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Part 1: Renovation Diary, backyard edition

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Embracing the luxury of personal outdoor space in New York City—on a real-world budget

The yard’s rear border is the back of a neighbor’s garage, which has unsightly asphalt shingles. An off-center bump-out creates asymmetry.

Outdoor space in a dense city is a preposterous and wonderful thing. Preposterous, because we might as well be accounting for square inches in New York City; wonderful, because even a tiny terrace offers a mental health break.

The luxury of outdoor space provides us a chance to declare the kind of person we want to be—someone who hosts languorous dinner parties in dimming light; who lounges on a hammock with a book; who tends to pleasingly wild gardens; or grows one’s own meals.

Then reality strikes, even for those blessed with the outdoor space. Non-optional indoor things, like a functioning toilet and kitchen, must be first on the home improvement priorities list, draining you of both budget and will. At least that’s what happened to us after our whole-house renovation ended last summer.

And when it comes to permitting and other red tape, bureaucracy lives outdoors too, as we learned when we asked about adding a door and a staircase to the backyard from the first floor, instead of just from the basement.

A view from the rear of the yard, facing the back facade of the house. The backyard is 18.5-feet wide and about 40-feet long. For now, the backyard can only be accessed via the basement, though the owners primarily live on the first floor.

Then there are the logistical challenges: We live in a row house, which means everything must be dragged up, through, and down the house. And anything we plant has to survive uncertain New York weather, and the incontrovertible fact that, so far, we’ve had trouble keeping succulents alive. Last but not least, all the costs of carefully crafting the perfect backyard can really add up—and for use only a few mosquito-plagued months a year. No wonder so few outdoor spaces live up to their potential.

And yet. When everything comes together, a backyard in the city is like a tiny piece of vacation every day, and without the schlep. This year, we are determined to make it all come together.

Here’s what we have working in our favor: The yard is basically a blank slate, except for some nice bluestone pavers that came with the house and that, we have learned, normally cost around $10/square foot. Apart from some Jurassic Park-level weed growth, not much clearing is required.

Rocks and weeds line the yard’s perimeter, where the homeowners intend to build planters and seed grass. They “aren’t crazy about the white vinyl fence, [but] it gets the job done.”

Unfortunately, those pavers are lurching in all directions and probably need to be relaid, which turns out to be a lot more complicated and expensive than it sounds. Our yard’s western border is the ugly rear wall of the neighbor’s garage, with crumbling asphalt-shingles and an off-center bump-out creating asymmetry. The concrete stretch abutting the house is cracked and uneven. True, the white plastic fence that came with our house doesn’t need replacing, which is great for our budget, but damn is it uninspiring.

First things first: first-floor access to the backyard. Last summer, we did fine heading outside through the basement art studio and passing things from the kitchen out the window, but it would make life a lot easier to go directly. We’ve already commissioned drawings for a door and staircase from our architect, Otto Ruano of LEAD Studios. Here’s what he came up with, using a Sierra Pacific custom aluminum-clad door.

A rendering from Otto Ruano of LEAD Studios shows a proposed custom metal staircase with cedar treads. To save a few hundred dollars, the homeowners decided to go with an all-metal stair design.

This rendering shows cedar treads, but we saved a few hundred dollars off the quote by switching to all metal. Total quote from CNS, the contracting company that did the interior of our house: $10,500. (Otto’s fee is fifteen percent of final construction costs.)

Then came the fun part: permitting. Having tangoed with the Department of Buildings to redo our plumbing and move some interior walls, we figured swapping a window with a door and adding some stairs would be open and shut. Ha.

It turns out the permitting costs were nearly equivalent to the ones we incurred with our whole-house project: arranging for asbestos testing for the window being taken out ($645; it had none); paying an expeditor to file the permits for us ($1,300; no one I describe this to in any other city can believe expediting is legal, let alone all-but-required); filing fees to the DOB ($188), which in turn required us to file a land survey (I still don’t get it, but we narrowly escaped having to hire a surveyor when Otto filed some old maps); and a special structural and masonry inspection the DOB required at the eleventh hour ( another $500). We gritted our teeth and hoped it would all wrap up in time for the one week our contractor had available in June.

Having jumped through those logistical hoops, we could turn our attention to planning how we actually wanted to use the space. We grill a lot and like to have people over, so we want to set up a comfortable prepping, grilling, and dining area. We already have an Ikea clearance-floor dining set.

But what about a prep area, when every outdoor cart seems to cost more than an actual grill? Should we spring for a full-sized grill or stick with the petite portable gas one from our rental days, when we weren’t allowed to keep it out overnight?

What we haven’t had is a true lounge area. Somewhere we could laze around and read, or even take our work out there. Ideally, we’d add a sectional so we could both lay out, or entertain a group of friends. And we want to create shade so we can enjoy the space on those hot weekend afternoons, before the mosquitos come out.

Though the owners like the bluestone pavers, they’ve become uneven over time—and may need to be relaid.

We have our eyes on this Home Depot pergola, which is both streamlined and affordable, and that has a built-in trellis that would block the ugly garage wall. Otto came up with the brilliant idea of combining two side by side at the rear of the yard, since, as it happens, each one is 9 feet wide, and our backyard is about 18.5 feet wide.

We need to add lighting in each of the zones, but not the kind that would require an electrician, which would ramp up the budget quite a bit. (Right now, we have a single outdoor outlet and a flood light on the back wall of the house.) We’re looking at string lights along the pergola and the fence, but will that be enough for the grill and dining area?

We’re wondering, too, about covering the cracked sidewalk with pea gravel or, maybe, marble chips. That area gets shade in the morning, so we’ve decided to set up a small seating area there for morning coffee, scoring a nice black iron set on Craigslist for only $150. We might also remove bluestones and fill them with gravel and maybe plants.

Plants are the unexplored terrain for us. We want to add greenery without committing to something unrealistic, so we don’t spend a ton only to have to start over next year. We plan to consult with some gardeners to help get our bearings. (The wild look of Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf: attainable?). Real talk: We don’t even have an outdoor hose yet. We’re researching DIY plant boxes; Otto has volunteered some cedar salvaged from a deck he replaced with bluestone. We’ve got our work cut out for us.