Escape with Hardscapes

Transform outdoor living spaces with defining elements

By Amy Newman

Photo courtesy of Green Acres Landscaping

If your image of landscaping is all lush green grass, well-manicured shrubs and vibrant flower beds, you’re missing out. Hardscaping provides homeowners a creative way to boost their home’s outdoor living space with designs that are both fun and functional.

And while there’s been plenty of buzz around home remodeling, “that same excitement, that same hype, is about landscaping now,” says Gus Gaskov, owner of Green Acres Landscaping in Anchorage. “That’s becoming a big thing.”

We spoke with local designers to learn more about hardscaping, and how it can add beauty, appeal and value to your outdoor living space.

Photo courtesy of Green Acres Landscaping
Building a foundation

“Hardscapes (are), in essence, the foundation of the landscape, mainly because it defines the space,” explains Benjamin Brown, project supervisor with Faltz Landscaping in Anchorage. But it’s something most homeowners don’t think about.

“Everybody likes the icing on the cake, and that’s the soft scapes – turf, plants, mulch, all that stuff,” he says. “A lot of time, they don’t even think about what has to happen before the plants.”

Like with any construction project, what has to happen first is planning, designing and excavating the space. And you can expect at least one-third to one-half of your total construction costs to go toward the parts of the landscape you’ll never see, Gus says.

“Lots of work goes below ground,” he says. “That’s the part that drives the cost of good landscaping.”

Choosing the right materials also helps build a foundation that will last. Materials like concrete and asphalt (which isn’t designed to be a long-term, permanent solution anyway) are cost-prohibitive and impractical for all but the largest projects, Benjamin says, as they are likely to crack due to frost heaving.

Instead, designers use man-made and natural materials. Concrete paver bricks, traditional bricks and flagstone are just some of the options. Not only do they look timeless, Gus says, but they are less likely to crack or shift noticeably when the ground thaws after the winter freeze.

Photo courtesy of Green Acres Landscaping
Design with a purpose

While outdoor hardscaping is part decorative – think fire pits, water features, or built-in barbecues and pizza ovens – it’s really about solving a problem.

“Just like any other architecture, well-designed landscape is purposefully driven,” Gus says. “There are many different uses for your landscape.”

For some, that means designing a landscape that is dog- or kid-friendly, such as designated areas for pets or pondless fountains that eliminate the danger of young children falling in. Others are looking for a maintenance-free landscape (though the designers were quick to point out that every landscape requires at least some upkeep). But the majority of homeowners are driven by the entertainment value a well-designed space provides, Gus says.

“A lot of people really like to entertain,” he says. “Especially in Anchorage . . . because during the summer, we have really nice, sunny days, and people like to be outdoors as long as possible.”

For them, the outdoor landscape becomes an extension of their home’s interior, says Jon Cobb, associate and landscape designer at Green Acres. The outdoor space is designed to complement the home’s interior, allowing people to move seamlessly between indoors and out.

“We’re talking about total outdoor living,” he says. “For a lot of people, their yard is really an untapped resource as far as usability of their real estate.”

How homeowners can increase the usability of their outdoor space depends in part on the size of the space. For smaller spaces, non-permanent pieces increase the space’s versatility, Jon says. Moveable fire pits can be swapped for a table and chairs for outdoor dining, creating essentially two rooms in one.

Larger spaces may have several focal points – one patio with a permanent fire pit, a second with a water feature, and third with a built-in gas grill – all which follow a common design theme that allows each space to blend harmoniously with the others.

Low sectional or freestanding walls help give each space “that nice, cozy feeling,” Gus says. For uneven or hilly terrain, terraces and steps turn what was once inaccessible land into usable space.

“All of a sudden, the family moves from spending all of their time indoors to spending a lot of time outside,” Jon says.

Photos courtesy of Faltz Landscaping
Things to keep in mind

Outdoor hardscape is a fairly permanent addition to your landscape, so there are a few considerations to keep in mind before jumping in.

Do your homework. Unlike home remodeling, which requires a city inspection, landscaping has no such similar requirement (unless you’re installing a retaining wall larger than four feet), Gus says. So make sure to choose a contractor who has experience in outdoor hardscape, talk to former clients and, above all else, take a look at their work.

Resale value. Just like any other home renovation, you should be able to recoup part of your investment cost at resale – Gus says homeowners can expect to recoup 10 percent of the home’s value. So a home valued at $600,000 can safely spend $60,000, and expect to make it back at resale. Anything above that 10 percent, he says, is purely for the homeowner’s personal aesthetic.

Plan ahead. The need for pre-planning cannot be stressed enough, the designers say. Going into the design process with a clear idea of what you want from the space, creating a solid foundation and choosing appropriate materials all help ensure a final product that will enhance the enjoyment of your home for years to come.