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Eco-modernism: An Ecological Approach to Mid-Century Modern in Denver

If you live in a mid-Century home or you are a fan of mid-century modern homes you may have asked yourself, "What do I do with the landscape?" There is a good reason you are asking this question. While there are established design principles of mid-century modern architecture, there are no established design principles for these landscapes. The general idea was always that the landscape should in some way reflect the architectural design principle of bringing the outside in. Historically, most landscape designs for mid-mod homes can be grouped into three areas of focus: expanses of sod with evergreen shrubs, Japanese garden inspired, and Palm Springs cacti/succulent inspired. Traditionally, most mid-mod landscapes come from these notions either because of their locality or because mid-mod inspired homes tend to have an Asian aesthetic to some homeowners. So if you are wondering, "What do I do with my mid-mod Denver landscape," we're here to guide you through a set of 8 design principles that we have developed through our work with these amazing homes. 

The Traditional Sod and Shrub Approach

The Traditional Sod and Shrub Approach

Principle 1 - Honor the Architecture

Mid-century modern homes are beautiful works of art, and therefore, the landscapes we install should accentuate, frame and put the home on a pedestal rather than covering it up. This is especially true with side of the home that faces the street as well as the approach to the front door in most cases. Our landscapes should be a gentle soft caress that envelopes and loves the home, but that doesn't get all the attention. When we approach the home it should be intuitive but subtle. We cannot stress enough the importance of subtlety.

Principle 2 - Structured Form

This hearkens back to principle one in a number of ways but remains distinctly different. With this principle we seek to adopt and adapt the geometry of the home and its architecture to inform the geometry of the outdoor spaces we create. We always try to maintain the patterns (e.g. square or rectilinear pavers, breeze-block walls, gravel ground coatings) we traditionally associate with mid-century design when and where appropriate to maintain the design intent and the desires of the homeowner. This serves to link the design to the past while providing a form-work to do something new. We also use form to break the space up into different levels of intimacy; a space for a large informal gathering, a space for a quiet dinner, of a space for an intimate conversation with an old friend as a few examples. This creates an abundance of positive outdoor space, interest and flexible usability. We want to write a beautiful poem not put up a billboard!

Structured Form in Plan View

Structured Form in Plan View

Principle 3 - Functionality as Equal to Form

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Not only should it accomplish its goals of beauty, proportion and scale through form, but it should perform its functional duties as well. This principle often gets overlooked. Water should drain correctly, the retaining wall shouldn't fall down and the driveway should be wide enough for the homeowner to get out of their car. This all seems like a given, but a lot of time it isn't. This relates to an ecological approach in a number of ways. Its always more ecologically sensitive to do something once. We can also use methods, such as passive rainwater harvesting, to deal with some of the challenges we face; in this case drainage. If we design the forms in such a way as to accomplish the function at the same time we are building fewer elements, spending less money and making fewer ecological impacts.

Principle 4 - Stick to Modern

STICK TO MODERN! This principle is an easy one. No French or English gardens, no extremely wild naturalistic plantings, no overabundance of meaningless curves. Stick to the geometry, the clean lines, the ordered chaos of modern plantings. By no means does this equate to linear plantings of ornamental grasses everywhere. What it does mean is that the spaces we create, the materials we use and the plantings we design should reflect the greater ideals of modernism and draw inspiration from the architecture. Naturalistic plantings aren't out of question and I would argue are in some instances absolutely necessary but they should be ordered to maintain a modernist sensibility. Let the home inform the choices we make.

Principle 5 -Bringing the Outside in and the Inside Out

This principle we lifted straight out of the mid-century modern architecture playbook. But, instead of just bringing the outside in we want to bring the inside out as well. Our focus here, as designers, is to make the landscape an extension of the owner's personality, aspirations, hobbies and interests in the same way a home does. Functionally, this could translate into how we incorporate a rock climbing boulder into the backyard or how we incorporate an art space or vegetable garden. Modernism does not equate to minimalism and we should still allow ourselves to have fun creating a life outside our home that works for US. Check out our blog on designing for lifestyle for more on this. There is also a functional piece to this principle that revolves around how and why our home connects physically to the outdoor environment. This junction  of uses, spaces and experiences should never be overlooked. 

Principle 6 - Use Native and Adapted Xeric (low-water) Plantings

We tend to use a plant palette consisting of 85% native plants with the other 15% consisting primarily of adapted xeric plantings. There are a vast array of often overlooked native plants that just so happen to be exceptionally suited to the environment in which we are planting them. We have never come across a situation in which design intent could not be accomplished with the use of native plants. Not only can they be beautiful, but native plants are a good approach, ecologically, for a number of reasons. Native plants provide habitat, tend to have lower water requirements, some are edible or medicinal, they are better adapted to pests and diseases, need less fertilizer, and they support local nurserymen and growers. When combined with adapted xeric specimen plantings you end up with a four-season plantscape that responsibly fulfills our design intentions. Check out our blog on why using native plants in your landscape is a great idea here.


Hardness and Softness in Action

Hardness and Softness in Action


Principle 7 - Hardness and Softness

Juxtaposition is the word of the day with this principle. Our focus here is to maintain the geometry and the crispness of line (hardness) while softening the landscape, giving it motion and connecting it to its surrounding ecosystem (softness). This hits on our last principle a little bit. A lot of times we use a native grass mixture for the front lawn rather than so that we create habitat, reduce water use, bring in the native ecosystem, give the landscape movement and bring about that juxtaposition that gives the landscape some life and visual interest. This principle can be applied to hardscape to hardscape connections, hardscape to plant connections and any other situation in which two or more materials come together at a junction. 

Principle 8 - Ecologically Sourced Materials

We always try to source our materials based on the following criteria: geographically as close to the project site as possible, long-lasting and with as little maintenance over time as possible, the lowest amount of embodied energy as possible, re-used or recycled when appropriate, and materials or products that accomplish a specific ecological function even if they come from farther away. Basically, we try to refrain from huge amounts of concrete, using tropical hardwoods or shipping things from China when we could get something comparable here in Denver. Sometimes we use materials such as steel, with a higher embodied energy, but we use it sparingly in situations that require durability over time and lower maintenance. Its really about achieving a responsible balance.

Dustin WrightComment