How to Design a Small Back Yard: Ten Tips for Success
Ideas and examples for your rowhouse or townhouse landscape design
Do you own a property with a small back yard? Want to make your outdoor space more liveable, pleasant, and environmentally friendly but aren't sure how? I work in these spaces frequently and wanted to share some tips and design examples with you!
DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and other older eastern cities have many rowhouses and townhouses with lots between 17 and 30 feet wide. These small back yards can be more challenging, time-consuming, and expensive to design than the yards of larger freestanding homes. Spaces for walking and parking cars can only be reduced so much before they become uncomfortable or impossible to use, meaning that proportionally more of the site is devoted to access and circulation than on a larger lot.
On these lots, accurate measurements become extremely important, tolerances become tighter (an inch or two can make a huge difference to a rowhouse design), and different elements are located right next to or on top of each other. This requires more care in designing and a greater knowledge of construction, zoning, and codes to determine, for example, whether a deck footer can in fact be located next to or on top of a retaining wall. Designing a very small yard can often come to resemble the design of a tiny house or boat more than a larger yard, with every space serving double duty and storage built into every nook and cranny. Many cities also have strict regulations, lengthy permitting processes, and can require substantial fees before permits are approved. While this post focuses on rowhouse and townhouse design, the advice should also apply to other small lots in urban and suburban areas.
While small gardens can be challenging to design, I think they are some of the most rewarding projects. Due to their small square footage, I can often use higher-quality or remnant materials, resulting in amazing spaces like jewel boxes. And there’s nothing like the satisfaction when the puzzle pieces click together to create a functional and beautiful space that improves a client’s relationship with the outdoors and provides habitat and ecological benefit within the city. As a landscape designer I work with these properties frequently and hope these tips will help you out. If you find yourself stuck, feel free to reach out to me for advice or design help! I work locally around Washington, DC and can do concept designs further afield via video consults and plan/photo sketches. If you’re committed to doing it yourself but are stuck and want to set up a brainstorm session to play around with ideas, I’d be up for that too!
Modern Rowhouse Design
- Measure your space accurately, both horizontally and vertically.
- In a small space, a few inches can make or break a design! Locate all utilities, downspouts, windows, drains, trees, pathways, driveways, fences, doors; in short, everything you can think of. If you forget something, don’t worry; you can re-measure and add it later.
- Draw your yard to scale. Any scale is fine. Graph paper is fine. Do one drawing as if you were looking down from the sky at your yard (“plan view”).
- If there are significant slopes, walls, or other changes in elevation, do another drawing as if you were looking at one or more sides of the yard (from the back or side). You can set up horizontal string lines between stakes and measure the distance from the string to the ground at various points. I use a Zip Level, which is extremely accurate, but it’s not a cheap piece of equipment.
- Don’t forget to look up! Are there overhead wires or tree branches? Draw them in.
- If the space is complicated, I would recommend using Sketchup to do a 3D model. Thinking in three dimensions while looking at 2D drawings is an acquired skill that is hard to master and even professionals miss details when working this way. Sketchup isn’t great for modeling uneven terrain or landscape but small lots are often more geometric than most, which lends itself well to this sort of approach.
- Know your constraints: regulations, code, and zoning
- Most rowhouses and townhouses are in urban areas where there are many restrictions on what you can do with your yard. Make sure to research and understand the zoning code including setbacks, lot coverage regulations, fence height and location rules, impervious surface restrictions, and what will need to go through permitting. This usually takes me no more than an hour in jurisdictions I’m familiar with, but I know exactly where to look. It will likely take you longer.
- As you design, you’ll need to know regulations related to building code, for example how much headroom you need above steps, minimum tread depth and maximum riser height, handrail and railing requirements, the maximum height a retaining wall can be before it must go through permitting, etc. These will be essential as you try to squeeze everything into a tight space.
- What feels right or wrong about the yard?
- Spend some time in the yard. How does it feel? Hot? Exposed? Are you being eaten alive by mosquitoes? Do you feel like you’re on view of your neighbors? Do you like seeing the neighbors and feel that you’re too enclosed and disconnected? Is the patio too long and narrow to be comfortable? How do you want it to feel? What would make you want to be outdoors more often?
- Spend some time on Pinterest saving images of how you want your space to look and feel. If you can’t figure out how to fix it, that’s what I’m here for. I often hear, “It feels wrong but I don’t know why and I don’t know what to do.” Usually I can pinpoint the issue in a few minutes. Coming up with workable solutions takes longer.
- Make use of vertical space. Slopes can be a challenge but also a big asset
- Your vertical space is the total height between your doorstep and your property line. In some rowhouses with walkout basements, you have a full story of vertical space to work with. Making use of vertical space is my biggest #1 tip for small back yards. Often we forget how much stuff we want to keep outside: trash and recycling cans, compost bins, garden hoses, bicycles, tools, gardening supplies (soil, pots, etc), rain barrels, lawnmowers, etc. If you can avoid having a freestanding shed in your rowhouse lot, you’ve saved a lot of space. (The other alternative is to create an attractive freestanding shed and use it as a focal point).
- If there’s enough vertical space, build storage underneath the steps to the main floor. This is a great place for trash cans, recycling bins, and potentially also bicycles, depending on the dimensions.
- Build storage into every vertical surface. Build benches into decks, which saves space over freestanding chairs, and build storage into the benches. If there’s grade change in the yard, can you build storage into the slope and put a patio over top of it?
- If you have a full story of potential vertical space, build a deck with a screen porch or storage underneath. This is expensive and subject to zoning restrictions, but you’ll be able to essentially create space out of thin air.
- Many rowhouses in DC are have slightly elevated (about a half-story) enclosed porches on the back. Underneath these porches is a crawl space with steps leading to a lower access door. Excavating these spaces and turning them into screened gathering areas, storage spaces, or additional basement can also create a space where none existed before.
- Don’t let the air conditioning condenser drive the design!
- In DC, this is can be a huge issue on small lots. On a larger lot, a 3’ x 3’ condenser isn’t usually an issue. On a small lot, that same condenser takes up 10-20% of the valuable real estate right next to the house, which is exactly where you would want to locate a deck, patio, or other gathering space. The ideal process would be to design first and THEN site the condenser, but I have had to work entire designs around existing condensers, leading to less than optimal results. I would strongly suggest switching to mini-split units if it’s in the budget.
- Do you really need those parking spaces? Can they do double duty?
- Of all landscape features, parking takes up the most space. Half of a rowhouse back yard can easily be taken by parking, and it’s often more. Each car needs about 10’ by 18’ of space to park (sometimes less if you have a compact car), so two cars parked side-by side need around 20’ x 18’, which is usually nearly the entire width of the property.
- Rear vehicle gates are a challenge. Many of my clients want to be able to close and lock gates behind their cars, but then you have to add space for inswing gates (usually they can’t swing out because they’d block the alley). Bifold inswing gates need around 4'-6’ of clearance, meaning your 18’ parking space stretches to 23’-24’ long. I’ve heard that some people install freestanding overhead roll-down garage doors, but I’m not sure about permitting these. It would save space. The other alternative is gates that slide on a track to the side, but I haven’t found any commercial options available in the US.
- Parking can be located underneath an elevated deck or porch, but setbacks on structures usually mean you have to bring the parking all the way to the house. This results in a driveway, which is wasted space on a rowhouse lot. Strip or ribbon driveways at least reduce the amount of pavement required.
- If you must have car parking and also need a space for large gatherings, make the parking area look nice so that it can also be used as a gathering space when the cars are parked elsewhere.
- As a designer, I’d love to use your entire back yard to create a garden oasis instead of parking, but then again I don’t have to live there. This is a challenging one. Until we build better public transit and bike-friendly cities, a huge percentage of our spaces will be hot lifeless pavement devoted to cars.
- Don’t forget shade and privacy! Fences, walls, and hedges are your friend
- Trees require growing space for their roots and an overhead area free from wires. The minimum soil volume for a tree to reach a 10’ diameter canopy spread (and no bigger) is 120 cubic feet, which assumes a depth of 3' of growing media. For a 21' diameter tree, 500 cubic feet of soil is needed. Take a look at Casey Trees’ Tree Space Design Report for more information.
- Fence height is often capped at 6-7’ depending on your jurisdiction, although DC allows fences up to 10’ with written permission of neighbors.
- In England and other countries, garden walls are much more common. These are an option, although they are much more expensive to construct than fences (which are already not cheap).
- In areas where fences are not possible due to zoning or a taller screen is needed, narrow hedges are your friend. They work best in full or part sun. Look for fastigiate or columnar species, both mean they have a naturally narrow growth habit. The taller and narrower you want the hedge, and the more shade the site receives, the more challenging this task becomes.
- Green walls, or structures to support climbing vines, can be constructed, but usually only within the setback line, and these usually must go through permitting.
- Make a mockup!
- Here’s an advantage you have over most design firms: the ability to quickly and cheaply do a mockup of your design in your space on your own time. Not sure how big to make a deck? Use chalk or chalk spray paint to mark out a potential space, move your deck furniture in, and try out your ‘deck’ for a few weeks. Not big enough? Make it bigger. This doesn’t always work, for example if you have an uneven grade or need to add retaining walls, but if your lot is mostly flat it gives you a lot of opportunity to try before you build. Can you maneuver your car into the space? You can use concrete blocks, bricks, or inexpensive planters to test ideas. Move them around and live with your design before committing time and money to making them permanent.
- Keep it simple!
- If you’re a maximalist or very comfortable playing with materiality, feel free to go wild in terms of materials, but I usually suggest no more than 3-4 materials including both horizontal and vertical surfaces in order to tie everything together. Get samples or swatches, and put them next to each other. Find pictures of what they look like installed, because materials can look/feel different at scale.
- Push yourself to come up with at least 2-3 different designs
- Often ‘design genius’ comes when you’ve already exhausted the obvious solutions and push yourself to come up with more options.
Rowhouse Design Examples
Small 38' x 18' Rowhouse Back Yard with 7' of Grade Change
Rowhouse Plan Option A
Rowhouse Elevation Option A
Rowhouse Plan Option B
Rowhouse Existing Conditions
Driveway Doing Double Duty as Patio
Making Space from Thin Air
I hope these tips for designing small spaces have given you some direction and ideas to pursue as you work on creating your ideal back yard. And remember, if you have questions or need a little help, I’m here for you! Just reach out via email or the contact form and I’ll be in touch.