5 Tips for an Outdoor Remodel in NYC
An overview of how to start planning for your outdoor remodel
Sprucing up the out-of-doors
Whether your outdoor space is seasonal or livable all year-round, having an exterior spot to relax is an upgrade in lifestyle and property value. You may be wondering how to make the most out of a rooftop deck or an urban backyard. Preparing for an outdoor remodel has many moving parts—some projects more complex than others. We break down how to begin planning and share a timeline so your green space can be ready by summertime.
Decide on your outdoor space plan
Santi, the Sweeten general contractor who transformed K.V.’s backyard, shared the following advice with us: “Just like any other project around the house, I recommend taking some time to decide what your goal is” for your outdoor space. Will you be using the space primarily for dining, grilling, gardening, or play? Decide what you want to prioritize: functionality or ornamentation. If there are kids involved, that will be a determining factor.
Turning her attention to her brownstone’s backyard, K.V. knew she wanted to use the space to host friends and barbecues. She took inspiration from gardens in Mexico and Brazil, leaning toward a more tropical atmosphere. A tall cedar fence to provide privacy was a must-have.
Michelle and Nate remodeled their rooftop deck to double as a “bonus room” for hanging out. It was outfitted with comfortable seating and plants to make it feel cozy. However, the rooftop felt open and exposed, so a visual barrier of plantings was placed along the perimeter. The couple also brought in a fire pit for chilly, late-summer nights.
Be flexible with material choices
K.V. had her heart set on bluestone to create a walkway to the elevated patio in her backyard. “She had a budget she didn’t want to go over,” Santi said. “She asked us to price out bluestone, but it was a little too high, so we looked for other materials.” He added, “Homeowners should always price projects with different materials [because] changing the materials doesn’t mean changing the final goal or look of the design.”
In a surprise twist, they discovered bluestone buried under the dirt in the yard during demolition. K.V.’s backyard remodel paved the ground with gravel, pavers, and bluestone. While a budget might limit some choices, your contractor may be able to suggest alternative materials that fit the budget and achieve the look you want.
Choosing plants for color, texture, and to enhance privacy
We asked Justin, a horticulturist at Costa Farms, to fill us in on how to choose the right plants. “The first and most important thing is to get a realistic sense of your area’s growing conditions,” he said. “Consider the sun, moisture, and exposure to wind, and then pick plants that like or at least tolerate what your space has to offer.”
For those sunny spots, Justin recommends heat-loving tropical plants, such as hibiscus, mandevilla, and allamanda. In shady areas, birds of paradise and majesty palm are perfect for adding drama. Croton and colorful aglaonema provide a pop of color. If you choose plants that won’t survive the winter, keep them in a pot so you can bring them indoors when temperatures drop.
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Nate and Michelle turned to landscaping to soften their space. Their landscape designer proposed lavender and feather reed grass to frame the seating area and a Japanese Maple tree. Justin also suggests other tall plants, like arborvitae, columnar juniper, and yew for privacy.
In K.V.’s yard, Santi filled in the spotty grass with fresh sod to transform the lawn into a thick green carpet. He also added a row of mulch along one wall for a small but manageable garden. Potted plants fill out the patio and walkway, providing color and texture.
(Clockwise from left to right): Angelonia Archangel, Mandevilla, Ipomoea Spotlight Red (also known as sweet potato vine), Lantana Bandana Cherry. Photos: Costa Farms.
Choose low-maintenance plants and automated irrigation
According to Sweeten contractors, New Yorkers prefer outdoor spaces that are low maintenance. A landscape plan with a three-season oasis, automated irrigation in the morning, flowering shrubs during the day, and accent lights illuminating trees and fences at night would be ideal. If you find yourself unlucky in plant-love, Justin has some advice: “Coleus is a fun choice that thrives in sun or shade and has delightful, dramatically colored foliage you can enjoy from spring to frost.”
“Similarly, consider sweet potato vine: It spills down over the side of a planter, creating an elegant look. It also grows as a groundcover or can be trained to grow up a trellis or other structure,” Justin said. “Torenia, also called wishbone flower, is another option you can grow in sun or shade.” And if watering is your biggest concern, he advises planting mandevilla, lantana, angelonia, purslane, and evolvulus.
For the renovation, your landscape design should be set before demolition begins, said NYC-based Sweeten contractor Shenna. “The design will determine where plumbing and electrical lines are run, as well as the rough-in for the sprinkler system,” she said. “These are laid down right after demolition.” However, there’s time with final landscaping choices. They get planted around the last month or so of the project.
Plan your outdoor remodel in the off-season
If you are looking to remodel a green space, start planning and working in the off-season. For those not ready to plant or are just building up towards a green thumb, use the warm seasons to find inspiration, and plan during winter.
Here’s a typical timeline to guide you. Pro tip: Start the process early. Use the summer months prior to gather inspiration. In the fall, begin mapping out the design, landscaping, and materials with an architect/designer/contractor. “Planning, designing, and finalizing the fine details of the project can take months,” said Shenna. This gives the contractor enough time to work with the homeowner and/or designer to get all of the pieces in place.
By December, permits should be submitted, your contractor hired, and materials ordered (keep delivery times in mind). Demolition should break ground by March/April for an outdoor remodel. “The best time to physically start working on an outdoor space is in the spring.” said Shenna. “The weather makes it possible to get everything prepped and ready.”
(Above) Sweeten homeowners Jess and Henry renovated their Brooklyn backyard
Managing the outdoor remodel infrastructure
Sweeten contractor Mike, who is based in NYC said, “The scope of the project, the square footage of the outdoor space, and material delays” will affect how much time goes into the planning phase in advance. Depending on the complexity of the project, an outdoor remodel typically takes two months to finish. However, an outdoor kitchen that requires plumbing, gas, and electrical could take longer for approvals than a deck remodel.
With an outdoor space, there’s a lot more to consider, like drainage. Your general contractor should have an in-depth understanding of how bulk water will be managed and how your plans will impact the neighbors. If you’re working on a roof, make sure you have access points for clearing roof drains.
Organizing material delivery and approvals
Your team will also have to haul all of the materials to your outdoor space. Hauling roof deck lumber, soil, sod, and plant matter up through service elevators can be costly and time-consuming. An alternative is booming materials to the roof by crane. Contractors usually have partnerships with local greenhouses and lumber yards. They can move materials from the street to a garden more efficiently and cost-effectively than using a service elevator.
Finally, make sure you have the necessary approvals. Most exterior improvements will require an alteration agreement and approval from the building’s architect, and many will require filing with the city. If you live in a landmarked building, special regulations will apply.
Start and plan early with the right professionals onboard. A well-planned deck or garden can greatly increase the value of a property. It will be time and money well-spent. When you’re ready to get started on your outdoor remodel, work with Sweeten to renovate with the best contractors.
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