Patios: Hardscaping tips for backyards

Patios: Hardscaping tips for backyards

Michele Lerner

Special to USA TODAY

Published 6:03 AM EDT Sep 10, 2019

J.P. Hayes, a professional golfer, used to get lonely hosting barbecues. 

“I would be at the grill at one end while everyone else was 50 or 60 yards away on the porch,” Hayes says.

So he went ahead and hired George Ocampo, owner of GO Designs in El Paso, Texas, to put him at the center of the party.

“Initially I just wanted to install a grill on the porch, but George came up with a computer-generated plan beyond what I thought was possible,” Hayes says. 

While lawns and gardens are pretty, a low-maintenance backyard can be more appealing for some homeowners. Hardscaping, which refers to paths, patios and other hard surfaces, provides an attractive place to relax outdoors.

“The goal of hardscaping is to make the outside of the house as livable as the inside,” says Jason Brownlee, owner of J. Brownlee Design in Nashville, Tennessee.

Among the most popular elements of hardscaping are outdoor kitchens, patios, pergolas and fire pits, says Ocampo, who has been in business 20 years.

Start with fire and water

Besides a new kitchen, Hayes’s backyard also includes a pergola over the main seating area for shade, an outdoor TV for watching sports, lighting and ceiling fans.

“It’s like adding another living room to the house,” says Hayes, 54.

A desire for a swimming pool pushed Ana Collins and her husband, Paul, to redo their yard in Bethesda, Maryland. 

“Our yard was mostly grass, which was great when the kids were young,” says Ana, co-founder of the nonprofit Many Hands, “but we talked for years about adding a pool.”

So she and Paul, executive vice chairman of Cushman & Wakefield, a global commercial real estate company, decided to hire Jim Rill, owner of Rill Architects in Bethesda, to handle the project. 

The Collins’s children, now 20, 24 and 26, enjoy coming home to spend time with friends and family around the pool, on the dining patio, in the enclosed gazebo or around the fire pit and fountain. The Collins’s project was wrapped into a major interior and exterior renovation, so Ana Collins couldn’t specify how much the hardscaping portion cost. 

Budgeting for hardscaping 

Hardscaping a backyard can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 for a space that’s under two acres, says Rill. Adding a swimming pool can cost $100,000 to $300,000, says Brownlee, while a small patio and fire pit can cost $50,000 to $60,000 depending on the size and market. 

“We encourage people to stay on budget by installing a project in phases over several years,” says Ocampo. “We can add things like a pergola or an outdoor kitchen later rather than choose cheaper materials.”

Ocampo recommends spending on preparing surfaces to minimize future issues and to use the right products for the weather in your area. 

Labor costs represent at least one-third of the cost of an outdoor hardscaping project, Ocampo says. 

Choosing different materials such as steppingstones instead of a full stone walkway or a raised deck instead of a terrace can lower costs, says Rill.

Hayes says he spent “more than what I paid for my first house” on his yard, but he has no regrets because the new layout means he gets more time with friends and family.

“My 18-year-old son and 16-year-old daughter and their friends like to hang out here, too,” says Hayes, who is divorced. “I used to grill once a month and now I grill around three times a week.”

Hardscaping tips for homeowners

To start planning, Brownlee reviews homeowners’ goals, their home’s architecture and the site for anything to highlight or screen.

Other tips include:

Create an outdoor room: Physical walls or plants and hard surfaces underfoot can enhance this effect, says Rill.

Don’t skimp on materials: Hayes says even though materials are expensive, it’s important that the result is well built.

Don’t rush: “These are expensive projects and you don’t want to spend the money and then have to rip them out again,” says Collins. 

Connect your interior and exterior: The outdoor plan should flow from the interior of the house and relate to the interior design of the house, says Rill. Check the view from inside the house to create a vista that entices people outside.

Consider synthetic turf: Realistic-looking fake grass is a popular option for homeowners who like the look of a lawn but don’t want to spend their time mowing and weeding, says Brownlee. 

Match materials to climate and architecture: Sun and water take a toll, so a local professional should advise you on the right materials for your site and budget. 

As with any home improvement project, finding a reliable contractor can be the best way to save money and still get the yard you want. 


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