For American homeowners, the backyard is sacred space. For some, it is where summer barbecues happen; for others, it’s where they grow flowers and vegetables. Still, for others, it’s the place where their kids play, and for many it’s all of these things.

For one homeowner in Dallas’ Preston Hollow neighborhood, the very term “backyard” sells short the importance of this little patch of land. “Back” seems to imply something purposefully hidden from sight or unimportant. Her yard may be in the back of the house, but its prominence is undeniable. She prefers the term “garden” to describe her space. But its look had become a bit outdated and it was time for a refresh.

“At one time, it was a stunning yard,” says Randy Angell, designer and creative director with Pool Environments in Plano, Texas. The aforementioned homeowner turned to Angell when it came time to upgrade her pool and yard area into something more modern and suited to entertaining. “She had lived in the house since it was brand new in the early 1960s and had built this beautiful garden and pool, but that was 35 years ago. It badly needed rejuvenation. [The homeowner] is an interior designer, is very well traveled and was looking for a clean, modern Zen look.”

Tree inspiration

In fact, the homeowner had spent some time living abroad in Asia, and the interior of the home featured some hints of Asian-inspired design. This inspired Angell’s thinking for the backyard upgrade. As fortune would have it, an element to the existing pool space played right into this idea. Other designers saw it as an obstacle, but Angell saw 
it differently.

“One of the key features of the yard is this tree that kind of lays out over the space and comes up over the pool,” he explains. “Every other designer the homeowner spoke to wanted to take out that tree, even though she always said how much she loved it. One of the first things I said when I walked into the yard was that I couldn’t wait to incorporate that tree into the design, so within five minutes she said, ‘OK, you’ve got the job.’”

With the tree established as a centerpiece, work began to transform this 1960s-era pool and backyard space into something clean and contemporary. “The first vision I had for that tree was to clear out all of the undergrowth, clean out the area around it and create a garden of the crushed granite kind of giving a nod to Asian Zen gardens where they use a rake to create different designs in the sand,” Angell says. “Cleaning that area out allowed that tree to become a sculpture in this Zen garden.”

Angell was even able to work in a practical application for the tree. “It was cool because there was a part of the tree that was at just the right height where it was basically at bench height,” he explains. “So I wanted to create a couple of stepper pads that led over to it where you could actually sit on the trunk of the tree in this quiet little area of the garden.”

Happy accidents

Considering the scope of the project, things went pretty smoothly. There were snags, but on this job, even the snags sometimes became happy accidents.

“One of the interesting challenges was that the client had selected the glass tile that’s on the water feature wall at the back of the pool, and when the tile came in, it was vastly different from the samples she had chosen at the showroom,” Angell recalls. “So we had a small freak-out moment and then started putting our brains together. The client met with her rep at the tile company, and they gathered all the samples from all the showrooms around the country. They didn’t find enough to do the whole wall, but they found a good enough amount that we actually mixed it in with the new tile. This led us to what I think is one of the most striking elements of that wall, which was adding one-by-one accent tile.”

What began as a botched tile order became a standout feature of the remodel. “I was able to take that one-by-one tile and do a stripe across at the level of the stainless steel steppers,” Angell says. “We aligned the stripe with the top of the stone wall off to the right side, so it created a cool design element that brings your eye along that horizontal plane, and then to switch to that one-by-one at the cap of that wall gave it a really nice accent on the top as well.”

As with the tree, Angell was able to use another challenging aspect of the existing design to his advantage. “One of my favorite elements really was a byproduct of the odd shape of the pool. It is a very 1960s pool shape in that there is not one line that is parallel to anything else,” Angell says. “It’s all very odd angles that didn’t flow very well with my vision for clean, horizontal lines. But that’s what led me to come up with the idea and concept for the coping on the pool. It’s all poured, colored concrete, saw-cut into large pads to make it look like huge slabs of limestone. Switching to a very oversized, cantilevered concrete coping really helped clean up the shape of the pool and make it work with all of the horizontal lines for a more modern kind of feel.”

Suited for entertaining

In the end, the client was thrilled with her upgraded space, and Angell was proud of what they were able to accomplish. “When it comes to a remodel with before and after pictures, they always tend to be amazing transformations, but this one is absolutely one of my favorites,” he says. “It’s such a stark difference from what it was. A clean palette and very subtle design, the transformation we were able to make in this yard is just stunning. And we increased the deck area so there is more room for entertaining.”

According to Angell, the client had stopped entertaining over the years because her old yard wasn’t set up for it. But following the remodel, she is back to hosting gatherings that range from charity events to more intimate get-togethers. “Now that she has this extension of her house available, she has been able to do a lot more entertaining, so she’s been thrilled,” Angell says. “She even had the job superintendent, his wife and me over for dinner one night after everything was finished. We just sat out there and ate steaks and drank wine.” 

Whether one calls it a garden or backyard, everyone can agree gatherings like that are what it is all about. 

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