Michael LaVance moved into his Scottsdale home in 2009 and puzzled over transforming a barren backyard into a welcoming outdoor room.
"The backyard was literally all dirt and a half-dead orange tree," he says. "I started thinking about it immediately."
In 2010, he started building a built-in barbecue and bar area. Then, a mutual friend suggested he work with Phoenix architectural designer Benjamin Hall on a more extensive plan. That started a months-long collaboration that produced a grand backyard and entertaining space that hits all the marks of a successful outdoor room.
There's a stunning curved shade structure over the bar/barbeque. A new pool extends 18 inches above the ground with an incorporated grass seating area. There are sleek steel planters for lounging and gardening, a frosted-glass dining table made from a repurposed shower door and tree trunk and an easy-to-maintain landscape.
"Steel boxes with grass growing in them step up to the pool," says Hall, who adds that the two men spent months of Saturday mornings building the shade structure, and Hall and a crew built the pool and welded the metal planters.
LaVance says the backyard quickly became a gathering place for family birthday parties and holiday cookouts. The outcome, he says, took Hall's architectural eye and both of their hard work and DIY skills to come up with something unique. He advises Valley residents wanting to create cool outdoor spaces this spring to get creative and enjoy the process.
"I would say to keep an open mind," LaVance says. "Don't just have a (rigid) plan and rely on someone else's cookie-cutter design. A lot of what Ben and I did kind of evolved."
It's prime patio weather in the Valley. If your patio/yard looks a little tired, here are six ways to perk it up to take advantage of the dynamite weather:
1. Add lighting
The right lighting can make all the difference between a barely-used patio and a popular gathering spot. Hall's shade structure contains three pendant lights that create dramatic shadows at night and make the LaVances' bar area even more of a draw. Adding a hardwired light fixture to your covered patio, spotlights to special plants and trees or pathway lighting will give polish and comfort to any outdoor space. But even festive string lights — popular on restaurant patios across the Valley — or outdoor candles can greatly improve the ambiance. CB2.com's $9.95 smart candle light, with a glass exterior and faux-flame insert, is a little more durable for the desert climate than some options.
2. Create cozy seating
For desert newbies, the cost of outdoor furniture here can seem jarring. But if you buy cheap seating that won't withstand the harsh elements (the prolonged triple-digit days of summer), you'll be replacing it often.
Another option is to come up with built-in solutions. LaVance says he originally planned a real-turf seating area inside the pool, but he decided to fill a steel planter with compacted granite and top it with artificial turf after he had trouble keeping the grass growing and dirt out of the pool. A cozy seating area, such as built-in benches with removable pads and pillows, becomes a prime gathering spot. Even better if the seating has a great view, such as a pool or water feature or fireplace. Make sure your seating options are durable and any fabrics are for outdoor use.
3. Create shade
That sun feels great now, but in a couple of months, it will feel punishing. Hall says he agreed to work with LaVance when he realized the barbecue LaVance and his father were building would get way too much sun to be usable. Shade structures can be as simple as a patio umbrella or as complex as a custom pergola or installed shade sail. Or, to create more shady spots in a larger yard, think about investing in some shade trees.
"It's a great time of year to be installing trees in the Valley," says Janis Blake, manager of Whitfill Nursery. Blake says 36-inch box shade trees — including thornless mesquite, ash, elm, Chinese pistache and live oak — cost $600, including planting. These trees are typically 12- to 18-feet tall and can start to provide substantial shade fairly quickly.
4. Add greenery
Now through March is prime planting season in the Valley. Blake says customers have been stocking up on herbs, veggies and flowers, including geraniums, petunias, poppies and daisies.
"Just adding any bit of greenery is going to soften everything and bring life to your patio," Blake says.
Whitfill also carries dozens of large ceramic pots in a rainbow of colors — priced from $12 to $200 — that are good for herbs, veggies and annual flowers. Large pots can even hold some citrus trees.
Lew Gallo, owner of For the People boutique in Union at Biltmore Fashion Square, is hosting apatio pop-up store starting Friday, March 7, and will be selling colorful modern planters, including some powder-coated aluminum planters; succulents; and more.
"I'm encouraging people to enjoy their yard," says Gallo, adding succulents are increasingly popular and good low-maintenance plants to add life to any patio.
5. Add water
LaVance spent $25,000 to add a swimming pool — Hall's design — to his yard. Covered in a black pebble finish with red mosaic water-line tiles, the pool reflects the sky and is surrounded with landscape lights. If you don't have the budget or space for a pool, even a small water feature can make a desert patio more hospitable during the warmest days. Blake says something as simple as a bird bath can make a patio feel more alive. Simple fountains are another option. Sunset magazine offers a good tutorial on its website, sunset.com, to make a DIY fountain from a patio pot or urn. The Green Goddess and Southwest Gardener in Phoenix also sell fountains and water features perfect for Arizona yards and patios.
6. Add warmth
Either a cooking area, grill or fire feature can warm up any patio. If a stand-alone fireplace or fire pit is out of the question, here's a smaller option. Gallo sells modern oil lamps by Menu that add warmth without much fuss. They start at $89 and range from 9 inches to 26 inches high — just enough to add some drama to any outdoor space. "The flame is huge. It's really impressive," says Gallo, who has several on his own patio. "I give a ton of them as presents. ... I love that the wicks are fiberglass, so I never have to replace them."