the stairs on the door looks awful to my eye. Have you been to the Home Dec forum with this? They can be pretty good with this sort of thing. Or one of the building forums? It's a crapshoot... in the end you have to come up with something that makes sense to you.

Karin L

    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 2:16PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I agree with Karin that the alignment with the upstairs windows doesn't jump out at me - perhaps the distraction of the Tyvek is the reason. But I like B best! I think a large part of the reason for that is that, while the columns don't center on the door, the railing on the left in your picture ends by the door and, on the right, ends by the edge of the window shutter on that side. Somehow that 'works' for me to give it a feel of being aligned. (But, since our front porch stairs here are deliberately not aligned with the door, my opinion on such things is probably worthless!)

    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 4:40PM
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Actually, the door isn't offset at all in comparison to the second floor addition. It's mainly just an illusion because of the differing widths of the first floor windows and the s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y longer wall on the right hand side.

I don't have a photoshop program but let me try to paint a written picture. Ignore that seeming offset and place your large columns with squarish bases 1) at both outside front corners of the porch (OK, that part is easy) and 2) on either side (5 foot on centre) of the lined-up front door, steps and walkway. So that's four in total - you might want two more against the house walls if you don't want to attach the side railings directly to the siding. Fill in with the railing of your choice. Do not add those extra lengths you show encroaching on the entranceway. Unless they were supposed to be stair banisters? If you do need an extra 36" tall post to support the longer stretch of railing, I would centre that in the middle of the wider, living room(?) window. Repeat on the other side if needed, although that's not so likely.

Once you get your exterior done, the porch furniture out and the landscaping completed, I'll bet that you won't notice any apparent offset unless you make a point of looking for it! Good luck on your project.

    Bookmark   April 6, 2012 at 5:30PM
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Brad Edwards

Love the design, but would have to take one from p allen smiths garden homes. I would have to frame that in a heartbeat with an open farm style fence and gate entry. That would create a private space, if you put it in the middle it would give you more depth but I would put it near the front and have beds at both sides, and would use traditional plantings, roses, aster etc, with some cascading along the brick.

    Bookmark   April 8, 2012 at 3:34PM
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