THE CANVAS: A million-dollar view of a showcase mountain, contemporary interior styling
THE PALETTE: Warm travertine marble, cool blue tile, black Mexican pebble
THE MASTERPIECE: A “grotto” spa, an outdoor living room with a black pebble rug, boxes of light
When the professionals at Urban Earth Design took on the job of revamping this upscale Phoenix-area yard, they knew their work would have to serve a larger purpose. The lot was dwarfed by a view of Camelback Mountain, one of the locale’s most beautiful landmarks.
“The mountain is so dominant that as soon as you walked out, it was the first thing you saw,” notes Michael Dollin, company owner/principal and a licensed landscape architect. “You almost didn’t even look at the backyard.”
Thus, every element in the backyard remodel, including the pool’s long, low-lying waterfeature and a similarly formed fireplace, is meant to showcase the mountain. The clients also had several needs: space for entertaining, a private grotto with a spa and a large patch of lawn for their dog to enjoy.
Call to the mountain
The mountain is long and horizontal, without an exceptionally tall peak to capture one’s attention. That means there is no single centerpiece.
“We were trying to widen the view as opposed to creating a single focal point,” Dollin says. “We made [the yard] more a flow of planes, so your eye moves from one place to another.”
Directly outside the house is a black pebble medallion, set in an expansive beige deck. It works almost like an entryway rug, contrasting pleasantly with the high-end stamped concrete. A wave pattern was placed in the center of the medallion to denote the long, leisurely outline of the mountain.
To the right of the medallion, clients and their visitors find a travertine fireplace. It stands approximately 4 feet tall, cutting a distinct but low-lying form. Even the firebox runs long and lean, leaving the impression of a linear fire inside.
The travertine acknowledges the warmth of the environs in a quiet way. “Many designers use a lot of red because Camelback is a red-rock mountain,” Dollin says. “We didn’t want to go that route. We wanted to pick up on the sky and subtly reference the mountain, but we consciously chose cooler colors and earth tones.”
The fireplace forms a right angle with a bench, creating an outdoor living room suitable for plush furniture. Behind the bench, forming another square room, is the backyard’s kitchen, complete with grill and refrigerator.
Splash of water
To the left of the medallion sits the pool. Swimmers are invited to descend a set of stairs spanning the entire width of the vessel, with a sun shelf bisecting it.
The pool’s most stunning attribute is a blue tile waterfeature that runs along one wall. Like the fireplace, it’s short — less than 3 feet high — and long. “Camelback Mountain is a long, horizontal mountain, not a tall peak,” Dollin says. “So the horizontality of it seemed to lend itself to that.”
A tile wave runs the length of the waterfeature. “Making the wave out of the glass tile was a little bit of a trick because you couldn’t saw the tile; each piece had to be cut by hand,” says John Quick, a partner at pool builder In Style.
The falling water’s distinct pattern makes it hard to categorize. “It’s a water wall, but it’s not a wet wall,” Quick says. Higher copper weirs alternate with low scuppers to flow in the rhythm of the tile wave. “I didn’t want to create a lot of massing,” Dollin says. “Instead of having one massive wall, we broke it into four separate smaller walls.”
Lights inside each scupper create a glow. “In the evening, you see the negative space vs. the positive space,” Dollin says. “You’ll see the light bands, and it casts these reflections into the pool.”
In the grotto
Off to the side, the designers created a special haven for the spa. It’s placed close to the house for the best mountain view. A wall wraps around the back to create a grotto feel.
The spa’s round shape served practical and aesthetic purposes. “Circular forms tend to lend themselves more to conversation,” says Sunni Jackson, a landscape designer at Urban Earth Design. “It’s also a counterpoint for everything else in the yard, which was so angular.”
The designers raised it out of the ground to create a grand appearance — and additional seating. Steps leading into the spa add to that feeling. “If you have a raised spa with steps going up to the top, it’s easier,” Quick says. “Other-wise, it’s kind of unnerving to step off that height and hit the bench.”
The deck is covered in travertine to distinguish this space from the others. The stone also veneers the raised spa and back wall.
To combat the summer heat, the designers hung a retractable shade canopy off the house near the barbecue area. “We didn’t want a monolithic shade structure in the heart of the yard that would disturb the view of the mountain,” Jackson says. “And the site is oriented to the north. Any kind of north light you can capture is very nice here.”
Now the layout is complete, and the result is a pleasing series of long, low planes that eventually directs attention to Camelback Mountain.
“We tried to incorporate different elements that would break up the planes of space,” Jackson says. “There’s the mountain in the background, then you’ve got this waterfeature in the next layer. In the foreground layer, you see an element of fire.
“So it is this progression of planes that leads your eye up to the view.”