People often come to me with a rough idea of what they want but they're not sure how to put it in words. Pictures help a lot; when a customer points to something and says, "Make it look like that" I immediately know what he's talking about. What's harder is when someone wants to change their property, but needs a bit of extra guidance. I've always got plenty of ideas but at the end of the day, customers have to live with it. If I can inspire them they'll get more involved in planning their hardscapes and make them a lot more satisfied with the end product.
One way to get the ball rolling is to talk about particular design elements. If a customer really likes one, it turns into the center of the whole project. If you're looking for a starting point like this, consider the following five hardscaping elements:
Vertical focal points: If you have enough room, consider a vertical hardscape feature. Depending on what you go for these can offer shade, privacy and a way to unify the entire space's composition. People tend to look at vertical elements first, so arranging everything else around it gives you a way to guide a visitor's eyes. Examples include archways, decorative walls and rough stone piles. You can also build around a natural vertical feature like a tree.
Space divisions: Always remember that hardscapes are outdoor living spaces. People want to be able to sit comfortably, without feeling exposed or getting baked by the sun. Even when you want a big open space there should still be a nice little nook suitable for reading. Use screens, raised planters, walls and fences but be careful, because you want a sense of flow and unity with the rest of the area. If you divide the space too strongly it'll look like a stockade.
Grade adjustments: Some slopes are cool. They provide natural support for water features and flagstone stairs and give you a high place from which to enjoy the view. On the other hand, it's no fun to constantly have your stuff roll into a ditch because your backyard is just a big hill. To get the best of both worlds, level off part of the natural slope and support it with an attractive retaining wall. If you've got a serious incline, turn it into several flat levels. You can even add some stairs to go from place to place, or a water feature to unify all sections.
Complementary and contrasting textures:I touched on this a little bit in my last post on stone carving and engraving. The natural environment (which in Washington, can be almost anything) and previous landscaping determine the base texture. As a general rule, trimmed grass, terraces and other heavily landscaped features complement smooth or obviously man-made hardscaping elements like brick, tile and concrete. Natural-looking features go with rough stone. This is a decent guideline, but you can get as much out of breaking it as following it. A rough decorative wall bordering a brick patio or a concrete slab for a sitting space in a wild-looking garden both provide dramatic contrasts. They attract the eye to the distinct elements in each feature.
Color and light: These related concepts are always a big deal. For a cool space, the ideal combination is shade and a light tone. The tone reflects heat but the shade prevents glare. Darker colors work well when it's not as warm and on a cloudy day, they don't take on the dreary quality of the light. It'd be great if we could change a hardscape's color whenever the weather shifted but the reality is that you've got to make a choice. My advice is to pick one and then use all kinds of tricks to minimize the drawbacks when the weather isn't optimal. Use light-toned flowers and patio furniture to take the edge from dark tones in the summer. In cloudy seasons, light colored patios can do with a splash of warm color. Use earth tones from nearby natural stone to heat things up.