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Design it Yourself


First, let me start out by saying there are many instances where designing your own outdoor space is NOT a good idea. As a Landscape Architect, I would be doing my profession a disservice if I told you that anyone can design their own outdoor space. Landscape Architects are trained to apply fundamental design principals such as scale, form and function to the landscape, and understand how to apply the appropriate materials and plants within the context of these fundamentals. For large or complex projects you should ALWAYS consult a professional – it will save you time and money in the long run. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) is great place to find Landscape Architects in your area.

That being said, there are many outdoor space projects that CAN be tackled by the average do-it-your-selfer by applying some basic design principals and by utilizing a few simple design tools. The following guide walks you through the “design-it-yourself” process.

  1. Programming. The first (and most often overlooked) step is to figure out exactly what it is you are trying to accomplish with your project; we call this the ‘programming’ phase of design. Be sure to answer the following questions:
    * What specific needs would you like address with your outdoor space?
    * Who will be using it, and at what times of the day? What times of year?
    * What other outdoor space projects are you considering in the future? (This is important: If you plan to add additional outdoor spaces in the future, be sure to consider their location now, and address how the space you are current designing will relate to future spaces.)
    * What type of ‘setting’ are you trying to create? Open and Public? Quite and Private?

    Answering these questions will help define what is important to you in your space. As you move into the design of your space it is easy to get lost in the details, so be sure to revisit these questions to be sure the overall design stays on track.

  2. Survey and Site Analysis. The 2nd step in the design process is to gather information (typically in the form of a survey) for location of the proposed outdoor spaces. If a professional survey is not in the budget there are many ways to create your own. Most of us have plot plans that show the footprint of our homes in relationship to the property line. You can also utilize Google Earth or Microsoft Virtual Earth to find aerial images of the property. Use these documents as a base, and field verify (i.e. measure) all of the elements within the space. Be sure to note locations of windows, doors, steps and fixed elements such as air conditioning units or utility meters. If the space you are considering is severely sloped, you should be sure to note those grade changes on your plan. As part of the information gathering process, you should also note existing conditions such as particular views you want to maintain or screen, shaded vs. sunny areas, and existing trees or shrubs that you would like to protect. The more information the better! Take photos of the space from every angle, including views from the center of the space looking out. Study them carefully as you move through the design. A typical site analysis plan might look something like this:
    Site Analysis
  3. Concept Development. Now we get into the fun part. The 2nd stage of design is conceptual development. Before you dive into the design, be sure to read our “Design Ideas” page. Understanding some basic design principals will go a long way towards developing a great outdoor space. For this phase of design I recommend using a roll of trace paper laid over your survey and a fat Sharpie Marker® for sketching. Put the pencil and ruler down – there is no erasing in this phase of design! Think big picture, not details. The idea is to nail down the major elements that will make up your space and how they relate to the landscape. Try to develop at least 3 or 4 different concepts in order to evaluate the pros of cons of each.
  4. Design Development. Once you’ve focused in on a ‘concept’ you can now start to ‘refine’ the design. In this phase of design we start to look at the actual shape of spaces, sizes, materials, etc. Depending on the complexity of your project, this may go through several drafts and refinements before you are comfortable with a design. If you are having trouble visualizing what the space will look like, you can try one of several landscape software programs. There are several that help with this phase of design. Although it’s not designed specifically for landscape design, I like to use Google Sketch-Up. The program is free, and relatively easy to use. Best of all, it allows you lay elements out in 3-D, which is crucial when trying to figure the scale of various elements. This is a simple model that was developed with Sketch Up:
  5. Final Design. The final design phase is where specific details and materials are identified. If you plan to work with a specific landscape contractor, I would recommend consulting with them at this phase of the design. A good contractor will consult with you at no charge, and can offer insight such as preliminary cost, material recommendations, etc. If you plan to do the work yourself, or are considering bidding out the work, than it is important to define the specific materials and quantities that will be used in the space. A final design plan might look something like this:
  6. Pre-Construction. The fun is just beginning! Selecting a contractor can be a stressful process. Check out our directory of landscape contractors in your area and read our post on finding a contractor.