Making the Grade

One local couple and their team of landscape professionals found exciting ways to handle the elevation changes in their backyard.

By Megan Guthrie  |  Photography by Robin Stancliff

Lush plantings cascade down toward the pool.

When Steve and Laurel Brown set out to purchase their second home in 2009, they wanted an outdoor living experience. Looking at the canyon views surrounding their northside property, it is no surprise that their Midwestern friends and family are frequent guests to this Tucson abode — a property made for entertaining.

“People are truly blown away when they see the environment,” says Laurel. “Everyone says it feels like a private five-star resort.”

The property was so spectacular that Laurel’s brother held his wedding there. The elegant event surpassed many guests’ expectations. “We have hosted a few community organization fundraisers and parties, as well,” says Laurel.

The backyard wasn’t always this grand. Starting with a small patio area, overgrown landscaping, lack of shade, dirt slopes, and a pool and spa area in need of being reconfigured, Steve and Laurel knew they were embarking on a major landscape design project. “It looked like a big missed opportunity the way it was,” Laurel says. “All I thought about was changing it all!”

Magnificent mountain and desert views can be enjoyed from the home’s upper patios.

The couple enlisted the expertise of Michael Byrne, PLA, ASLA, Project Landscape Architect and co-owner of The WLB Group after being introduced by Anne Ferro and Bryan Durkin, real estate agents from Sotheby’s International Realty. “Michael presented ideas that were larger and more exciting than I originally visualized,” Laurel says.

Byrne, an expert in structural issues such as retaining walls and hardscape elements like steps, walls and building design, was interested in finding solutions to the grade changes throughout the original yard. Tens of thousands of yards of dirt were added to the property. Terraces were built, connected by steps, ramps and stairs to address the changes in elevation throughout the landscape.

Extending the interior design elements to the outdoors was integral to the overall design. Wooden planks were used for the flooring inside the house, so Laurel chose wood-look plank tiles in a pattern that intersected with stone. The interior and exterior flooring now appears to be continuous. This stone tile is one of many materials chosen for its durability and visual appeal.

“We wanted classic stone — something that would not look out of fashion in a few years,” Laurel says. “I selected materials that spoke to the colors and materials of the area. I wanted desert colors, and typical materials used in Arizona.”

As the owner of Brownhouse Design, an architecture and interior design firm, Laurel has an eye for aesthetics. Her favorite spot in the yard is the approximately 600-square-foot, newly constructed casita. For the roof, wooden beams from Wisconsin were selected (the same beams were used in the main house). Several reclaimed wooden pillars from the Middle East were placed at the entrance of the casita. Seven tin star chandeliers hang from the ceiling, inspired by light fixtures Laurel saw on a trip to Tubac. The casita features an outdoor kitchen, with a leather finish on the granite countertop and custom wooden cabinets. Six sconces, inlaid with semiprecious stones from Santa Fe, hang on the walls. The flooring is vein-cut travertine. A large wood-burning fireplace is situated next to an enclave holding stacks of mesquite firewood. Within this space, a built-in banco offers additional seating.

Décor elements include leather-finish granite countertops, custom cabinets, metal sconces, reclaimed wood doors and pillars from the Middle East.

“I love the wood-burning fireplace,” Laurel says. “We burn mesquite and love the aroma.”

Forms and geometry were thoughtfully considered for the residence. The pool and spa were reconfigured to display curved edges to complement the circular patterns found in the flooring, and the curved terraces above. There is a grade difference of approximately four feet between the terrace and the pool. A reconfigured water feature connects the pool and spa. Above the pool sits a metal fire urn with a gas jet center. When turned on at night, this showstopper casts a warm glow.

“A site that is more open and surrounded by nature, such as the Brown residence, calls for simple forms for which the surrounding natural world acts as a backdrop,” Byrne says. “The terraces and the pool seem almost to be jewels within an elaborate setting of very dramatic views.”

The vistas include an unobstructed view of the Santa Catalina Mountains. Within the yard, two saguaros were planted to add visual interest. Rosemary, lantana, plumbago, bougainvillea and Sprenger’s asparagus fill raised planters and cascade down the sides of walls.

There are six seating areas located on various terraces. A stainless steel outdoor barbecue and fountain provide a space to grill while listening to the soothing sound of flowing water.

To construct a level surface for socializing and circulation, drains were installed on the terraces. Additionally, planter walls constructed using split-face block define the elevation changes. Down lighting and step lighting fixtures illuminate the stairs, ramps and terraces during evening walks. The design process took six months, with construction requiring about a year due to the high level of site work in a hard-to-access space.

By the comments from both the homeowners and their visitors, it was time and money well spent.

“My midwestern friends and family cannot wait to put on shorts and get in a lounge chair by the side of our pool,” Laurel says. “We love gathering in the casita on the cool nights with a raging fire going. We are able to talk and share in a way we couldn’t do in a different type of space.”


Michael Byrne, PLA, ASLA | The WLB Group,

Brownhouse Design | 

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