MOST for your money when creating an outdoor space by
avoiding costly mistakes. Joe Schill, of Schill Landscaping & Lawn
Care Service in Sheffield Village, offers the following tips to
safeguard your investment.
a master plan for the property. “You
wouldn’t build a house without a plan,” Schill
says. “Why would you do a landscape project without one? So
many people underestimate the value of it.” If you
can’t afford to implement the entire plan at once, install
features in phases over a number of years.
utilities accordingly. It eliminates the time and expense
of relocating, adding or extending gas, water and sewer, and electrical
lines for everything from outdoor lighting to grills and outdoor
kitchens to hot tubs and pools.
patios on bases reinforced with concrete. “It
helps with long-term settling and sinking exacerbated by the
freeze-and-thaw cycle,” Schill says.
John Thompson and his wife wasted little time finishing the
backyard of the colonial they built on a suburban West Side golf course
in late 2001.
Contractors were in the backyard of the half-acre property for
three successive summers. They first replaced the concrete-slab patio
with a sunroom before building a deck and a brick walkway leading from
the front drive to a new backyard patio.
But two years after the dust settled, the couple
wasn’t happy with the results. Although they sealed the deck
every spring, the treated lumber cracked, becoming a potential source
of splinters for their two young children. And the patio proved too
small for doing anything other than cooking on the portable
“We wanted an outdoor living space that allowed us
to use it and enjoy it,” says Thompson, a vice president at a
local financial services company.
In fall 2007, Thompson asked Joe Schill, of Schill Landscaping
& Lawn Care Service in Sheffield Village, to come up with such a
design. By the following spring, they had settled on a plan that
replaced the deck with an elevated patio, as well as a ground-level one
with a fire pit and covered bar.
Thompson and his wife chose a mix of Unilock-brand tumbled
pavers and wall stone in limestone and sandstone — colors
that complement the home’s exterior finishes and limestone
“John wanted me to go into this thing with an open
mind,” Schill says. “The only thing he said was,
‘I have a golf course lot. I do not want to lose my
The following year, Schill and his crew began work on the
elevated patio, the most challenging phase of the project. Workers used
three semitrailers of gravel to raise the area 32 inches —
the height needed to maintain views of the golf course over bunkers
that surrounded a green — before building the patio on a
40-inch reinforced concrete base. Utility lines hidden under the deck
were routed through the resulting elevation.
A 20-inch-high geometric wall accented by a brownstone border
was constructed around the patio’s open edge to satisfy local
building codes, define the eating area and provide additional
For Thompson, the fire pit in Schill’s plan was a
safe place to relax in front of a fire. He chuckles as he talks about
the time he and his wife almost burned down the house when they tried
to use the indoor fireplace. He then becomes more serious.
“We don’t use the indoor fireplace anymore because
we have small kids,” he says.
Schill located the fire pit a good 20 feet from both the house
and the covered bar. To protect the children, he installed it in an
elevated ring surrounded by a bench wall.
“We left part of the bench wall open so the adults
can pull their chairs up and sit next to the fire,” Schill
says. “It’s flexible as far as arranging your
The covered bar was installed in 2009. Schill suggested the
feature as a way to incorporate the deck off the second-floor master
suite into the backyard plan. Although the structure was part of the
home’s original construction, it looked like it had been
built as an afterthought.
“The posts and part of the upper structure were
already in place, a cost savings that we could build off of,”
Schill explains. Workers built decorative columns of Unilock wall stone
around the 6-by-6-foot posts supporting the deck and used them as
supports for the slanting bar roof.
The granite-topped front and side counters were devoted to
seating. The back counter was outfitted with an under-counter
refrigerator and built-in gas grill. Thompson considered adding a sink
but decided against it because of the hassle of extending water and
sewer lines and winterizing drains, pipes and valves every
“At some point, the budget runs out,” he
says. “You’ve got to say ‘no’
to something.’ ”
Made in the
AREN’T EVERYTHING when it comes to adding a
portico like the one Tom and Diana Colucci enjoy. Dan McClaren,
director of design for Impullitti Landscaping, suggests taking the
following steps to ensure you’ll enjoy your new outdoor
addition for years to come.
your contractor carefully. The determining factors are
training, skill level and experience. Ask about the number of years the
contractor has been in business, and request references and photos of
whether you want to use the roof as a balcony. Doing so in
this instance would have required adding a door from the
Coluccis’ master suite to the space, not to mention building
the structure to more stringent codes. “I may have called in
a building architect,” McClaren says.
a design that allows for expansion. “If you keep
that in mind, it’s not too difficult to add on as you
go,” McClaren says.
WHEN TOM AND DIANA COLUCCI were told there was a patio in the
backyard of the Southern colonial they were thinking of buying, Diana
immediately assumed the feature was built to the scale of the columned
white structure and 5-acre lot on which it stood.
“I didn’t think it was necessary to go out
with a shovel or snow plow, clean it off and take a look at
it,” she quips.
She was wrong.
It wasn’t until after the couple bought the East
Side home that the snow melted enough to reveal a tiny brick square.
The shock of the discovery was compounded by the complete lack of
landscaping around it.
“There was not a bush, not a tree, not a
flower,” says Diana Colucci, who owns Chagrin Valley Antiques
in Russell Township with her husband, Tom. “It was probably
one of the most unattractive spaces you can imagine.”
Coluccis hired Burton-based Impullitti Landscaping in April 2007 to
design a replacement for the patio, something that could accommodate
the many large family gatherings they host each year. But when the
couple showed off plans for the patio to relatives at a backyard
Father’s Day celebration a few months later, their guests
surprised them by adamantly demanding a covered space.
“They said, ‘Do you see how hot it is
today? Do you see how the sun is beating down on us?’
” Colucci recalls, still amused by the memory. “I
said, ‘Oh, my gosh! We’ve got to start all over
From the beginning, Colucci had envisioned a patio that looked
like it had been built with the house 40 years ago. She wanted nothing
less from a portico. Dan McClaren, director of design for Impullitti
Landscaping, had already recommended using a brick material that
resembles old cobblestone with sandstone insets for the patio and the
winding walkway from the front of the house. Colucci’s
antique wrought-iron furniture helped complete the effect of a space
that looks as if it was part of the home’s original
“Diana says that everybody who comes over to the
house just can’t believe it’s a couple of years
old,” McClaren says of the project. “It looks like
it has been there for years and years.”
After flipping through several magazines for ideas, Colucci
settled on a square portico supported by paneled posts and finished
with a wooden railing around the top.
“I didn’t want it to be extremely formal
because of the woods at the back of the property,” she
Her husband painted the ceiling sky blue — a shade
the couple had seen on the ceilings of innumerable porches during their
travels through the South. A ceiling fan was added to improve air
circulation and repel pests. (“Mosquitoes can only fly in a
few-miles-per-hour wind,” McClaren says. “Just a
breeze can keep them away.”) A pair of antique sandstone
hitching posts supports the wrought-iron railings that flank the steps
from the home’s French doors.
McClaren notes that the pavers extend well beyond the
18-by-22-foot portico, a feature that allows people to sit in the shade
or stroll into the sun and still remain in the same
“room.” Other spaces were added as the project
“Sometimes people have a hard time envisioning a
design on paper,” McClaren says. “As the portico
was constructed, Diana could better visualize the
A small spot just large enough for a chaise, chair and small
table was added to the right of the portico, and a curving patio
accented by a stone retaining wall was built in front of the elevated
McClaren added pairs of ornamental trees — Chinese
dogwoods near the juncture of the walkway and portico, dwarf sergeant
crab apples at the French doors, hydrangea trees on either side of the
sliding glass doors — to serve as metaphorical entrances to
the respective “rooms.” Easy-to-maintain beds of
boxwood peppered with dwarf lilac, hydrangea, spirea and a few
perennials finished the project.
“There’s nothing that really needs to be
pruned more than once a year,” McClaren explains.
“Diana and Tom don’t want to be a slaves to the
yard. They just want to enjoy it.”
Making the most
of a Small Space
TO LANDSCAPE your own little piece of paradise? David Thorn,
of DTR Associates in Aurora, offers the following advice for working
with a small space.
appropriate-size pavers. “People have a tendency
to think that small-space design should have small pavers,”
Thorn says. “That’s not always accurate.”
He suggests using large pavers and delicate-looking plants. They
provide a better balance than small pavers and small plants, which are
“confusing to the eye.”
fewer varieties of plants. “Pick a plant palette
that’s uncomplicated,” Thorn urges.
“Instead of 15 different plants, pick three really strong
plants and repeat them throughout the space.”
focal point to draw the eye to the end of the garden or
yard. “A specimen tree, water feature or piece
of art can create a sense of depth for the space,” Thorn
AT FIRST GLANCE, Roger and Sharon Vail’s
contemporary stucco-and-stone home seems totally devoid of any
conceivable landscape design challenges. Banks of floor-to-ceiling
windows on three sides frame views of Lake Erie and the mouth of the
Rocky River, the latter flanked by the Cleveland Yacht Club on one side
and the Clifton Beach Club on the other.
It’s only when you’re finally able to drag
your eyes away from the spectacular vistas that you notice the usable
space on the prime waterfront lot is only a quarter-acre in size. Yard
space was at such a premium that the couple tore down the existing
ranch and built a two-story house on the same footprint when they
needed more room.
“We have about 300 feet of river frontage, and about
half of that is sheer cliff,” explains Roger, who owned a
chain of small-town department stores with his wife before they
The Vails’ landscaping aspirations were relatively
modest when they first contacted David Thorn of Aurora-based DTR
Associates in mid-2007, two years after they bought the property. Both
wanted enough lawn to accommodate a game of badminton or croquet. And
Sharon was passionate about capitalizing on the house’s water
views. Thorn, however, had much bigger ideas.
Over the next two years, he designed a series of outdoor rooms
that complemented both the home’s traditional exterior and
sleek contemporary interiors and left enough lawn for fun and games.
The spaces are connected physically and visually by way of
buff-limestone pavings that appear to be an extension of the pickled
hardwood floors, sandstone walls that complement the peaches-and-cream
interiors, plantings and garden features.
“We tried to create this seamless integration
between the inside and outside spaces,” Thorn says.
The first outdoor room visitors encounter is the entry
courtyard, an area accessed by a walkway of long, thin buff-sandstone
strips that makes the front yard appear deeper than it actually is. A
dozen bamboo plants, each lit in the evening, line the path to the
home’s main entrance.
“The front door has an almost Asian feel to it with
its horizontal wood slats,” Thorn says. “The bamboo
really marries the architecture to the
A second limestone walkway extends from the driveway to a
small kitchen terrace a scant 20 feet from the house to the west
property line. A fountain serves as a focal point for the space. It
sends a sheet of water cascading down a 3-foot stone wall into a small
pool equipped with three bubblers that can be turned on to drown out
street noise. Although the space overlooks a neighbor’s
property, the wall surrounding it is only 18 inches high, built for
definition and additional seating more than privacy.
“Because the neighbor’s house is situated
the lake, [its] front yard appears to be the side yard of the
Vails’ property,” Thorn says. “Instead of
blocking that view off, we took advantage of it.”
Steps on the north side of the kitchen terrace lead to a small
corner lawn overlooking the lake. Thorn says the curvilinear bed of
ornamental grasses, installed to soften the transition from the mowed
grass to the rugged cliff, “suggests the billowing shapes of
waves that crash along the property.”
The lawn on the east side of the home, enclosed by borders of
shrub roses, dwarf fountain grass and hydrangea, is used for playing
badminton and croquet.
But the property’s most striking outdoor feature is
a 1,000-square-foot back terrace. Its arched edge is cantilevered over
the cliff with a glass-panel railing that provides an unobstructed view
of the water. Thorn says his design for the limestone structure, which
replaced an aging counterpart, was inspired by the bow of a
“The end result creates the illusion that the water
is just below the edge of the terrace when, in fact, it’s a
hundred feet below,” he says.
The cleverly designed spaces allow the Vails to host large
gatherings they never would have attempted before the outdoor
transformation. Sharon can set up tables on the back lawn and put a
tent on the side lawn to accommodate extra guests. Thorn remembers a
benefit where the back terrace actually served as a stage for musicians
instead of seating.
Roger says he and his wife couldn’t be happier with
the result. “We never envisioned a landscape that is so
well-integrated into the house.”