Picture opposite ends of a pulley, where one side rises while the other falls.

The relationship between clients’ backyards and their expectations often follows this model — as square footage shrinks, plans grow more elaborate.  

But once customers realize that constraints that exist, they’re not unreasonable.

So sacrifices are made to accommodate the basics, some of which can never be compromised.

For instance, the yard always should contain at least two “rooms,” be functional and include some eye candy for good measure. And it must feel spacious.

Here, two industry experts reveal some tried-and-true tips for designing to small spaces without forgoing the essentials.

  • Use precision in the planning phase.
  • When working on paper, design to scale. Always look for areas where you can spare space. It may help to think in terms of inches, rather than feet.

    “I’ve had areas that were literally 8- or 9 feet wide by 15- or 20 feet long, and still created a little built-in sofa, fireplace, small dining area and a barbecue area,” says Joey Pecoraro, designer and owner of Architectural Design Conceptsin Las Vegas. “It’s all about shaving inches from here and giving it to the other space to make it work.”

    Some features you’ll need to avoid altogether. True beach entries — those that gradually sink from deck level to the bottom of the shallow end — eat up too much square footage.

    Even a traditional vanishing edge should be scrutinized for space.

    “I might lose 3 feet,” Pecoraro says. “The catch basin is probably another couple of feet. Then you have the basin wall, which is another foot. If it’s a small yard, you can’t afford a foot or two sometimes, let alone three.”

    Decide upfront how to handle walkways. Should they accommodate two-way traffic, or contain just a single lane? For the former, you’ll need at least 4 feet — and 5 feet is even better.

    If you can’t give a particular amenity the room it needs, drop it from the design concept, Pecoraro advises. It’s better to work with less and make it terrific than to wedge something in and leave users feeling cramped.

  • Think courtyard.
  • When arranging a small backyard to feel as if it has everything, consider an alternative approach.

    “In courtyard or atrium-style designing, we’re surrounding you with plants and water,” says Scott Cohen, garden artisan and owner of The Green Scene Landscapingin Canoga Park, Calif. “You’re not just having patio-to-water-to-grass.”

    Under this theory, heavy landscaping now is restricted to the perimeter — and it’s one of Pecoraro’s favorite space-saving strategies.

    “That way, it leaves all that middle area for a pool, dining areas, barbecue space and things like that,” he says.

    The center space can be broken up with the occasional pot or small planter, as opposed to large blocks of greenery. Pecoraro also may use fabrics to soften a hardscape-heavy courtyard.

    “I’m not a big fan of hardscape to hardscape,” he says. “I like to break things up with furniture and drapes to warm up the space.”

    Whenever possible, Cohen tries to avoid lawn entirely. “We’ll use ground covers and flower beds instead, just to reduce maintenance,” he says. “If you’re not going to have a decent-sized lawn, what’s the point of doing all that extra work?”

    Any tall items also should remain along the yard’s perimeter. While big waterfeatures and fireplaces serve as effective dividers in larger yards, they’re often just obstructions in smaller spaces.

  • Keep it simple.
  • Pick only a few focal points. That is, resist the urge to pack the pool with too many features.

    “I’ve [seen this problem] where you put so many different things and have so many focal points that you don’t know what to look at,” Pecoraro says. “I like to keep the pool very interesting and clean, and not go over the top with it because you’ve got interests in other areas as well.”

    One or two spectacular eye-grabbers within the waterscape should suffice.

  • Use space-saving dividers.
  • There will always be challenges to achieving the effect of multiple rooms. What if you can’t fit walls, large waterfeatures or other space-killers to break up the plot?

    The answer: Look for low-lying alternatives. Long, narrow, sprawling pools and waterfeatures are an ideal choice.

    “With the reflective quality of water, it makes everything look larger,” Cohen says. “It’s like putting a mirror on the ground or a mirror in a room. If you put fire on the backside so it’s reflecting across the water, it makes the whole feature look much larger.”

    You may even use a lap pool. For an elongated, narrow backyard, Pecoraro designed a narrow pool approximately 47 feet long that zig-zagged in the middle. He also tucked a seating area beside one leg. The shape created natural rooms, while providing the homeowners with an additional swimming area. 

    Streams and runnels make nice alternatives as well because both can wrap around the back of the house. Clients now can see water through every window facing the backyard.

    “If you have water that’s connecting from one side of the yard to the other, it can stretch the feel of the space,” Cohen says.

    You may also divide space using different deck materials for each area. For example, pavers could mark one section while stamped concrete denotes another. Steppingstones and ground cover can help break up hardscape so it doesn’t feel monolithic.

    Feel free to experiment. On one project, Cohen thought placing a covered patio flush against the house was too stifling. So he moved it to the corner of the yard.

    “It becomes kind of a destination point,” he says. “I think the yard feels larger as a result, rather than feeling closed in.”

    Similar features can create the sensation of journeying from one space to the next. Long, winding walkways are out. But small bridges that cross sprawling streams or moats provide passage from one sitting area to another. Or you may choose to outfit the water element with floating steppingstones.

  • Consolidate, consolidate, consolidate!
  • Wherever possible, convert one element into many.

    You can create additional seating by raising a pool or spa 18 inches. Another trick is to extend the outdoor kitchen to accommodate extra counter space, or even a lower-level dining table. Here, you’ll need 2 feet of clearance to move the chairs in and out.

    Whenever possible, design patio-cover posts so they go straight through counter tops.

    “The patio cover post is going to block the flow of traffic,” Cohen says. “When I’m designing a yard like that,I’ll typically have the post go through the counter.

    Otherwise, I’d need to leave 3 feet clear around any kind of post just for traffic flow.”

    Also consider incorporating the property wall. You could place the outdoor kitchen on the perimeter, and use the wall as a backsplash.

  • Soften the walls.
  • Few things shrink a space quicker than heavy, daunting barriers along the edges. Instead, open up the area by softening the walls as much as possible.

    Some designers favor vines. When used to cover walls, they help surround guests with greenery rather than barricades.     

    Portions of the wall can be converted into space-saving focal points by installing wall-mounted waterfeatures or fire features. These help break up the barrier, and offer the benefits of moving water and fire without eating up any space.

  • Use strategic lighting.
  • At night, multilayered lighting often adds depth to a backyard. This is especially helpful in tight spaces.

    Select and highlight points at the farthest reaches of the yard to create a sense of expansiveness.

    Backlighting may create a glow around a tree, or graze a wall to bring out its texture. Place a bright light behind a feature with a striking outline — a favorite tree or plant — to create a dramatic silhouette.

    “If you light only those things that are focal points close to the house, the yard looks smaller,” Cohen says.