Small Space, Big Impact: Suburban Backyard Transformed Into Desert Oasis With View
Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning landscape designer Chad Norris stays inside the box on one of his most successful projects.
By Jill Schildhouse | Photography by Garrett Cook
When it comes to working in small yards, most landscape professionals prefer to think outside the box for creative inspiration. For Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning landscape designer Chad Norris, it was his ability to stay focused on what’s inside the box that made one of his projects so successful.
The “box” was the walled-in backyard of a suburban Scottsdale home in which a steep slope of dirt left only a few hundred square feet of flat usable space. “The homeowners loved the house enough to buy it, but a backyard without a view on less than a quarter acre was almost a deal breaker,” Norris notes. “I was tasked with creating something outside of their windows that would give them a view. And they wanted it to include a seating area, barbecue, fire pit and water feature. At the time, it seemed like an impossible feat to incorporate all of their desires into this small backyard of workable space.”
Without drawing up design plans—something he never does—Norris talked through his ideas for the space with the couple and then, like any artist would, started playing with the canvas. He approaches his work from two directions: First, instead of relying on a one-dimensional CAD drawing, he reviews the space as a three-dimensional whole. Second, he doesn’t just listen to the words his clients say, but also deciphers what those words actually mean. “For example, many clients express the desire for color,” Norris explains. “But that doesn’t necessarily mean they want flowering plants all over. We can create color and visual interest in many different ways. So when people say they want ‘color,’ what they may really mean are impact and visual interest.”
Because the original yard was dominated by the steeply angled slope, there was no real foundation upon which to start building. “Since I was starting from scratch, I began by sculpting and contouring on this huge slope of dirt,” Norris says. “I added texture and significance with outcroppings of large boulders that would create the foundation for strategically placed focal vignettes, each with a central point of interest flanked by secondary accents, such as spiky or round elements. The combinations of textures, verticality and color make for a truly stunning landscape design.”
The most challenging part of the project was moving all of the boulders and plant material into the backyard. First, Norris had to demo and flatten the front yard to accommodate an extra-large crane in the space. “We lifted each boulder and specimen cactus over the house one by one,” he says. “I directed the crane operator via walkie-talkie on every item…telling him to move 2 feet to the right, 1 foot to the left, 6 inches down. This house now looks as though it was built within a natural boulder outcropping.”
Because the views through large windows in the kitchen, living room and master bedroom were so important to the homeowners, Norris spent much of his time inside the home directing his outdoor crew on where elements should be placed. “I treat those windows as picture frames,” he says. “I was bouncing from one room to the next to ensure that every view corridor makes sense. Now, the owners have this spectacular living art outside of their home that gets better every year.”
Norris also found a way to incorporate the homeowners’ entire wish list, without having the space feel congested. The focal point of the backyard, which can be seen from the kitchen and as you walk through the front doors, is a cascading water feature that’s flanked on one side by an organ pipe cactus and on the other by a shaved blue yucca rostrata. The homeowners love how the sound of running water blocks noise from neighboring properties and adds some privacy to their own conversations when they’re outside sipping their morning coffee. On the east side of the water feature is an elevated secondary seating area. A fire feature peeks out from the boulders that ring the circular space, providing warmth on cool winter evenings.
To help hide the masonry wall, Norris placed Texas mountain laurel, honeysuckle, sky flower and jasmine vines in select locations along the walls and between focal points. As they mature, these plants will screen off the wall and iron fencing above. He also gave the grill a sense of being part of the scenery by nestling the structure into the hill and surrounding it with boulders, a compact blue monstrosa, golden barrel and Moroccan mound cacti and autumn sage (Salvia greggii). Finally, he removed the hard lines of the concrete patio slab and laid pavers in a softly curved design, creating a natural flow between the landscape and the primary seating area.
“The homeowners are awestruck that we were able to create this beautiful landscape environment from their typical suburban backyard,” Norris says. “The huge windows on the back of the house create the perfect indoor/outdoor feel. They can enjoy the views in the heat of summer from indoors, and they can spend time outside in the cool evenings with night lighting and the fire feature. The space can be enjoyed all day, every day.”
The homeowners agree. “It’s so much better than we imagined it could be,” says the wife. “We put our trust in Chad, and he delivered. You don’t have to have a huge backyard to have a nice view.”
Landscape designer: Chad Norris, High Desert Designs. Landscape installer Desert Foothills Landscape.