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Twice As Nice

The redesigned backyard of this Rio Verde home is now a haven for relaxation and entertaining. “Though modern, it is not angular. It’s very fluid and sensual,” says landscape and pool designer Kirk Bianchi.

A renovated landscape transforms a winter retreat into a desert paradise.

By Nancy Erdmann | Photography by Michael Woodall

Looking for an escape from Wisconsin’s brutal winters, Kay and John Sorenson decided a second home in the Southwest was just what they needed. “We chose Arizona for the obvious reasons—climate and warmth, which allow us to be outdoors much of the time—but also for the geography because it is so different from the Midwest with the desert, mountains, birds and animals,” Kay says. “We felt it would be a great adventure to explore together.”

She and her husband found the perfect house in Rio Verde that offers indoor/outdoor living in a rural setting and proximity to hiking and trail biking. While the interiors needed only minor renovations, the gardens and exterior living spaces required a complete overhaul. “We were looking to create a comfortable retreat with modern flare that felt nestled into the terrain,” explains John.

After interviewing several garden professionals, the couple chose landscape and pool designer Kirk Bianchi, who they say came up with the most creative plan and was able to envision the best layout for their triangular-shaped corner lot. “The previous yard felt much smaller than what was possible for the property, and a tiny waterfall with a pond was situated awkwardly in the middle of the backyard,” the Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award winner recalls.

Bianchi also faced other challenges: The lot lacked privacy; the patio was a virtual heat island with wall-to-wall concrete; the barbecue was in full sun and didn’t feel protected; and due to the way the house sits, there were some unattractive view corridors. To address these issues, the designer came up with a look he terms “desert modern.” He explains, “While the pool, spa, fireplace and new barbecue area have contemporary lines in shape and form, the landscape is very naturalistic, not regimented like one might see in most manicured desert gardens.”

In order to make the backyard feel less enclosed, he expanded the walls and captured additional space from the side yard that had been underutilized. “I created new property boundaries with a series of painted art panels that are offset and overlapping, with gaps between them so that they are not actually touching. This allows light and shadow to differentiate each panel and give the illusion that they are not one continuous enclosure.”

1. In the main gathering area, Bianchi built a freestanding tiled fireplace in an old-school Rumford configuration—a tall, shallow design—that blocks out the view of a neighboring house. “Rumfords are known for projecting light and warmth and are much more inviting than our current smaller fire boxes,” he explains. The brick pattern inside was set with the thin side showing for a more contemporary aesthetic. To the right, Four Peaks in the Mazatzal Mountains can been seen peeking out over the McDowell Mountains. 2. The overflow face of the spa is clad with a textured basalt stone that shimmers in the sunlight. Texas ebony trees in the background form a privacy screen to obscure a neighbor’s house just beyond.

While the property offers stunning vistas of Four Peaks in the distant Mazatzal Mountains, Bianchi notes that a street light was overlaid within the sight line and created a visual distraction by day; at night, it was an undesired light source. To remedy this, he repositioned an existing 20-foot-high saguaro just beyond the new property wall so that when Kay and John look out their master bedroom window toward the peaks, the saguaro “erases” the post from the view, he explains.

1. Bianchi’s design opened up the yard and established defined dining and entertaining areas. The newly added pool and spa are surrounded by travertine pavers, creating a seamless flow between the home’s interiors and outdoor spaces. 2. The original barbecue had no protection from the elements and stuck out like a sore thumb. 3. The new kitchen area features a white concrete Terrazzo bar and barbecue center shaded by a cantilevered steel structure with suspended heaters. “The ceiling was finished with an aluminum product that looks like wood,” says Bianchi. “So you get the the visual warmth without the maintenance.” 4. Mexican fencepost cacti serve as upright sculptural forms against a vibrantly painted backdrop. “The walls and colors were Kirk’s ideas, which I was initially skeptical about but truly love now,” admits homeowner John Sorenson. “I really like how the green cacti pop against the orange and red.” 5. For an inviting sense of arrival, Bianchi created a naturalistic setting with ironwood trees, golden barrels, large-scale boulders, mounding and a pathway set off-center from the front door and flanked by seating benches. “You really get a sense of the path carving through to get to the front door,” he notes. 6. The original front yard had some trees that were on their last leg and needed to be removed, and there was only a loosely set flagstone path to get to the front door from the street, says the designer. 

The Sorensons’ main wish for their new landscape was the addition of a pool and hot tub, so the waterfall and pond needed to be removed. They were replaced by a sleekly curved pool with a vanishing-edge spa. “The pool comprises just two sweeping arcs opposing each other,” Bianchi points out. Behind it he planted an ironwood tree that serves as the focal point of the yard. “I positioned the spa to serve as a mirror to reflect the tree and the natural backdrop.” Boulders salvaged from the original feature were used throughout the property.

A comfortable outdoor eating area was also a must. Bianchi designed a steel pergola to shade a newly built barbecue and bar table. “The roof of the structure has 0.125-inch openings so that when you look up at the sun, the glare doesn’t get in your eyes like it would if it was a traditional lattice. The openings also allow natural light into the space, which produces a warm reflected glow.”

“The whole design has a comfortable and cozy feel for quiet times yet still allows for entertaining larger groups of family and friends.”

—John Sorenson, homeowner

1. The addition of curving walls that arc through the space produces a layered effect and serves as a courtyard enclosure. 2. An integral part of Bianchi’s desert modern design, naturalistic plant beds, which are filled with lady’s-slippers, Moroccan mound and flowering ground cover, hug the sinuous lines of paved pathways and the pool. 

The home’s interior, which is filled with rust tones, set the precedent for the garden’s color palette. Golden scabos travertine pavers carry the floor from indoors to out, and a sand-finished concrete delineates walkways. The natural hues of the Southwest also played a role. “The back wall is a dark chocolate brown to visually merge with the Table Mesa brown gravel used for the ground cover, and the brick-red and ocher colors on the walls were selected for their vivid hues that are reminiscent of Arizona sunsets,” Bianchi explains. “The accent walls play off the gray-green of the agaves and cacti I placed in silhouette against them.”

Throughout the grounds, Texas ebony trees screen undesirable views, and palo blancos offer cover without blocking light. “The latter have a wonderful translucent character that shimmers like sheer drapes when illuminated at night,” Bianchi says. Cacti and succulents provide sculptural form, while blackfoot and Angelita daisies and germander were chosen for their soft but colorful white, yellow and purple displays as ground cover. “We had little knowledge of desert plants and let Kirk guide us on the selection,” John remarks. Curving front-yard walls, a freestanding fireplace and new furnishings complete the picture.

“The whole design has a comfortable and cozy feel for quiet times yet still allows for entertaining larger groups of family and friends,” John adds. Kate agrees, noting, “When we retired, we moved from central Wisconsin to a lake house in northern Wisconsin. We are so grateful to now live in two beautiful paradises.”

Landscape and pool designer: Kirk Bianchi, Bianchi Design.
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