Our backyard sanctuaries represent an increasing investment in amenities, and in community.
JUST INSIDE THE GATE that leads to Heather and Sam Allard’s backyard in Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood, Southern California awaits.
A wide ash-gray deck extends deep into the yard, creating a huge platform for all the goodies Sam has tricked it out with, including an L-shaped seating area, a wall-mounted TV and a whirlpool tucked in a corner.
The centerpiece is a round swimming pool, lined in shades of blue and recessed into the deck, creating the illusion that it was built into the grounds. Lounge chairs surround the pool, perfect for supreme beings of leisure to take in the yard and, in the distance, a peekaboo view of Lake Washington and the Cascades.
Just to the west of the deck, a cobalt-blue Ping-Pong table sits on bright-green artificial turf.
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The easy-breezy vibe is very David Hockney, an effect greatly accentuated by the intense summer sunlight on this particular 85-degree day, which gives these blues and greens a dreamlike intensity.
“It was a nasty yard, with a dead pine tree in the middle — nothing was really level back here,” Sam, 38, says of his yard of four years ago, when he started its dramatic face-lift.
Its reincarnation represents just the sort of life Heather would live, if every day were a pool party.
As owners of the nearby sports bar Rookies and the adjoining bar behind it, aptly called Backyard, the Allards spend most of their time catering to others. It comes with the business. Here, they can kick back and treat themselves.
“It’s nice to host people here but also, for me, to kind of escape,” says Heather, 42.
Backyards are more than extensions of living spaces. Set far from the street, usually closed to the outside world, they serve as inner sanctums for relaxation, scenes of fellowship among family and friends, settings for gardens and picnics, a place to get away without actually going anywhere.
The backyards of my own youth in Kentucky play through my head as I stare into the Allards’ brilliant pool — scenes of me playing hide-and-seek and Wiffle ball with my brothers, cousins and neighborhood kids; mostly failing to dunk the ball in a hoop nailed to a tree trunk; peeling limber switches from branches for butt-whippings; fixing cars with my dad; eavesdropping on my mother and her sisters as they chatted in vinyl lawn chairs; mowing Big Mama’s lawn; watching my grandfather brush homemade hot sauce on whole cows, pigs and goats in an open barbecue pit on holiday weekends.
Front porches present you to the outside world. Backyards let you retreat into your own.
IN A CITY FILLING with renters and town-house dwellers, and with a controversial movement to address rising housing costs by making it easier to build backyard cottages, the backyard as we know it — or knew it — seems like an evermore precious commodity here.
Maybe that’s why the Allards’ backyard feels so special.
The couple bought their three-bedroom bungalow in 2004, but in 2010, a tree fell on it, causing significant damage. Sam, who has a background in construction, took advantage of the City of Seattle’s Community Power Works program, which offers rebates and low-interest loans to homeowners who improve the energy-efficiency of their homes, to remodel their house.
The backyard is Sam’s showpiece, and the stuff of Heather’s daydreams.
“I basically live in Palm Springs during the winters,” Heather tells me. Even when she’s not physically in Palm Springs, she’s often there in her mind.
One of her favorite ways to unwind used to be to rent a room in a local hotel with a pool terrace and invite friends to join her for good wine and conversation. It wasn’t exactly a jaunt to the desert, but it did the job.
“Maybe we’re just going to build a pool in the backyard so you can stop spending money on hotels in the city that we live in,” Heather recalls Sam joking.
Now they have a SoCal retreat literally at their back doorstep.
“It looks like a Palm Springs house,” Heather says.
The Allards recently moved into another home nearby. They now rent the house on Airbnb, except for holiday weekends, when they use it for R&R or socializing.
The Allards are not alone in re-imagining their living spaces with striking remodels and add-ons.
HOME-IMPROVEMENT SPENDING nationwide hit a record $340 billion in 2015, as the lingering effects of the 2008 recession finally wore off, according to a recent report by the Remodeling Futures Program of the Joint Center for Housing Studies at Harvard. Growth in the market is expected to average 2 percent a year through 2025 as home values and incomes rise.
“It blows my mind how much people will spend,” says custom deck contractor Jason Russell of Tacoma, aka Dr. Decks. “They want to have a resort at their house.”
With customers mainly in South Puget Sound, the gregarious Russell has built a reputation for designing and creating mind-blowing decks and patios featuring artistic patterns; booming car-audio sound systems “that’ll kill any wake boat that comes by your house”; and hidden grills, TVs and seats that rise from boards with the push of a button.
“I’ve been doing some stuff in decks that you’d see in 007 movies,” Russell says.
Russell, 48, has been in the deck business for 26 years. He might be most famous locally for the “Alien on Vacation” garden display he made for the 2013 Northwest Flower & Garden Show in Seattle.
Using terms like “tiki torch” and “silver teak” to rope people in, deck-supply companies have gotten clever about marketing the idea of backyards as canvasses for the imagination, he says.
Russell says 80 percent of his sales happen because of the women in the household, especially those in the 35-to-55 age range with disposable income.
“She has to see texture and color; she has to see design,” Russell says.
A Dr. Decks extreme backyard makeover won’t come cheap: Most of his decks run from $60,000 to $120,000.
“It’s fun, but it’s also an investment,” Russell says. “Besides that, it’s just the cool factor. You’re basically getting a one-off custom deck that you’re not gonna see anywhere else on your street.”
Business is booming right now, he says.
He builds one deck at a time to ensure quality. And he’s constantly pushing the envelope.
Lately, the “doctor” has been experimenting with circular decks made of straight PVC boards that he bends using silicone heating blankets produced by an aerospace firm in Tukwila.
The pliable PVC has opened up loads of possibilities.
“That’s when things get interesting,” Russell says. “I’ve destroyed $100,000 in deck materials to perfect my craft.”
His current project, a curvaceous multi-tier deck at a home in the Lake Tapps area of Pierce County, employs his most impressive engineering and creative work.
Russell says he has a deck at his home in Tacoma that he uses mostly for cookouts, though not as much as he ought to.
It’s a modest deck compared to what he makes for clients.
He lets out a laugh.
“I can’t afford the decks I build.”
ANYONE WHO HAS seen Misilla dela Llana’s “Learn to Grow” YouTube tutorials for vegetable gardening knows that the setting is the backyard of the home she shares with her husband and three of their kids north of Seattle in Bothell.
From their spacious deck, this suburban backyard feels like a farm, with soaring evergreens; a big, grassy lawn that merges with the property of a neighbor; a small garden; and chickens in a coop and run area.
When I visit, dela Llana’s greens, herbs, beans, garlic and rhubarb looked vibrant in the blazing sun and record-breaking heat.
She used to run a summer horticulture and science camp for local kids in the backyard, and even today her own children will help out in the garden. The family has started donating fresh, homegrown produce to a local food bank.
Dela Llana says gardening is in her blood. Born in the Philippines, she remembers that her family’s backyard boasted mango, guava, coconut palm and banana trees. The family moved to the United States when dela Llana was 10, first to Missouri and then to Snohomish County. Her mom and aunties were gardeners. They served as early role models.
When dela Llana and her husband, Nick Suryan, found this house in 2011, with its spacious backyard, she was pretty much set on buying it, Suryan says.
Since then, the yard and elevated deck have been put to good use. Suryan built the garden’s planter boxes and trellises. He’s also working on a firepit.
The yard is big enough for camping, volleyball games and playing in the snow in winter.
For dela Llana, working in the backyard isn’t just a supplemental source of income (by way of advertising for her free gardening videos); it’s therapeutic.
“I find peace when I’m in the garden,” she says. Plus, “It gives me joy to be able to show the kids where food comes from — and to enjoy that space with them.”
THE CONCEPT OF the backyard as a space to restore oneself and forge community lies at the heart of the nonprofit BLOCK project in Seattle.
The brainchild of father/daughter architects Rex Hohlbein and Jennifer LaFreniere, the project aims to fight homelessness by transforming backyards from private spaces into incubators for social change.
BLOCK’s goal is to work with enough volunteer homeowners to install a solar-powered tiny house for a homeless resident on every block in the city, offering people without shelter a chance to reboot their lives and build tighter bonds with established neighborhoods.
I meet with Hohlbein at BLOCK’s offices in the University District, where his team also runs the “Just Say Hello” campaign to foster compassion for people living in the streets, and where they hand out tarps, socks and other essentials to the homeless through their “Window of Kindness.”
He talks about the need to shift our ideas about homelessness as a civic issue to a personal concern that anyone can address.
“Everyone has to have their place in it,” Hohlbein says.
The program, which was launched this summer, allows people without shelter to screen participating homeowners to ensure a good fit, using matchmaking technology (not unlike a dating app) produced with help from University of Washington students. When paired, participants get to move in and pay a third of their monthly income in rent, or nothing if they have no income.
Hohlbein says the biggest obstacle to getting people to help the homeless isn’t finding compassionate volunteers; there are plenty of those in Seattle. It’s showing people how they can turn their caring into action in a safe, easy way. Homeowners don’t have to worry about collecting rent or maintenance of the tiny houses; that’s handled by BLOCK and its partners.
“The closer you bring a person to the issue of homelessness, the more you feel and the more you act,” Hohlbein says.
“We’re taking this proximity issue to its logical end. We’re going to bring homelessness to you,” he says.
BLOCK has received an outpouring of support in the form of pro bono legal services and design and construction skills and labor, as well as donated materials, Hohlbein says.
BLOCK is still in its pilot stage.
KIM SHERMAN AND Dan Tenenbaum, a couple on Beacon Hill, will be the first homeowners to host a tiny-house resident, Robert Desjarlais, 75, a man they met through one of the homeless-services organizations partnering on the project, the Chief Seattle Club.
The couple has long been concerned about homelessness in the city, and has given to homeless charities in the past. But Sherman says it doesn’t seem as if the problem is getting better.
They wanted to do more.
“It’s just not the kind of world we want to live in,” Sherman says of homeless encampments and the increase in people in need.
Sherman works in marketing at FSi consulting engineers, the firm that’s handling ventilation, heating and water systems for BLOCK’s tiny houses. She was immediately intrigued.
“I thought, ‘I want to do that,’ ” she says.
It didn’t take long for the couple to agree to volunteer their backyard.
“We didn’t overthink or over-worry about it,” Sherman says.
Since then, they’ve done more research into homelessness, and they’ve spoken to neighbors on their street to make them aware of their plans. So far, they’ve received nothing but encouragement.
The couple is aware of the negative stereotypes attached to homeless people, but they are excited to dispel those by helping to show the human side of this complicated issue.
“We know it’s not THE solution,” Tenenbaum says, “but it’s A solution.” He hopes the success of their example will make it easier for others to follow suit.
The house for their backyard is expected to be completed by this month.
Sure, Sherman and Tenenbaum will have to sacrifice some space for gardening and entertaining in order to accommodate their backyard neighbor.
That’s a loss, “But there’s going to be somebody who’s not going to be living in a tent anymore,” Sherman says. “There’s an obvious choice there.”
By sharing a piece of their private world, someone else will get to remake his own.