How to Maximize a Hilly San Francisco Backyard: A Winding Wood Staircase
At the top is a hammock for lazy lunch breaks.
Published Sep 2, 2022 1:01 AM
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Unlike many San Franciscans during lockdown in 2020, this couple, an artist and a therapist, couldn’t simply start checking off their work to-do lists from the dining room table. Longing to stretch beyond the four walls of their Victorian home, the duo called upon local landscaping firm OR.CA’s principal designer, Molly Sedlacek, to transform their steep and inaccessible backyard into a space that’s equally productive as it is relaxing—starting with finally building stairs safe enough for their young daughter to climb.
Chose One Material and Run With it
Keeping in mind both the constantly changing climate and the fact that this is the couple’s forever home, Sedlacek opted for accoya to clad the decking and staircase instead of the more common ipe. “It is just more sustainably harvested,” she explains—the process uses fast-growing, abundant pine trees and doesn’t add any chemicals into the wood. “The owners loved the bold graining so much we decided to place it everywhere.” The material is also used as fencing around the yard’s perimeter. The seating for the firepit in the back, however, is made of locally sourced redwood beams, a nod to a nearby national park.
Carve Your Own Path
Due to the naturally hilly terrain of the city’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, the previous owners had carved out a heavy, concrete retaining wall (to separate the steepest part of the hill) just a few feet from the back door, blocking off the rest of the outdoor space unless you were brave enough to climb a set of rickety steps to reach a green space above. “They were so unsafe to climb,” Sedlacek explains.
OR.CA got to work “contouring” the slope, carving out planters, seating areas, and even a shady spot for a hammock (ideal for a lunchtime nap) at various levels. The new stairs aren’t simply in a straight line to the top. Instead they wind through the slope. “By not having a direct path, the plants can intersect and slow you down,” she says. “I like to have the garden unfold while you meander; it’s more relaxing.”
Un-standardize the Storage Shed
Crafted from ebonized cedar shingles (chosen for its smell as well as its durability) with an entirely plastered interior, the workshed was top of the couple’s wish list in order to create a true separation of home and work. But this isn’t your typical storage spot—it may be an art studio now, but the interior is a blank slate, ready to be a guest bedroom later on or even a playhouse down the road.
Mindful of maintenance and water restrictions, the team focused on wild grasses instead of traditional sod for the family’s favorite area: a clear patch of land in the middle, beside the shed. Local varieties, like steel blue Canyon Prince rye grass and wispy no-mow fescue, were a must. “San Francisco is really special in that you have the cool, coastal temperatures, but you get all-day sunshine,” Sedlacek says. But OR.CA also chose plants from Australia (like sunshine yellow knife-leaf acacia and textured feltleaf kalanchoe), where there’s a surprisingly similar climate. “When you mix these kinds of aromatics, the yard becomes a natural incense,” she notes.