Tuesday, July 3, 2018


Is this what you look at on your way out to the back yard?
No wonder you never go out there.
Author's Note: I'll be at my second home in Suzhou, China for the next eight weeks or so, and since the big bad Chinese government blocks Google, I won't be able to file my blogs during that time. In the interim, though, I invite you to browse through my not-inconsequential archive for topics that may interest you. See you at the end of August.

Now that real estate prices are soaring again, it makes more sense than ever to make full use of the land your home is sitting on. Yet all too often, the space behind homes remains a sort of barren back forty. And no wonder: in many an older home, the only way to reach the garden is via a laundry porch or by going through the garage.

Access to the back yard can completely
transform your home's traffic flow
and make it feel much large.
Aside from the questionable aesthetics of eying the old Kenmore on your way out, having to pass through a secondary room to go outside impedes your use of the garden. Result: A garden that's weed patch city.

Even many glass-flaunting postwar homes have surprisingly bad access to the rear yard. Big windows alone aren’t enough. It’s one thing to look outside; it’s something else again to get there.

Creating better access to the outdoors is one of the most dramatic improvements you can make to your home, not to mention your garden. Happily, it’s also one of the most cost effective: an uncomplicated door installation can usually be done in the range of $5000-$10,000. 

The first step is to choose which room will lead out to your beautiful (well, eventually) garden. In a perfect world, this access would be from the living room or family room; dining rooms are usually too cluttered with furniture to allow good circulation. However, if neither of those rooms face the rear of the house, a door from the kitchen may work just as well. Even a back bedroom will do in a pinch.  They all beat stumbling over old mops and boxes of Tide.

Make sure that the patio or deck outside the doors is
at most a couple inches below the interior floor.
Don't just have a scrap of landing and some steps.
Here are some additional tips on getting into the garden:

•  Make the doors as big as possible. If you’re installing the doorway in place of a narrow window or a blank wall, you’ll need to install a new header above the opening anyway, and you won’t save much by making the opening small. Go ahead—make a grand gesture. The bigger the doorway, the more sense you’ll have of outdoors and indoors flowing together. 

•  Mind your traffic flow. Having easy access to the garden can yield a radical change in the way people use the rooms in your house—a heretofore quiet bedroom may suddenly become Grand Central Station. Make sure that foot traffic to the new doorway won’t be impeded by tables, couches, or sleeping dogs. If you’re using a sliding door, don’t arbitrarily center it in the wall—locate it so the opening panel—not the center of the door—is in the traffic path. 

I'll be over as soon as it's ready.
The same goes for paired doors: despite what you’ve seen in those old MGM musicals, it’s not really possible to burst through both doors at the same time. Crime is up a bit since Sam Goldwyn’s day, so paired doors usually have one leaf (panel) stoutly secured with a cane bolt at the top and bottom. Hence, choose which leaf will be active, and then locate the door so that leaf  is in the traffic flow.

•  Avoid having steps outside the doorway. Even the grandest pair of doors will feel like a back stoop unless the outside paving is nearly flush with the interior floor. If necessary, build a deck to within an inch or two of the interior floor level, so that there’s a generous buffer zone before any steps lead down to the garden.

•  Lastly, throw a big barbecue when you’re all done and invite me over. Salmon’s okay, but steak would be better.