The first time Marion Richards saw the house in North Seattle’s Inverness neighborhood in 2007, she didn’t even want to go inside. “It looked like a box—square and modern looking, with none of that Northwest charm,” she recalls. But seeing the owner’s friendly wave on her way out the door, vacating the house for Marion’s scheduled showing with the realtor, she felt obliged to keep their appointment. She and her husband Mike had moved to Seattle from England a year earlier, and because Marion was pregnant with their first child and didn’t yet have a green card, her job was to find the family a permanent home.
Despite her misgivings about the facade and lack of landscaping, Marion loved the inside of the 1982 house and soon brought Mike to see it. They were won over by the home’s spacious open plan, the way natural light pours in even on gray, cloudy days, the views it offers of Lake Washington and the Cascades, and the large lot that butts up against a greenbelt to the west. The location was a 25-minute bicycle ride from Seattle Children’s Hospital, where Mike works as a pediatric anesthesiologist.
They still didn’t love the home’s imposing first impression, however, and asked landscape designer Scot Eckley to give it some curb appeal. To create level planting areas and visual interest, Eckley added low metal walls to the hillside in front of the house and anchored them with large brown-and-rust-colored Montana boulders. He planted shrub dogwoods and Japanese lace ferns, as well as leafy black bamboo to screen what he calls “the mass of the house.” The designer added interest to the driveway that runs the entire length of the property’s north side by installing more low steel walls in front of rockeries, then further concealing them with ferns. “The goal of these little interventions was to provide some interest and some contrast with the tall existing rockery—trying to be much more horizontal as opposed to vertical,” Eckley says. “There was a lot of camouflaging going on.”
Two years later, the Richardses were ready to tackle another challenge. Despite having an 8,000-square-foot lot and ample lawn, the house had no inside-outside connection. The front door faced the driveway, and the only other exterior door opened from the kitchen onto a small south-facing deck, with stairs that dead-ended in an overgrown garden patch. Basically, the south side yard was leftover, wasted space, Eckley says—“an underutilized corridor between their house and the neighbors’.“
During those first years, Marion and Mike often sat on that tiny deck on the sunny side of the house. “It always gets the best sun,” says Marion, “especially in the winter. And in summer, when it’s really hot, it’s nice and cool—but there was nothing great to look at.”
Below the deck is the playroom for Ruby, now five, and James, almost three. Because the home’s lower level is more than three feet below grade, the windows looked out on rocky dirt and let in little of that lovely sunshine the family enjoyed upstairs. The mission: Transform the side yard into a usable space that provided more access to the outdoors and an area where the kids could play.
Adding a door to the lower level would require excavation, and the couple assumed they’d have to dig out the entire side yard. Instead Eckley came up with a two-level plan that added dimension while saving on excavation costs. Rather than making the yard one big rectangle, he planned a sunken patio outside sliding glass doors to the playroom, but replaced the overgrown garden with a deck at the original ground level.
“The way you make a small space bigger is you create two or three spaces within that one small space,” he says. “If you can, you also create elevation changes.”
To meet the Richardses’ request that the space accommodate children’s play, Eckley designed the patio with smooth concrete pavers and a latching double-sided wood gate that closes off the path leading to the back of the house. A stone bench sits in front of a dry-stack stone wall, built without any mortar and speckled with shelves and niches where little hands can hide treasures. Behind it, a steel planter box is filled with yellow groove bamboo that is already growing into a privacy screen between the Richardses’ home and the one next door.
From the patio, large Montana ledgestone steps gently curve up past a basalt column birdbath and a slender vine maple to the 16-square-foot deck made of ipe—an insect- and fungus-resistant tropical hardwood similar to teak. The deck offers a peekaboo view of Lake Washington, sheltered on its eastern side by a large cherry tree, while a rusted steel wall along the south side does double duty as a chalkboard or magnetic board for art projects and a surface to hold flickering votive candles for more grown-up gatherings.
Along the path joining the two areas, Eckley planted hardy groundcover and carpeting plants such as thyme, epimedium, and liriope, as well as blueberries, “so the kids would have something to look forward to and pick.”
The deck outside the kitchen also got a makeover to minimize the shadows that blocked light from the playroom below. A new sliding glass door from the kitchen now leads out to a compact space with ipe decking, cable railings, and new stairs that connect to the very usable side yard. Marion and Mike still often sit there in the evenings. Marion retreats there in the afternoons while the kids are napping—unless she takes a book to the hammock hanging beneath it, where she can also enjoy the peaceful, sunny new side yard.Landscape Design
Scot Eckley Inc. Landscape
Design and Construction,
1301 N 97th St,