Expanding Your Living Space: Going Outdoors

A Capitol Hill backyard landscape design by Derek Thomas creates space for entertaining by crafting a fun pattern of pavers for the patio base. Photo: Derek Thomas

One of the hot trends of the past year is expanding living spaces into our front- or backyards. It gained momentum after last year’s COVID protocols were put in place, encouraging socializing in outdoor areas. The National Association of Landscape Professionals noted that in 2020 creating multiuse all-season outdoor spaces was one of the top three trends. It is a smart upgrade that expands your house’s usable square footage. The options are limitless, and on Capitol Hill, where space is tight, residents are incredibly creative in their efforts.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency says Americans spend 90% of their time indoors. According to many health and environment studies, spending time outdoors can do wonders for your health, including decreased rates of cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Taking time away from your computer screens and indoor lighting also gives your eyes a chance to relax and reduces eyestrain. Scientific studies show that interacting with nature increases memory and cognitive skills. The National Institutes of Health has found that being in outdoor spaces helps reduce stress.

If these weren’t enough reasons, creating outdoor living spaces also tends to increase your home’s value. Allie Mann of Case Design Company writes that adding outdoor living space is outpacing the effort to add interior space. She is especially excited about all the design options now available for outdoor kitchens or living spaces. Whether you are the do-it-yourself type or would rather hire it out, now is a great time to plan, and here are some stories and tips to get you started.

Expanding Out Front
Ben and Barbi Kasoff moved to Capitol Hill two years ago, to the Lincoln Park Condominiums bordered by Massachusetts Avenue, 11th Street and East Capitol. They love being part of the urban scene. Barbi is a nationally recognized interior designer, currently working in the Detroit, Michigan, area. She splits her time between the Detroit suburbs and DC.

A choice of furniture can help define the outdoor spaces as seen in the Kasoff front yard gardens.

“I just love being part of the hustle and bustle of the Hill,” says Barbi, “and sitting out in our new patio area really is the best.” Ben says he likes being on an active corner and the public/private nature of their living area.

With approval from the condo board, they took a front yard that had been planted with liriope, commonly known as monkey grass, and turned it into two seating areas. Ben took on the weekend and after-work job of clearing out the plants and years of mulch, which had added eight inches to the garden in spots, making the yard very uneven. It took him many hours of hard work to get the space prepared for hired workers to come and lay the substructure before placing the flagstone and gravel.

“We wanted to have two separate sitting areas, where a fire pit might work in one, and the other space more formal,” says Barbi, adding that “by choosing different materials we were able to create different looks even in a small area.” Their hybrid DIY project only took a few weeks, and the Kasoffs couldn’t be happier with the added space.

Design with a Professional
Many of us on Capitol Hill do not have the time, skills and tools for converting our yards from unusable to entertaining space. Just getting started on such a project can be daunting. Unlike kitchen and bath remodels, where information on cost, design and materials are readily available, outdoor living space services are not as well known. Do you need a horticulturist, a landscape designer? Or will the local construction company be able to do the job? Trying to figure out a budget and what is reasonable to pay can be tricky.

As in any home improvement project, doing your homework can make a difference in transforming the backyard into a thing of beauty for years to come or a project that is the folly of the block.

There is a range of competition, from large companies like East Coast Landscape Design, one of the area’s leading landscape design companies, located in Montgomery County, to smaller companies like Thomas Landscapes, a full-service design firm led by Derek Thomas. Getting bids and estimates from a variety of companies is always a good idea, and is accepted practice by professionals.

Derek Thomas, a contributor to the Hill Rag and, for eight years, the host of the “Garden Spot” on local Fox 5, says he is always surprised how little knowledge many residents have about landscape and garden design.

First, he says, many potential clients are surprised at the cost of outdoor living spaces. Home Advisor says the national average cost of an outdoor living space project is about $7,670. Of course, many different factors come into play, but it definitely costs more than you might think.

Thomas adds it is important for the buyer to beware. He highly recommends researching the landscape architect and company before committing. He notes that community organizations like Moms on the Hill (MOTH) are a great resource for asking around about references and experiences. Advertisers to local papers, like the Hill Rag, also have experience in operating in your neighborhood, and are worth exploring. Unfortunately, YELP and some of the bigger internet sources are not as reliable as local sources, and he cautions against using them.

Thomas’s other advice is to think ahead and be clear about how you want to use the space. “Even the smallest of outdoor spaces can be designed to be beautiful and enjoyable,” he says. “You would be surprised at all the rooftop, terrace and side yard spaces we have been able to transform.”

Depending on the size and nature of an outdoor space, it may or may not require DC permits. If your property is in the designated historic zone, there are additional requirements. Thomas’s motto is, when in doubt, ask the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA). Some permits can be done online. Others require a few more steps.

All things considered, most Capitol Hill outdoor projects can be finished in three to four weeks. Many of the firms like Thomas Landscapes can be retained for maintenance of the yard after installation.

Spring is around the corner, so now is exactly the right time to dream and plan for expanding your Capitol Hill outdoor space. Whether you add an informal or formal outdoor space, a patio or a roof garden, the benefits will be well worth the investment.  Just imagine the enjoyment you will have in the warm days ahead.




Rindy O’Brien is enjoying seeing all the new outdoor spaces popping up on Capitol Hill and hopes there will be more to come. Contact: rindyobrien@gmail.com