Landscape Inspiration: Brick Details

I grew up in New England which means that the most commonly used landscape material was stone. Oh, did we have stone! I maintained a love affair with stone throughout my career, played with some other materials, and moved here. As a landscape designer in Northern Virginia I was quickly exposed to brick, brick, and more brick. Let’s be honest, a lot of homes around here have, at the very least, a brick facade. All too often I mention the possibility of using brick in the hardscape and get eye rolling and bored sighs in return. The thing is, brick is amazingly versatile, and when designed and built well… amazing. This is why I like to look to old buildings for inspiration when designing with brick. Those old masons could bring it!

Brick mixes with stone in these great arches. The newer one (background) is probably precast concrete, but it’s still a great look.

“Brick columns are boring.” No way! They needn’t be. They can be awesome like this. Look at what a difference those stone “panels” make.

Chimneys and columns are where brick can really shine. The idea of stepping the bricks in and out adds a lot of interest and detail to chimneys,columns, and walls.

This wall amazes me. It was hard to get a great shot of it, but the brick is laid so so so perfectly as the wall wraps down that it almost looks organic. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, squint your eyes as you look at the wall. Doesn’t it have the fluidity of movement that you would expect from adobe, or even a tree root? Too cool!

“Brick walls are just too visually ‘heavy’.” Not necessarily!

Now, I have yet to build a brick water feature – but after seeing this I want to.

I think the hangup comes from people hearing brick and thinking of nothing but rectangular solids (that there was geometry talk!) in boring patterns. I haven’t even gotten into all the odd shapes and sizes available, but this should show a sample of why brick rings my bell.

Endless Pool and Landscape Design in Alexandria, VA

Last year I was contacted by some folks in Alexandria, Virginia, with an intriguing project: they have a small backyard, and wanted to install an Endless Pool without giving up the entire yard or making the pool an overwhelming, ugly, dominant feature. I did some research, and the design issues surrounding an Endless Pool are the same as those surrounding an acrylic spa – namely, that without finding a way to tuck it into the surrounding landscape, you have a 3-4′ tall box sitting on a slab. Here’s what the backyard looked like:

Adding to the complexity of the project was the fact that they had recently had a new brick patio installed and weren’t in love with the idea of ripping it out and starting over. And, the yard was actually rather nice, if in need of an update.

Clearly, the best way to deal with the pool was to partially sink it in the ground. Part of the design process involved a lot of phone calls with the smart people division of Endless Pools, along with emailing back and forth lots of CAD drawings to get the technical details right (note: your random landscapers offering “free designs and estimates” don’t do this level of service). I ended up with a concept that played off the existing shapes, enlarged the patio, and kept the pool tucked down a bit.

As I often do when designing structure, I also did a quick (but accurate) 3D model:

The homeowners loved the concept and moved forward. I wasn’t directly involved with the install on this one, as the pool builder wanted to handle it himself, but I checked in periodically and came in at the end to discuss some hardscaping details and take care of the plantings and sod. It’s still new and not quite ready for prime time, but here are some finished pictures:





All in all this was a really fun project to design, and I like that it’s a very simple design that is still very attractive and functional. It’s a fun challenge packing loads of function into the landscape design of a small space.


Elements of Design: Mass in Landscape Design

There was a guy at one of the gyms at which I worked out who had a T-shirt that said “don’t be passive, be massive.” He was definitely the latter; you kind of have to be to pull off such a shirt.

Mass in the landscape is the same way – it has to be right if you’re going to pull it off. Mass is very closely related to shape and form. Actual density occurs when the shape is filled in. Optical density is when the piece in question is not completely solid. In terms of interior pieces (a common reference point), think of a couch that has a skirt all the way to the floor versus a couch of the same size with no skirt and tapered legs. The skirted couch appears to have more mass, even though it’s not solid all the way through.

How the heck does this relate to landscape design? It’s important to consider the effect that mass has on the pverall feel of a space. Obviously the bigger the space, the more mass it can handle. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that a heavy mass can “stop” the eye and make the space feel smaller.

This pergola is a good example of playing with mass. It’s a big site, and the large house is just out of frame – this needed to be a beefy structure. At the same time, the openings provide a little transparency and lighten things up a bit. You know it’s a focal point, but you can still see through it to the vineyard view beyond.

Plants can play a role in this as well. If we keep the plants behind the structure pruned even with the top of the fence, we’ve preserved the view to the vines and maintained a lighter mass. If we allow the plants to fill the space between the columns, it’ll have the same effect as if we had built a solid wood screen panel between them.

Because plants grow, you have to think about the effects of mass throughout the life of the landscape. It’s one more reason why working with a landscape designer can make a big difference in the overall look of your landscape.