Some of the most interesting ideas can come out of difficult situations. This was the case with the Fulton, Maryland home of Faith Horowitz and Rick Speizman. The couple built their farmhouse on a four-acre parcel of a larger 60-acre family farm in rural Howard County, but soon discovered what was going to be the greatest challenge of using their home to its full potential: extreme grading.
“The house was built on a hill, and we wanted to have a step down front porch and a walk out basement that was fully exposed,” explains Speizman. “There were bulldozers moving dirt to accommodate the structure, and we were left with quite an incline.” Horowitz and Speizman had a wish list for their property, which included a pool, an area for outdoor entertaining, and a space with level ground for their daughter and her friends to play ball.While researching different ideas for their landscape, the couple began to think about Tuscany, and how the Tuscans overcome a steep landscape.
“When we thought about Tuscany, we thought of terracing, and having different levels as outdoor spaces,” says Horowitz. “We were also inspired by the work of John Brookes, the English landscape designer who presents a natural living environment rather than something very formal.”
So began the search for the right landscape architect to bring their vision to reality. “We wanted to find a designer who knew how to landscape a country home,” Speizman explains. “It needed to be someone who could make the location look natural and organic.” After looking at a number of firms in the Baltimore-Washington area, Horowitz and Speizman selected Mark Willard of Mark Willard & Associates, LLC, a Baltimore area landscape architect with over 25 years of experience in planning, urban design, and landscape architecture.
When Willard joined the project, Horowitz and Speizman had just finished decorating the home’s interior. “When I first saw the house, the landscape was in its raw form,” says Willard. “There was a gravel drive, and the front door looked out onto open farm land. The owners wanted the house to sit on the landscape naturally and comfortably, but at the start of the project, it looked forced.” Willard and the couple collaborated to create a plan that would incorporate a wish list (which included a pool and an outdoor cooking area, as well as an herb garden) with the natural terrain. “[Horowitz and Speizman] had explained that they appreciated the philosophy of landscape architects Oehme, van Sweden, and Associates, whose “New American Garden” style is based on combining the natural and the cultivated,” explains Willard. “With this in mind, we decided to dedicate a portion of the front property to a wild native grass prairie meadow. We had a seed mix of native plants created that would best suit the region.”Willard began the project by taking photos of the house from different vantage points, including the driveway, in order to see what the eye sees in terms of grading. “With the house being built into a hill, the front of the house showed two stories, and the back exposed three,” he says.
“In the front, the right side was at grade, but the left wasn’t.” Willard took the photos and created drawings on a transparency to overlap, using the concept of terracing to create three distinct levels on the property. With the planning in motion, Willard named this project “Countryside Villa,” as an ode to its Italian inspiration.
Next on board was the addition of the general contractor, Kirk W. Berry of Scapes General Contracting, LLC, and Baird Bailey, principal landscaper with Alpha Landscape Contractors, Inc., to implement Willard’s design.
While the initial design accommodated a pool, a pool house, an outdoor cooking and entertaining area, an herb garden, and other plantings, there was some evolution to this plan as the project started to develop. Instead of a dedicated pool house, the homeowners decided to have the changing room and bathroom incorporated into the lower level of their home, so Willard’s original plan for the pool location had to be adjusted as well.
From the first tier to the bottom tier, the incline is about a 12-foot drop. “From the pool area to the stream behind the house the drop is another 15 feet,” Willard says. Because the terraced design complicates drainage, throughout the landscape there is an irrigation system that also encourages moisture away from the house and keeps the tiers from getting soggy. “My goal was to take a complicated grading system and make it look uniform.” To accomplish this, Willard used stone called Pennsylvania Rubble for the walls and the stairs that frame the property. “We were able to match the chimney on the house very closely to the stone in the landscape.”
The first level has the only flat space for recreation activities. “Over the summer we put in a volleyball net for parties,” says Horowitz. “It is great to have a space with nice, flat land!” The top tier features a cherry laurel hedge and sun-loving perennials like rudbeckia, sedum, and beauty berry. “We included pachysandra along the walkway path, and liriope around the drive,” Willard explains. “The feature of the second level, which is reached through two sets of stone stairs, is the hornbeam trees and switch grass.”
Grasses are also a feature of the landscape of the last tier. “The bottom tier has feather reed grass and more sunny perennials including echinacea around the pool and patio area, says Willard. The lowest level also now includes the herb garden, which originally was located in the first tier. “The paving stones that lead down to the pool created a garden bed,” says Horowitz. “It was serendipitous because I now have my herbs near the outdoor cooking area.”
Though the process took time, Horowitz and Speizman are thrilled with the final product. “It is such an improvement,” explains Horowitz. “Our enjoyment of the property as a whole has greatly improved. The house now looks like its been there all along!”
Amy Feinstein is a frequent contributor for ChesapeakeHome.