Whether you’re designing a new outdoor space, or overhauling your existing one, this guide provides the steps you should follow to design the hardscape of your dreams. Hardscape design and installation are fundamental elements of good landscaping – particularly in regions like Northern California where the landscape is hilly and drought is common. But before jumping into the steps, let’s cover a few basics.
Hardscapes are the human-made stone, concrete, wood, metal or brick features of a landscape. They’re the framework around which a beautiful landscape is based, and can include stylish walkways, gazebos, walls, bridges, patios, steps, outdoor kitchens, and decks. The key to designing a perfect hardscape is to focus on building quality features that seamlessly integrate into your outdoor space while respecting the natural beauty and style of your property.
Now that we know what a hardscape is, we can focus on the steps you should take to successfully craft your front or back hardscape.
STEP 1 – RESEARCH AND IDEATE
Before doing anything, research hardscapes and create a huge list or collage of inspiration based on landscapes that are similar to yours (this is important since a hardscape design in the American Southwest will be much different than a hardscape design in the Pacific Northwest). To start, check out the various Bay Area hardscapes we’ve constructed. If you want more inspiration, try Gardenista, or Houzz.
STEP 2 – DEFINE YOUR GOALS
Next you should define goals for your outdoor space. Do you want to encourage your family to spend more time outside together? Formally entertain guests? Are you looking for an area to relax in the evening, or a space where your family can be active and enjoy nature during the day? It’s key to work with your landscape designer to define and prioritize your goals before choosing a theme or materials, since the intended usage for your space will inform all later decisions.
STEP 3 – CONSIDER YOUR SITE, INCLUDING DRAINAGE AND EROSION
This is particularly important in California where residences are often built on hillsides, and the environment is frequently in drought. You and your designer must determine how drainage will be affected by every feature you implement. From an environmental perspective, it’s also important to design the landscape to recapture runoff instead of sending it down a drainage pipe. Retaining walls are particularly adept at preventing erosion and directing runoff, so this feature should be part of most hardscape installations.
STEP 4 – PLAN FOR THE ENTIRE LANDSCAPE
Be sure to plan for your entire outdoor area, not just part of it. This holds true even if you can’t redesign your entire area at once. If you and/or your landscape designer don’t plan comprehensively, you run the risk of adding a major feature, such as a patio, only to realize a year later that you’d like a waterfall and the patio now blocks your pathway.
STEP 5 – DEFINE YOUR STYLE
After defining the goals of your hardscape design, now it’s time to choose a theme. Take your list or inspiration board from Step 1 and break the ideas into categories or themes, such as ‘formal,’ ‘relaxed,’ ‘Oriental garden,’ or ‘Mediterranean veranda.’ Choose a theme that best fits your goals, your entire landscape / environment, and that works within the erosion and drainage constraints you defined in Step 3.
STEP 6 – CHOOSE MATERIALS THAT REFLECT YOUR STYLE AND THEME
After defining a style, work with your designer to choose materials that reflect your style and theme, the natural environment, and your interior design. For example, do you have stucco or brick that you want to match or highlight? The goal is for your hardscape to seamlessly blend with while enhancing the best features of the environment that surrounds it.
STEP 7 – SELECT THE RIGHT PLANT MATERIAL
Include as much vegetation as you can in your hardscape. Although this isn’t always possible in areas like the US Southwest and California, it’s important to make use of as much vegetation as is feasible within the limitations imposed by the climate.
STEP 8 – CHOOSE QUALITY MATERIALS
As with everything in life, you get what you pay for when it comes to hardscape materials. Be sure to use materials that are long-lasting and suit the architecture of your site. If you’re running into budget issues, consider scaling back on elements as opposed to purchasing cheaper materials.
STEP 9 – PROPERLY PREPARE THE SITE
This is a very common mistake, and a big reason why it’s important to consult with or hire an expert before undertaking a major hardscape design project. Before building, you need to ensure you put enough base material down to withstand the elements of your region. This is something a landscape designer would take care of for you, or you could reach out to an inspector at your local building authority, the American Landscape and Nursery Association (ALNA), or your state landscaping association.
STEP 10 – CONSULT WITH AN EXPERT
We’ve hinted at this throughout, but it’s really important to consult with an expert before undertaking a major hardscape design project. When choosing an expert to work with, think about whether you’d prefer to hire a consultant who can manage all aspects of a landscape design project, or if you’re willing to work with multiple contractors. Although the end result may be just as good when working with multiple contractors, many people prefer to hire one contractor who can do it all, and thus avoid the hassle of coordinating schedules and delineating responsibilities.
A good contractor will ultimately save you money by ensuring your design works with your natural environment, fits within your budget, uses quality materials that won’t deteriorate over time, and that your site is prepared properly so your elements don’t break up within a few years. If you have questions, feel free to reach out to our expert designers for advice.
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I have used Koch and Associates for big jobs and smaller jobs with the firm handling all aspects of the work, from design, permits and installation. Very high-quality professional workmanship. I highly recommend them to all my friends for landscaping needs.
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