Design Matters

A most delightful getaway, right in your own backyard

by Val Nehez
Posted 6/8/23

A tiny backyard can be a spiritual oasis.

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Design Matters

A most delightful getaway, right in your own backyard


A tiny backyard can be a spiritual oasis. It's a place where you can reconnect with yourself or the perfect spot to sip tea or cocktails with a friend.

When we bought our home in East Falls, a brick twin, it had a small cement backyard patio that had been used exclusively for hanging laundry and storing trash cans.

The backyard had a very unusual problem. The cement patio was about 10 feet deep, and then there was a beautiful stone wall about 5 feet tall that sectioned off a larger, 25- by 30-foot grassy area above. This meant there was about 750 square feet of yard sitting 5 feet above the cement patio. The only way to access this area was to climb to the top of the stone wall.

For the first year (or three) that we lived in the house, we propped an old wooden ladder against the stone wall so that our children could play in the yard above. We had no idea how this bizarre circumstance came to be. We also hadn't figured out how to make it work. As it turned out, the cliches are true. Weird problems make for the most innovative design solutions.

Around this time, we were also working on a project in my old stomping grounds, the Hudson River Valley. Whenever possible, we always stop at Dia Beacon on our way there.

Dia collaborated with American artist Robert Irwin and architect OpenOffice to plan the museum building and its exterior setting. The grounds include an entrance court and parking lot with a grove of flowering fruit trees and a formal garden, both designed by Irwin.

The artist envisioned the museum as a "sequence of experiences," including riding the linear corridor of the Metro North railway up the Hudson River from Grand Central Station in New York City to the Beacon train station, an eight minute walk to Dia Beacon's parking lot. In what I perceive as a wink to Richard Serra, the parking area used rolled steel to delineate the planting and tree beds from the asphalt.

This inspired us to create stairs up to our larger yard using rolled steel to build long retaining walls to brace the earth on either side.

We welded cross pieces to the vertical retaining walls, which then became the risers of the steps. We poured the concrete, which became the step treads, and together, the concrete and steel cross pieces gave the walls strength enough to hold the earth on either side of the stairs.

The steps are wide, which allows them to double as stadium-type seating when we have garden parties, with ample room for potted plants all the way up. We replaced the grass with pea stone so that there would be enough permeable surface to meet the city's requirements and not create a waterfall down the stairs that would pool at the bottom.

The picnic table is made of steel I-beams with wood on top, anchored into the ground. This connects the benches to the table, letting us avoid the problem of the feet of outdoor chairs digging into the gravel.

Finally, we covered the existing concrete patio just outside our door with bluestone slate tiles.

A softly bubbling fountain from Primex in Glenside — where you'd find a fantastic selection of plants and everything you would ever need for gardening — was the perfect final touch. They also have a nice selection of stone fountains.

Primex is located at 435 W. Glenside Ave., Glenside, Pennsylvania 19038.

Val Nehez is the owner and principal designer at Studio IQL in East Falls. You can find her at and on Instagram at @studio_iql or @quickandlovely_design for smaller projects.