Landscape Architecture Design Earth Works

December 11, 2007

Starving for a design exercise?

I am being a bad designer and making things up as I go along. I do have a pretty good idea of the direction I am going here. Still it never hurts to get some feedback, maybe some inspiration from fellow enthusiasts.

This is the patio in progress under my cabin. The lower retaining wall is a dry stacked stone wall. I am cutting into the hill beneath the cabin now for the upper retaining wall. The columns are stucco covered poured concrete.


What kind of wall should I build for the upper retaining wall? It needs to be about 46 inches tall from the floor level not including the footing.

What should I use for the floor of the patio?

The underneath of the posts and stairs for a 4 x 4Â back stoop and a 7Â x 14Â (the width of the cabin) front deck will be visible from the basement patio. What are some options to screen this from view when sitting on the patio? No stinking lattice.

The roofs drip line will fall directly in front of the columns. Gutters will obviously be needed. What are some options for drainage solutions with the downspouts?

Are there any other thoughts or ideas that jump out at you for this project?

Comments (34)

  • nandina

    I have just read through your blog looking for additional pictures, trying to figure out your 'head' plan and what you intend to accomplish. You are, of course, working on a dream that many design and build with one's own hands a cabin in the woods. I will not get in your way on this project except to say that the plentiful stone available is probably the most interesting way to continue.

    And...after studying pictures and what appears to be very loose, exposed soil conditions subject to erosion I am concerned about a gully washer undercutting the cabin in its present state. It might be a good idea to stretch out tree trunks, rocks or whatever is available on the upside of the construction to channel water away from and around the raw soil.

  • amili

    There is a small earthen berm above the cabin its full length to divert any water around the construction area, two installed catchment and drain lines along the upper drive opposite the cabin side. On the cabin side of the drive are channels cut into the hill to divert water before it gets to the bottom closer to the cabin. This side will have the electric and septic lines trenched in so permanent culverts and drains can't go in yet on that side.

    The columns the cabin sit on are connected underground in a continuous 8" x 16" steel reinforced concrete footing set into the natural soil of the natural slope below the bit of fill spread on top. The entire slope outside of the construction area has been seeded and has the baby fuzz of fescue grass sprouted back in September.

    It will take a rain of epic proportions to cause problems.


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  • ironbelly1

    I wish to insert a tangential departure from the main question of this thread because it affords an opportunity to do so.

    The side road I wish to travel is: "I am being a bad designer and making things up as I go along. I do have a pretty good idea of the direction I am going here." I submit that Amili's failure to commit his plan to paper is not necessarily an example of bad design but rather and example of poor communication. The lack of adequately conveying the concept contained in his head is evidenced by Nandinas comment: "I have just read through your blog looking for additional pictures, trying to figure out your 'head' plan and what you intend to accomplish."

    Setting aside formal, professional training in landscape design; I have two main beefs with the generally poor presentation of landscape design in adult education and/or far too many books on the subject.

    1. The misleading importance of color theory already thoroughly hashed-out on another thread.
    2. The unexplained "need" for scale drawings.

    The question of WHY you may or may not need detailed scale drawings is never explained. In virtually every series of design classes and/or books on design, the first two chapters invariably begin (because you are supposed to ???) with the above two topics. The instructional effort has already begun to spiral into the wasteland of missed opportunity.

    I have sat through too many classes where the first thing the instructor does is pull out a sheet of graph paper. The "sage advice" is then given that the first step of any design is to first construct a scale drawing. At this early stage of the class, I can look around the room full of laypersons and see a lot of mental switches being clicked to the off position. The intimidation factor of a detailed scaled drawing becomes insurmountable. If rendering a scaled drawing is the first requirement from laypeople who (number one) have absolutely no background or training in drafting and (number two) dont even have a design in their head (Ummm thats why they came to the class in the first place.) the student already has two strikes against them before they made it to the first classroom break.

    NEWS FLASH: The main purpose of a drawing is to convey the details, materials and spacing to other people typically subcontractors and other workers brought in to do the job.

    The question now arises: If a homeowner is going to do the work of their own design, what purpose does a scale drawing serve? In all honesty, for most homeowners the "requirement" of a scaled drawing on small projects only serves as the main obstacle preventing them from moving forward.

    To be sure, one should be organized and have a pretty good handle on what you are doing. On the other hand, some people have a mind that "thinks better on paper". As a generalization, the bigger the project the bigger the need for putting the plan to paper. However, it does not always need to be a scale drawing. Sometimes merely a sketch and/or bubble diagram will suffice. Conversely, if you find yourself in the situation of saying, "You know what I mean?"; the answer is effectively a very clear, "NO" put it down on paper the only clear way to communicate your thoughts to others.

    Detailed scale drawings are a valuable tool that professionals trained in drafting techniques can provide to the layperson. Pardon the pun but: Drawings make sure that everyone is on the same page. However, when "everyone" is only you, drawings may not always be required.


  • ironbelly1

    I *think* I see a problem with your retaining walls. While visually you are building two retaining walls, from an engineering standpoint, you are building only one.

    This is a common, mistaken assumption that all-you-gotta-do is divide a tall retaining wall into several shorter sections setback a short distance from each other. In reality, the mass of all the sections act as one unit. Much to the novice builder's surprise, the bottom section will often blow out.

    There are a tremendous amount of engineering variables which are soil and site specific. You really need to run this past someone knowledgeable in this area. There are ways to address this problem that are easily implemented to prevent problems rather than repair a pending, perhaps dangerous, disaster.


  • catkim

    I imagine if I show this thread to a very fastidious virgo architect I know, he will either let loose with a string of foul language formed as a question or a very brief caustic remark. He's overworked and stressed having spent the last month working 10 hours a day, 7 days a week to fix drawings of specifications for a building "drawn by 10-year-olds". If any of you wonder why your roof or windows leak, look at the detail drawings for your building. If the drawings show correct construction, hooray, lucky you. Then compare the actual construction to the drawings and see which steps the builder skipped or which materials they cheaped out on. The leak could be a fault in the drawing, or a fault in the builder's interpretation the drawing, willful or not. Either way, notice there is a drawing.

    It's kind of like cooking: throwing together a tasty stew is a loose exercise, and varying the ingredients, quantities, and timing doesn't prevent a tasty outcome. But baking an elaborate cake or souffle is a more exacting science requiring a certain order for combining ingredients and controlled temperatures and timing for success. So amili, is it a stew or a souffle?

  • wellspring


    I spent most of Monday reading your blog. True, there was an ice storm in my area, but you also write well. I know those mountains from living on the Kentucky side of the Appalachians, from family connections to Blacksburg and other parts of the blueridge, and from retreats to Black Mountain. Your stories paint pictures in my imagination.

    It was fun to stumble across DefiantDeziner aka Mich-In-Zonal-Denial. I came on board at GW about the time she departed, but her perspective always kept me laughing as well as learning.

    Since I'm not a professional designer or architect or landscape architect, not to mention that I can't see your pictures, I can offer little comment as to that. As for taking a break from committing plans to paper, something I'm guessing you know how to do, I feel like that could be very freeing. You know, let go of the usual process and let the beauty of time and place have its way with you. In my uninformed opinion I don't think there is much risk of your project coming to disasterI think it's more about the exhilarating toboggan ride you have given yourself to make in altering your design process.

    I also think I read that you have a general contractor living on the property. What do gc's do anyhow? No, seriously, I don't really know what their skill base is, so I am curious.

    I only have one other question. Chris or Christopher? My 16 year old son now prefers Chris.


  • amili

    Very interesting responses.

    I purposely did not communicate the design direction I am going in my head because I know what that is. I wanted other people's thoughts and did not want to color any of their ideas by stating ahead of time what I was thinking of doing. Fundamentally it is a patio, half under the cabin and half out in the open air. It is surely in the stew category, but built using cake and soufflé standards for the most part.

    The cabin itself is obviously on a drawing, got to have that for a building permit. The patio came to mind after the floor of the cabin was built and I was standing under there in the rain. Before I just assumed the space would be a storage dump of sorts. I might actually need a permit for the walls, perhaps I'll look in the NC Building code manual tonight. Both walls are under four feet. It depends on wall height among other things before code would apply most likely. Keep in mind this is rural NC not Marin County California. Things are different here.

    So I did not need a drawing for my stew walls because I am making them work with the site and did not seek a permit. If it turns out I need a permit, then Ill have to make a drawing most likely.

    I dont profess to know the engineering mechanics of your concern IB, but I can grasp the concept. I can just tell you that in total there will be four (three currently) linear parallel concrete steel reinforced footings, two for the walls and two for the columns that support the cabin. All of them are below grade and the frost line in the natural soil of the natural slope that existed before I graded the road and covered the slope with one to two feet of the excavated soil. The entire ancient hillside would have to go for this thing to move. The inspector would not have approved the cabin foundation if that was a concern.

    Perhaps laag will comment on engineering matters.

    Charlotte, my father is a retired building contractor; he built houses for a living from scratch and has taken a great interest in guiding me on this entire project.

    My given name Christopher over the years has seen numerous situational variations. Mostly people call me Chris. My online and legal paperwork name tends towards Christopher.

    I have included a picture to show how the cabin and patio relate to the natural soil and grade on site.



  • tibs

    The stone wall looks a little too straight up and thin, but that could be the angle of the shot. Shouldn't the wall be sloped back from the toe to the top?

  • amili

    He's been known to dish it out, but can he take it?

    My what a bunch of engineering worry warts.

    Fear not Tibs, the dry stacked stone wall has the proper batter, lean into the slope. The soil is covered by landscape fabric to prevent it from moving into the wall. The stones are backfilled with a half inch angular gravel between them and the landscape fabric. Some fine tuning with capstones will be done on the top. The wall does thin to about a 12" width from the wider base.

    Think aesthetics people.


  • tibs

    I am glad to hear that. After I posted I visited yuor web site and saw more pictures of the wall. Beautiful. I have just seen some awfully poor constructed walls done with disasterous results. Recenetly saw a wall that tappered from 10' high at the middle down to about 3' on the ends made only of interlocking concrete landscape block. And the hill behind it has the city resevoir on it so you know it was a BIG hill. The landwoners had bulldozed the toe of the hill to make more flat yard. The wall collapsed, fortunately not on their house.

  • laag

    I'm trying to figure out what this thread was originally about, but it is interesting judging by the participation(and fits what the forum is about per GW stated purpose).

    Amili wants me to chime in on the engineering. First, I'm not an engineer although I work in a CE office. Secondly, I have no idea of what is going on under the surface from those pictures. Having said that, if the footing for the piers and the wall are set as described I would not fear that the house is going to fail as long as the lower wall is not cut into the toe of the slope. If it is cut in, there would be more concern as the columns would be adding a surcharge to the lower wall. But Chris seems to be saying that is not the case.

    As for the concern of the upper tiered wall (not yet built) surcharging the lower wall, it looks like a non-issue. The standard that separates tiered walls as independent walls is generally regarded as being a horizontal distance of one and a half times the height of the lower wall. That is measured from the back of the lower wall to the toe of the upper wall. That appears to be much farther back than that.

    The construction of any dry stacked retaining wall is always a concern. The use of fabric to separate the soil from the drain rock might be more of a problem than a remedy or not. Sometimes it acts as a dam and builds hydrostatic pressure that blows out the wall. The mechanism that this type of wall is supposed to use is mass vs. the force against it. This is called a gravity wall. The fabric has potential to add to the force against the wall rather than adding mass to the wall.

    A gravity wall has to act like a single unit of mass against the pressure acting on it. If it does that you are all set. If it it does not, it will fail.

    One trick you or someone else reading this might want to try in the future for a fill wall like this is to build mass to do the retaining and then face it with stacked rocks. Then the rock only has to be able to hold itself from falling over rather than keeping back the pressure of the fill.

    Years ago when I actually built some dry retaining walls, I sometimes built what I called a burito wall. I took fabric like what Chris used behind his wall. Instead of using it to separate soil from drain rock, we laid it out a few feet perpendicular to the wall, put 6" of fill over it, folded it back over the fill, added another layer of soil, folded it back over, ... you get the idea. In the end you have a very large mass tied up that cost next to nothing and is going nowhere. Then we stacked a dry veneer of stone in front of it.

    The original post seems to be about selecting materials. I don't think anyone is in better touch with the aesthetic than Amili himself. Run with it.

    One of the tangents on this thread is about the use of scaled plans. I think that some of you are overlooking a very important thing. When done correctly, they prove things out before you build them. You might not need to prove that a 4'rhododendron fits between your walk and your wall, but in most cases you can go from having a general idea to having a quantifiable idea. You find problems and solutions before you get into trouble. Communication is the second reason to have a plan. Proving things out is the first.

  • ironbelly1

    In all fairness to Amili, I think it is best if I respond to Laag on a new thread that I shall title: "Drawings ... yes or no?"


  • bahia

    As to input on selection of materials, as was requested, it would be helpful to have a better idea of site orientation and intended use. Best paving materials for a shaded north side might be quite different those for a south exposure, and the budget for the materials would also be important to know. It is also a bit deceptive as to what the scale of this patio is, the first photos made it appear rather narrow between the columns and outer wall, and too small for a useful patio layout to accomodate seating or a table. Aesthetically, it might have been better to have a larger width outwards of the columns, or more space behind the columns, rather than as is. This would allow furniture to be more usefully placed out of traffic flows, and not be cut off by the columns, particularly if the space is intended to be used for groups of people.

    As to materials, the rustic nature of the site might accomodate gravel, bark mulch, decomposed granite, random flagstone, etc. Screening of the underpinnings could be accomplished by plantings of shade tolerant ferns, shrubs and ground covers.

    My first thought was about the location of the new terrace. It didn't appear to be the most logical place for a patio/terrace tucked under the house, and might just as easily have been located to the side of the house as underneath it. Unless there is a real reason to utilize the space underneath the house for a useable terrace, I would have been more inclined to plant this area and locate a terrace to the side, and use the area above the lower wall for planting and a pathway to the other side. The idea of looking up at the underpinnings of a house and those rather closely spaced columns seems a poor choice to me for a place I would want to linger in.

  • amili

    The dimensions of the patio are 14' wide by 35' feet long. Five feet behind the columns, nine feet in front. There is six feet between the columns. The height to the floor girder is 6'11". It has a sunny southwest exposure protected from the wind. The floor above will be insulated and covered creating a flat ceiling. The view looks out over a small valley, part of my future gardens.

    Doing a patio partially under the cabin gives me a free roof and utilizes an otherwise awkward or useless space. It also doubles the living space of the small cabin without taking up more land, involving more constuction of building decks on a slope and uses free natural materials on site. The one drawback at this point is access from the kitchen to patio is not very direct, stairs will be involved. Maybe I'll need a trapdoor or dumb waiter.

    The columns themselves are a striking architectural detail that many people would pay big bucks to have faux ones placed in their patios and terraces. Detailing them in some manner from their current raw state is no problem.

    This shot will give you an idea of the larger site.


  • nandina

    Sorry, but I have to the cabin base (floor) level? May just be the angle from which the picture was taken which makes it appear canted downward a bit towards the right.

  • amili

    If I was going to live in a cabin that leaned in some direction it would be to the left.

    It is straight and true, perfectly rectangular and level and significantly more solid than most post and pier constuction that would put a cabin like this on 4" x 4" posts on pre-cast concrete footing blocks.

    The ground beneath it is not level and slopes down to the left and down from the foreground to background. Finding straight and level in this environment can be a true task that takes lots of cipherin.


  • bahia

    I still think it might have made for a more useful space if the column spacing had been adjusted from the beginning to leave a larger opening at some part of the patio, to give it better flow. Six feet clear between columns seems more like an obstacle course than a space that was intentionally designed for active or passive use. Your specific use of this space may mesh well with the layout, but if this was being designed for a generic client, the points I bring up should probably have been considered before the project was built.

  • laag

    We have to remember that this patio was an after thought on a design that was not proved out on paper but only a vision in the mind of Amili. The columns wee not designed with the patio in mind. You can't fault him for not anticipating the use of this space because he is in the Ironbelly school of not needing a plan.

    If he went to the other school of thought, would he subject to criticism of poor or incomplete planning? Would he have addressed the lower slope with a retaining wall done in the same manner? Would he have tried a few other ways to site the house that might have lent itself to such a patio but with better access and usability?

    Plans develop from original vision, but often morph into something quite different as additional issues emerge in the process. These issues can be discovered opportunities like the terrace patio or they can be something like needing more room to park or turn around a car. You just don't know until you try to complete the job on paper.

    Amili is stuck with the slope and those columns for better or worse. I'm sure he will do the best to make it work as good as he can and that it will be good. But, more thorough planning may have made it better, or less expensive in terms of labor and materials.

  • amili

    The patio was indeed an after thought. The columns were drawn planned and designed to support the cabin above on the sloping ground of the site.

    It is a bit harder for you guys when you do not know all the variables of the site and future "drawn" plans, things like where will a 1500ft2 house go in the future, the septic tank and drain fields, gas tanks, electric lines, getting a driveway in, property lines, the actual topography of the site with running stream on the other side of the steep narrow ridge that the cabin sits off to one side of. A utility easement that runs through the site. This is not a place where you come in and bulldoze out a nice flat suburban yard if you have any respect for the 'aina. The cabin is sited in the best possible location given all the constraints.

    Frankly Bahia I am a bit surprised with you. Living in a big city with houses on tiny narrow steep lots I would think you would be used to design challenges like this. Stairs in your world are often standard necessity between unique spaces. Surely you have run into incorporating main support structures for houses into the garden in your work.

    The space itself is meant for the use of the sole occupant and occasional company, it is not a fund raising patio at the Met. A couple of cafe style table and chairs will be more than adequate. The flow will flow, the linger in the evening sunset will be sublime.


  • amili

    What we have here is a failure of imagination.

    Its like Im in a bowling alley. Yall keep rolling gutter balls trying to knock my cabin off the mountain.

    There used to be a time when someone came here and asked "What should I do here?" and all kinds of ideas, many unwanted, were hurled at peoples projects. By now I should have been told about cement, brick, stone and interlocking pavers for the patio floor. An arbor, trellis or pergola would have been suggested for building over the patio, with vines of course. Where are my vines? The upper wall could be more stone or CMU in a multitude of choices. An endless list of shrubs and plants would have been suggested to hide the bottom of the decks. Decorative rain barrels could capture the roof runoff or an elaborate drain system installed under the floor. A creative soul might have said to incorporate some of the boulders into the patio floor in a mini Zen garden and dry stream bed. And pink flowers. Where are my pink flowers?

    I guess things change.


  • ironbelly1

    Well, I don't think things have changed that much at all, Amili. What you are more accurately confronting is a general confusion resulting from insufficient information.

    Communication can be a tough nut to crack. I am confident that you know exactly what you are seeking to accomplish and what you are trying to convey. However, if you were to ask that ever-so-trite question: "You know what I mean?"; I believe my honest answer would largely be: "I don't have a clue."

    I am quite familiar with the area you are building in -- I believe just outside of Asheville, North Carolina -- truly one of my most favorite and prettiest areas of the USA. I *think* I have a pretty good idea of what you are doing; which is really not all that unusual in that hill-country part of world. As you say, "Keep in mind this is rural NC not Marin County California. Things are different here."

    One thing that is not different there is the difficulty of conveying one's conceptual ideas on the printed page (electronic as it may be). This is precisely why I maintain that the main purpose of a drawing is communication. Give us a few sketches. (Some people just draw one out on paper, take a photo of the sketch and then post the photo.) I think it will do wonders for the participation on this thread.

    Photos always help. However, if you review many of the posted comments, many times the angle from which photos are taken presents a distortion of reality. In additon, photography often skews spatial relationships.

    Professor Emeritus
    The IronBelly International Correspondence School of Not Needing A Plan

    PS: Dont worry about Laag. He is currently suspended from my school. ;-)

  • bahia

    No where in any of my comments on your design have I failed to address your questions and requests for comments and suggestions. I realize that this area was an after thought for you, but the comment on column spacing as it affects the use is the sort of critique you would be getting on this design if you presented it in a design studio. I also think the majority of people would find it less than desireable to create a main terrace/patio that was sort of cramped by the column layout and was visually dominated by the underpinnings of your structure. I did prompt you with questions about dimensions and exposure that would need to be addressed before you could get relevant comments on how to pave the area. Your additional comments on how you intend to use the area has now addressed my comment on spacial use and amount of people.

    It would be rather pointless for me to comment on specific plants in your application, as I am much more comfortable commenting on what works in a California zone 9/10 climate, or a tropical or desert climate, as these are more familiar to me from the experience of designing and living in such climates.

    I don't think you need to get huffy when you solicit opinions, and they don't agree with your ideas, but take them for what they are, and use them or at least consider them if they have any applications. My comments about the lack of prior planning for use of this patio when designing the terrace may be helpful to someone else considering the same application; if you had designed the support columns to give a larger span, and had the terrace located so that the area was less equally divided between covered and exposed, it would have "looked" better in my opinion.

    Best use of this covered area is very much linked to your needs and local climate. A shaded area with direct access from the house would probably be alot more usable than this one, particularly if you will now have to negotiate lots of stairs when schlepping barbecue supplies, drinks, etc if you intend to entertain in this area. There is a reason that downslope lots in urban California rely so heavily on cantilevered decks off the main living areas; they are more directly linked to the kitchen, have easier access, and often require less disturbance to slopes, trees, less grading and erosion control measures, etc.

    I am currently also working on a steep down slope lot where I designed two cantilevered decks off the two storys of living area. I made a conscious decision to make the one at the top floor off the kitchen as a smaller independent deck without any supports to the ground below, so views from the lower floor were not obstructed by posts or stairs. I designed the lower terrace as much larger, with a built-in ornamental pool, tiled benches, and built to embrace the one mature live oak that also extends to the terrace above. As the small fairly level yard below is limited in size, and requires a lot of stairs to get down to it, I designed it mostly as a viewing garden from above. The one incentive I used to generate use of the lowest part of the garden was to locate a jacuzzi at the foot of the curving stairs down to the lower garden.

    Not to detract from your post, but my reply addresses how I don't lack for thoughts on how to deal with this sort of steep lot and lots of stairs, but in my case I chose to work with the builder to address how a potential buyer of this spec home would likely want to use the garden, and prioritized maintaining views at each level over the convenience of outdoor access from each level to the other. I sized the terraces as purposely large, (the bottom terrace is 20 feet across by 14 feet deep), with lots of built in seating and planters and a solid tiled floor so it would feel more substantial, and also captures the views and sun more effectively than the ground level lower garden does.

    I wouldn't have felt comfortable designing this garden without lots of initial studies and varied concepts considered, and proposed and rejected at least 4 other schemes before settling on the one that is getting built. So I can empathize with the complexity of your site and how many variables need to be considered to have a design come together. I am fortunate in my case to be working with a very talented contractor/owner/builder that simplifies my design plans, because I don't have to structurally detail everything, but instead am very comfortable with just giving design intent drawings, suggestions on materials and finishes, and live close enough to the job site that construction problems/discrepancies which arise can easily be adjusted on-site after a quick phone call.

    You might also find that you get more specific advice on planting, materials, etc. if you break this question up into specific smaller portions. It would also have been helpful to have included the subsequent context photos up front, instead of doling them out a crumb at a time. Also understand that if you ask for feedback, you will also be getting viewpoints that don't always support your ideas. I wouldn't take them as personal criticisms, especially when we don't actually know you or your site, nor do we have all the information that you do.

    I wish you good luck with the project as it unfolds, but my best advice would be to spend a little more time exploring ramifications of your design, or thinking through the possible uses of areas before you build them. Specifically, I would have addressed proposed circulation and access/stairs before breaking ground. I probably would have set that terrace and retaining wall forward/outside of the columns,(as well as less high above the ground, as that retaining wall looks to need a railing to feel visually secure if paving extends out to the wall), and built your secondary wall just outside of the columns to create a shaded planting slope/storage area below this structure. If your terrace then needed shading, a trellis or arbor extending out from the structure could have been designed, and possibly even have contained a balcony at the main floor level. If you have the room to do so, it may also be possible to swing a widely curving ramp to get to this terrace, rather than lots of stairs immediately adjacent the structure. You would need to balance the expedience of shorter access against the possible positive trait of less stairs. Just my two cents worth...

  • wellspring

    Keeping in mind that my input is totally unencumbered by reason, how about this

    In the area under the cabin create a seating "ecke"--corner booth arrangement favored by Bavarians and Austrians. Don't know if this works with the columns and view, but it is a definite space saver. If it were me, I'd want to be able to land a plant or pot that need attention on something. So I'd probably clutter up the other covered corner with a counter top work area built at the height that works for a long-legged girl like myself. I'd want electricity for the one absolute essential necessity of lifecoffee.

    The two things you forgotthe obligatory blue artisan bowl and hanging baskets. Fill those with pink wave petunias and you're set.


  • catkim

    Going back to the original questions..(cough)..if you have enough rocks laying around for the second retaining wall, be consistent with the materials and continue with the dry stacked stone if that is practical, or reinforced behind the face of stone, if needed. This will give you a lovely cavern feel; be sure to include stone ledges for candles, maybe dig in a very small wine cellar behind some very solid-looking doors? Line it with brick? I've always wanted a wine cellar, fully stocked, of course. Stash your brunellos and malbecs, a case of 2000 Bordeaux and some Aussie Penfolds Grange in the cool earth-scented closet. Plant a rangy David Austin rose to tumble down the slope from the lower retaining wall. But not pink. Red or yellow. Red.

    Okay, now the patio surface. Go with softly rust-stained poured concrete with that rock salt finish they do, embellished with impressions of leaves from your nearby forest trees, and a few cat paw prints. Wrap the columns in birch or other tree bark, and mount with platyceriums. Tuck a pair of distressed leather club chairs under the overhang to slouch in while sampling vino from your closet cellar and admiring the fading light of day, and add a few rustic painted wood stools/benches/tables to be moved about at will for various useful purposes. In a shady spot, pose one large ceramic planter filled to bursting with some lush green ferns, and plop some clear glass mason jars filled with water and white wildflowers gathered that morning on some of the aforementioned wood stools/benches/tables, maybe a few leaves pressed under them. Cat in lap. Dungarees rakishly rolled up just above ankles. Call magazine photographer to record the rapture.

  • amili


    I knew you guys had it in you. Thankyou Bahia, Charlotte and CatKim.


  • amili

    A work in progress. I still think a picture is worth a thousand words even if I lean slightly askew when I take them. More soil still needs to come out on the right side of the first column for the back retaining wall. It may not end up being too shabby for an after thought.


  • louisianagal

    So glad I stuck out reading this thread. Reading this forum is an intellectual exercise, with quite a few talented writers and humorists. I thought the comment about "left leaning" was very clever! But, I'm glad we finally got to the lovely and picturesque suggestions. Really, I'm a plain dirt gardener and I'm thinking it might be time to consider revising this forum. It's called "landscape design" and also "garden design" when you select it. Just as a simple way of looking at it, LA would be for the pros to discuss their scale drawings vs no drawings or color theory etc. And the GA forum would be for the gal with the country house that needs curb appeal to ask for suggestions. I like the latter, but I would still read the former, because it is informative and intellectually stimulating. P.S. You must have a place for a fire. Has someone mentioned that yet?

  • laag

    At the risk of being bannished, bashed, or labelled as a spoiler, I would be very hesitant to build any patio on top of that wall for safety reasons.

    If you really want a patio for people to sit on and add ammenities it really needs to be structurally sound. You asked for my opinion directly and I gave it to you based on the information that you gave me. As you said, a picture is worth a thousand words. That wall is clearly not on a solid footing (might have concrete under it but the stones are not solid near the bottom) and very crudely fit together. It might not fail, but the consequences of personal injury is very high should it fail.

    Its one thing to use a wall like this to neaten up the site and add a nicer aesthetic with a consequence of having fill and rocks rolling down the hill. It is a whole different story when you add a person or persons to the rocks and fill rolling down the hill.

    If you really want to have the patio, you really should have a structurally sound wall. This is precisely why a wall over 48" requires a structural engineer in most states. Some require structural engineers for shorter walls. It has nothing to do with whether they are part of the building or not. It is because of the risk of personal injury if such a wall fails whether it is next to a house, below a patio, or next to a path in the woods.

    If some teenagers go there when your not around and that wall lets go for whatever reason, you'll be in trouble. Its like having a couple of beers and driving home, you might be alright, but if someone else hits you you are toast.

  • amili

    I have thought about incorporating a fire pit into the patio floor, but because I have not drawn this plan on paper it keeps floating out of my head plan like a puff of smoke. It may be too that I am waffling on that idea any way.

    You see in three to five years I hope to build a small house and the cabin will become the guest quarters. I have drawn several initial designs of the house and the basic siting of it is determined. Once those plans are finalized the house and cabin will be connected by another fully open air deck or stone patio that will indeed have a fire pit. This future patio will also connect to the basement patio of the cabin. Mostly though it is all still in my head plan.

    I have seen some nice fire pit pottery that may suffice for the basement patio of the cabin instead of building one in.

    I loved the idea of a widely curving ramp to get to this lower patio and the idea of built in seats and/or shelves in the upper wall. I have even thought of a root celler built into the back wall. It was amazing how cold the stones felt when I was digging them out yesterday and we have been very warm for the last week. I suppose some wine could go in there too for company.

    There will certainly be electricity down here which means a small refrigerator built into a countertop work space might eliminate some trips up to the kitchen.

    A large space is being utilized and turned into something useful. The fundamental structure and placement was determined and now some of the detailing is being worked out in the build/dream process.


  • amili

    laag the wall is 44" tall, three feet eight inches, under the requirement of 48" for a "design" in this state. That may not mean it does not need to be inspected and pemitted. It sits on a 4" thick x 12" wide steel reinforced concrete footing. It is a double row of stones averaging 18" in width. There are keystones wider than the wall that project into the hill at the 2 and 1/2 foot level evenly spaced along the length of the wall. It is back filled with gravel and landscape fabric covers the soil to prevent the soil from entering the wall and causing freeze/thaw movement. Water can drain through, around and under the wall. It has the proper batter for a dry stacked stone retaining wall as described in a book by a local stone mason with two decades of experience. Each stone was placed so that its weight/gravity leaned into the hill.

    The soil at the bottom of the wall is uneven from being a path used to build the wall and has splashed on the lower stones discoloring them looking perhaps like a bad footing to you.

    Yep it could all fall down like any thing working against gravity and if it does I will have to find out about another standard method to build a solid dry stacked stone retaining wall and rebuild it better and stronger.


  • amili

    Maybe this will comfort you a bit laag. Here are the remnants of a crudely built wall, built on this land a long time ago. I do not really know when. This new retaining wall for the patio really only needs to outlast me.



  • bahia

    I've got to say that I agree with Laag that this wall doesn't look like it was built for stability, and a 4 inch slab for the footing is way too thin to serve its purpose.

  • amili

    Well when it falls down I will be sure to return and post about my misfortune and stupidity. Like you said Bahia someone else who comes along and reads this will learn a lot about how to or how not to build a dry stacked stone retaining wall.

    The standard depth of a footing for a one story house in the NC Residential Building Code is 6". I think 4" is plenty for my short little wall that bears no top load.


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