Carving a patio out of a hill? (pics)

jennysjettaJune 29, 2006

We're getting a lot excavating done for a septic project and figured we might as well rearrange a few things while the trucks are here.

Right now the back patio is basically sitting in the driveway. Patio - Driveway - Garage Doors, all at the same height and within a few feet of each other.

What we'd like to do is dig out the hill (knock down the small wall there now) and use that space for the patio. Maybe make it slightly raised with a step or two... not too much because of the window there. (It would be nice if the window were a sliding door but we wouldn't have the height if the patio were raised).

Anyway... the main problem is: once the hill is dug out, we're left with a 6ft drop on one side. The thought of a high wall with a railing around the top isn't so appealing either. We could do a 3ft wall with a shelf and then a few feet back another 3ft wall... but I still would need a railing at the top and just can't picture it.

Ideas or pictures, please? Thanks!

(pardon the junk in the pics... lots of work going on! :)

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Oh, gosh. I can't help you, jennysjetta, but I hope that someone else with experience can post pix of what they did.

I once lived in a house with a backyard very similar to this, and we never did do anything about it because we were stymied just like you. We *hated* where the walkout patio was placed, but just couldn't see how to excavate to improve it without making it look sort of... wacky.

Plus, we knew we'd be impacting the lot drainage, and were concerned that we'd end up funneling water straight onto the patio and into the lower level.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2006 at 10:49AM
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Don't do too much excavating right near the house without checking with an architect first. That's a lot of earth right there and depending on how the foundation is counstructed, visualizing a terrace area might be the least of your problems - your house could be collapsed of top of it.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2006 at 11:00AM
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I think you're looking at a lot of $$ to excavate, reinforce and make the newly exposed side of the house presentable, but maybe money isn't a factor.

Have you considered extending the patio straight out from the door? Concrete stain (with scoring) or slate/stone along with some potted plants on the patio would make it feel separate from the other areas.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2006 at 11:22AM
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I agree with all of the above. I think you would be borrowing trouble by trying to dig out the hillside right next to your home...and, even if it weren't an engineering nightmare, I don't think you would like your patio any better.

I think, instead, that you should think more of changing materials (as was mentioned), enlarging the patio area (also mentioned), and work on creating a more natural division between driveway and patio with a pergola, for example.

Imagine, a pergola over the designated patio area....I can see it. A snazzier door, a great house-mounted lamp, some pots of annuals, vines that can crawl over the top of the pergola (they have a head start from the retaining wall side)...ah, lovely.


Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   June 30, 2006 at 11:38AM
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Ooh, yes, I love the pergola idea. Now that'd be a lovely place to come home to and have a nice dinner under the vines, maybe with little lights twinkling overhead...

    Bookmark   June 30, 2006 at 12:24PM
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The excavator, who does foundations, says there are no structural concerns. It's a solid 10" poured concrete foundation that's fully exposed in many areas around the house. We peeked in a few spots and it appears to be flat/finished behind the dirt. Removing the dirt won't expose the footer. Though, it would still need to be cleaned.

No cost to excacate it... equipment will already be here, and we can use the fill elsewhere on the property.

The second picture gives too much impression of the hill. Ground is about 32" high near the house but mostly flat-- the hill forms as you move away from the house and back. And it's not as big as it looks in that picture, lower than the window.

Anyway, I'm stuck here. I like the pergola idea but don't see it sitting next to our driveway. We need something raised to set off the patio. Cost is a factor, and stamped concrete (we've been through that) is too expensive at $9/sq ft + concrete base.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2006 at 6:23PM
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florah(z9 Leesburg, Fl)

Are you handy? You could build a slightly raised wooden deck extending from the area next to the door towards the corner of the house after you have removed enough of the hill. You'll be left with the old entrance patio between this new deck and the driveway. Separate the deck from the driveway with an archway either directly at the driveway or at the deck. An outdoor rug could cover up the concrete in front of the door.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2006 at 7:37PM
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The concern with the foundation wall is not whether it can hold up the house when the soil is removed. The concern is whether the footing will still be below the frost line or not. If not, there could be cracking from the freeze thaw cycle (if there is a freeze thaw cycle where you are).

    Bookmark   June 30, 2006 at 10:32PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Can you do the patio a litte further from the house? Maybe there is a more likely flattish spot somewhere a bit further out and you could have a nice pathway to it. Then this space could be decommissioned entirely or used as storage.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2006 at 2:07AM
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miss_rumphius_rules(z6 NJ)

Why not have the best of both worlds? Rebuild (and enlarge) your current patio with a nicer retaining wall and steps up to another level. The excavation won't be as drastic and the transition could be a lovely garden space.

Here's where a landscape designer or architect could really help.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2006 at 7:41AM
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tibs(5/6 OH)

Drainage issues could be a big concern. I would not be concerned about the foundation falling down without the dirt, I woudl be concernec about changing the water flow off the hill by chanaging it near the house. Be very careful, your excavtor could move some dirt and cause some big problems down the road.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2006 at 11:12AM
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"and figured we might as well rearrange a few things while the trucks are here." Does this sound like a recipe for disaster or what? Sure it it maybe the same machinery doing the work but.....

    Bookmark   July 2, 2006 at 5:46PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Poor Jenny, getting a lot of negativity! I do perceive some risk factors, but I think the main reason for the negativity is that no one wants to be responsible for you creating a problem. I suspect that what you are thinking about is quite do-able but that one needs to be on-site to really see it. I for example am not quite clear on where this 6 foot drop would be as you've said you're digging out the hill and yet are talking as if you would be on top of it. Also, your photo does make the hill look bigger from the one angle than from the other. Fences around decks and patios are common enough, and are easily covered with trellises if you don't like the way they look. Or, a wall can be faced with stone to make it look nice.

Whatever the right answer is, there are some questions that simply can't be answered by people who aren't there and don't have the right expertise. You sound like you have one guy who has the right background running your excavator; perhaps a second opinion from a Landscape Architect or engineer would be some dollars well spent if you do have unresolved anxieties (as the people on the forum seem to do) or are having trouble visualizing the right final layout.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2006 at 6:01PM
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Without being there it does sound like you could do something but will end up with retaining walls somewhere. Around here many people have totally exposed back walls/walkouts with retaining walls - and I mean a wall! on one or both sides (people here love walkouts).
A deck would be easiest but would cover the windows I think.
Putting in retaing wall "stairs" where the wall is now, flatten a small patio space and more retaining wall going up to the level of the side of the house might work.
Or, could you put in a door at the second or higher level? Maybe even on that high side vs. the back? Scrape up the dirt to make the hill higher/flatter and then do retaining walls down to the lower level?
I have something more like that set up with the patio off the main floor, retaining walls down to a small patio infront of a basement slider. If you want pictures email me. You just have to make sure that the retaining walls drain away from the house, not down to the patio. Putting in drainage pipes at the bottom on the inside is good.
Just make sure whatever you decide on that you have someone familiar with drainage (not that you probably don't know that). I would think if your around Pittsburgh you can find someone no problem, aren't there hills and walls everywhere there? Somewhere where the area is flat it might be harder (are there flat areas of Pennsylvania? LOL:)

    Bookmark   July 3, 2006 at 9:09AM
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Any time you start changing grade, things get complicated, even if the guy with the backhow says "no problem".

Getting the engineering right for the retaining wall (what does local code require), and making sure the changed drainage doesn't channel water to the wrong spot are my concerns.

    Bookmark   July 4, 2006 at 1:03PM
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