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Colossus Mfg. founders Kele Dobrinski and Christina Valencia’s latest reno started with small talk. “I’ve literally never been in my backyard,” the designer couple’s then-acquaintance (now client) Lauren told Valencia when they met at a party. “I was like, what do you mean? Sacramento has about 300 days of sunshine a year,” recalls Valencia. Lauren proceeded to explain how there was no reason for her family to hang out there: It was a muddy, unwelcoming mess. “That’s how we came over to look at it, and I thought, okay, I get it,’’ says Valencia. They sprung into action. 

After figuring out a solution for the massive drainage issues (Dobrinski and Valencia had the ground leveled with lots of dirt to draw rainwater away from the house), the vision for the outdoor revamp quickly evolved from carving out a dining area to adding a pool and turning the old dilapidated garage into a play/work/guest house. “Because our summers are really hot, if you’re going to invest in anything in your backyard, that’s essential,” says Valencia. Here’s how they took the space from unusable to the envy of the neighborhood.

Line It Up

ugly old garage
black pool house

While Valencia and Dobrinski begin every project with a well-thought-out design plan, they know nothing is set in stone until the construction actually starts—and this reno was no exception. The pair originally intended for the pool’s steps to face the front of the backyard, but once their team started digging, they realized the sewer lines ran right under their proposed placement. 

“It required some on-the-fly creative thinking,” says Valencia. They ended up having to flip the layout, all while ensuring there was enough space along the pool’s edge for lounge chairs and that it would be perfectly centered with the soon-to-be pool house structure. “We felt like it was pretty powerful to have those two things connected,” says the designer. 

Go Beyond Towel Storage

The garage was basically a blank canvas with a broken cement floor, plywood walls…“and nothing else,” Valencia recalls. While the designers only had 200 square feet or so to work with, it was just enough to turn the empty shell into the ultimate flex space. For hot pool days, they opted for a sofa bed swathed in water-resistant fabric (so little ones can climb up on it in their wet swimsuits worry-free) and a mini wine fridge. There’s also a built-in desk for Lauren, who was desperate for her own home office (there isn’t a spare one inside the main house). 

Open Sesame, Without Breaking the Bank

The family took a leap of faith when Valencia and Dobrinski suggested painting the formerly taupe-gray garage all black. “We felt really strongly it would tie everything together,” explains Valencia. The dramatic hue, Iron Ore by Sherwin-Williams, did just the trick, complementing the other high-contrast elements in the backyard, like the bed of white roses and the wrought-iron fence (custom designed by Dobrinski). 

Potted pineapple guava trees frame both sides of the new glass door—the feature Valencia considers to be their biggest save from the whole project. The initial idea was to make the entrance opening the same width as the pool steps (12 feet); that way they would match perfectly. But as it turns out, an accordion door that large would have to be custom made and would cost anywhere from $12,000 to $18,000. So instead they compromised on a few inches and went with an off-the-shelf model from HD Supply that was 10 feet wide and only cost around $5,000. “It’s a smaller opening, but it let us maintain the accordion style that we were looking for at a price that fit the budget,” Valencia says of the swap. 

Plan for the Future

shady sitting area
white brick pillars

A bit of online research into tile patterns from the 1920s led the designers to the check-like pattern on the pool steps, which is made out of inexpensive square tiles. “There’s something that’s really beautiful about being timeless,” says Valencia. She applied the same thinking when choosing the coping for the edge. “If you’re going to invest in putting in a pool and brickwork, make it something that can live on for the next 50 years,” she adds.