American Society of Landscape Architects ASLA 2007 Professional Awards
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Detail of the stone parallelograms that comprise the path leading from the house's terrace back to the spa. The slabs are bisected by the steel track upon which the moveable deck slides through the garden. (Photo: Jeremy Harris Photography)

View of the garden from the house's second story. The middle zone is the most lush, with its bamboo grove and under plantings that give way to the calming austerity of the spa, shown here in its closed position. (Photo: Jeremy Harris Photography)

Spa cover on the move. Gliding effortlessly on steel tracks towards the terrace, the cover is shown in relief against the 14-foot fence with its knife-edge detail. (Photo: Jeremy Harris Photography)

The movable cover approaches its final destination. Adjacent to the spa, it offers a deck for sunbathing, reading, and waterside dining. (Photo: Jeremy Harris Photography)

In its closed position, the steel-and-ipe deck and the fixed steel plate fully conceal the spa, while assuming the sculptural character of a Donald Judd-like element within the garden. (Photo: Jeremy Harris Photography)

Detail of the delicate branches of the Japanese Snowdrop tree in winter. Embedded in Yosemite Tan decomposed granite, it draws the eye to the horizontal geometries of the fence and spa cover. (Photo: Jeremy Harris Photography)

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Erman Residence, San Francisco, California
Surfacedesign, Inc, San Francisco, California
client: Mark Erman

"Truly innovative. We love the landscape architect's ability to tackle a small space with warm materials and clever design and devices. Great ideas for urban living."

— 2007 Professional Awards Jury Comments

Project Statement

In the summer of 2005, the designers were commissioned by Mark Erman, an early-rising hedge-fund manager, to design a backyard for his newly built home in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco. Seeking to transform the fairly typical, 25-foot wide by 50-foot long rear space, the client, who lives alone in the bottom flat of the two-condo building, had only two programmatic requests: that the garden be easy to maintain, and that it contain a hot tub for unwinding at the end of the day.

At first glance, the lot's challenges were easier to spot than its potential. The developer had thoughtfully provided a carpet of sod (now gone to seed) and a water feature (broken). More daunting was that in order to maximize every square foot, he had dug the garden into the existing grade. Defined by a 14-foot retaining wall on the north side, a ten-foot wall to the west, and the house itself — a four-story elevation that fairly looms over the rear — the garden felt far smaller and more constrained than it actually was. Thus, the goal was to not simply insert a prefab spa within the existing landscape, but to find ways of creating movement and life in the garden and to provide opportunities for experiencing nature with carefully selected and placed plant materials.

In order to maximize the journey from the house to the spa, the designers began by organizing the garden into three primary zones. Immediately off the rear of the house a stone patio was expanded to create a place for outdoor dining that visually (and practically) extends the interior, which opens fully to the outdoors. From there one embarks along a path comprised of parallelogram-shaped stone slabs to the middle zone, a 20-foot tall grove of bamboo that has been under-planted with a dense carpet of mondo grass, an assortment of self-naturalizing spring flowering bulbs, and winter-blooming hellebores. This zone also acts as a delicate veil to the most secluded portion of the garden. Defined at its threshold by a diagonal Japanese boxwood hedge whose crisp edges mimic the geometry of the paving, the back of the yard contains the hot tub, which is flanked by three Japanese snowdrop trees that rise sculpturally from a field of decomposed granite.

With the inclusion of the hot tub, often considered something of an eyesore, the designers embraced the challenge of putting "banal" elements to new use. Encasing the prefab spa is an eight-foot square, steel-framed cover made of eco-sourced ipe wood, that appears almost to be inserted into the platform extending from the rear fence. When the tub is in use, this movable cover slides on tracks to become a waterside deck for sunbathing and toe dangling. It then zips along on stainless steel wheels forty feet through the garden and up to the terrace, where it doubles as a dining table — the literal interpretation of movement in the garden. Pausing in the middle, it becomes a three-dimensional frame for the plantings, which fit deftly within its volume. Even when the hot tub is uncovered, the steel plate that is fixed to its front continues to partially screen the spa from view while reflecting the tonality of dark fence.

Also imparting a sense of movement to the space is the side fence, which conceals the original concrete wall mass and its oppressive verticality while adding a feeling of craftsmanship to the generally austere space. Variously sized off-the-shelf redwood planks were stained black and intermittently canted inward — adding visual interest even as its inherent horizontal quality lengthens the appearance of the garden. As evening approaches, lights placed between the fence and the wall glow like lanterns through the gaps, casting interesting shadows and softly illuminating the space. An outdoor grill embedded in the fence in the front of the garden is used at al fresco gatherings in warmer months.

Through a series of budget-conscious interventions, the designers created a garden that met the programmatic requirements of the client within a verdant space that is as low maintenance as it is pleasurable — from winter, when the hellebores are in bloom, to summer, when the snowdrop trees are smothered in blossoms and rain their circular patterns of petals onto the ground.

Project Resources

Landscape Contractor:
5 Elements Design, Troy Martinez, Yohannes Skoda



The spa cover frames the clipped boxwood hedge, where it pauses mid-journey. The six stainless steel wheels, more commonly used for mechanized gates, roll easily along the 40-foot length of the inverted steel tracks. (Photo: Jeremy Harris Photography)

Front view of the spa cover framing the fixed steel plate that shields the hot tub and helps integrate it artistically into the composition of the garden. (Photo: Jeremy Harris Photography)

View from the bottom step of the staircase that leads down from the upper unit, revealing hellebores, mondo grass, cyclamen, iris, and the bamboo grove. (Photo: Jeremy Harris Photography)

Detail of Japanese Snowdrop in its deciduous state. In a few months hence, it will be smothered in white clouds of blossom, an altogether different contrast to the stained black fence. (Photo: Jeremy Harris Photography)

The boxwood hedges frame the entry to the third zone of sybaritic pleasure, which is softly illuminated by lights embedded between the fence and the original wall that it conceals. (Photo: Jeremy Harris Photography)

The view from the outdoor terrace as enjoyed by the client while taking his morning coffee. (Photo: Jeremy Harris Photography)

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