IF THE BUILDING FACADE IS THE FACE OF A HOME, then the landscaping is its crowning glory. Just as a handsome woman makes a more memorable first impression if her tresses are healthy, colorful, and cleverly styled, an attractive house that is flattered by its yard has considerably more curb appeal.
A stunning example is the 1920s bungalow on a narrow 4,000-square-foot lot in Brookline that architect David Amory and his wife, designer Sukie Amory, have called home since 1989. For "relatively little money," they transformed the boxy little house into a charmer with so much curb appeal it literally stops traffic.
Before Sukie, a passionate gardener, put spade to soil, she and David made some minor physical changes to the house, which immediately made the place more welcoming.
"Small things can make a big difference," says Sarah Susanka, who included the Amory house and garden in the new book she co-wrote with Vermont landscape architect Julie Moir Messervy, Outside the Not So Big House (The Taunton Press, 2006), the fifth in a series by Susanka that focuses on quality over size of homes.
For the Amorys, the small things included replacing concrete steps that led to the front door with an inviting sheltered wooden entry. They then added a picket fence at the front of the property and painted it forest green to match the house's new entry and trim. Along with a brick front walk and carefully laid footpaths, it all serves to frame the sunny cottage garden of peonies, delphiniums, and billowing lady's mantle that Sukie Amory has created where the front lawn used to be. "The garden does take tending," she says, but "I'm so attached to it, the thought of moving tears my heart out."
With space at a premium, she uses vines rather than trees or shrubs to soften the outlines of the house. Akebia and clematis are trained on galvanized steel wires attached to the building by screw-in bolts. Each summer, intertwined blue Pearl d'Azure clematis and climbing pink New Dawn roses explode with complementary blooms along a narrow strip planted by the driveway.
With the publication in 1998 of The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live, Susanka launched a revolt against cavernous McMansions that continues to gain adherents. Among her biggest fans are fellow architects frustrated by clients who measure quality in square feet. The more personalized houses Susanka champions are built for enjoyment and comfort rather than status. And while some are downright understated, they are not necessarily less expensive, the idea being that homeowners invest in better design and materials rather than space they don't need.
A perfect example is the Martha's Vineyard vacation home that architect Mark Hutker of Vineyard Haven and Falmouth designed for a New Jersey family. Included in the Susanka-Messervy book, it is a house that could have been less modest. When searching for the "sweet spot" in which to set the building, Hutker had 20 acres from which to choose. And yet the one story cedar-shingled complex has a deliberately recessive appearance, like a series of stoic farm buildings from an Andrew Wyeth painting. Hutker calls it "stealth architecture," noting it is a house that is all about the landscape - which can be viewed from every room.
The garden design by Falmouth landscape architect Kris Horiuchi creates a sense of place and purpose right from the edge of the property. It enhances the feeling of arriving in another world, distant from the hectic day-to-day life of its owners. The house and its garden offer a respite after a long and difficult journey. "You fight traffic on Route 3, and then you get to the ferry and things start to slow down," says Messervy. That feeling of retreat continues in the approach to the house along a meandering driveway that Horiuchi cut through the woods and terminated in a gravel parking court. The driveway is divided from the house by a stone wall, a physical sign that the vehicular journey is complete.
The final approach continues on foot along an irregular path of native fieldstones that leads not to the pilasters of a formal front door but to a nook recessed between building wings under a humble lead-coated copper roof. "If 20 years from now, this house looks like a farmer built it and put up that sheet of copper to shelter friends at the front door," says Hutker, "that would be great."
Creating a garden that invites.
* Make the front door a destination and the approach a journey. Plan points of focus (such as a sculpture or a birdbath) to add intrigue along the walkway or from the street.
* Plant evergreens and other elements that keep their interest in the winter, so that the house will look "dressed up" even when trees are bare and the flowers are gone.
* A front door that opens onto a window with a backyard view instead of a dark hallway offers an inviting surprise to guests, welcoming them with a sense of expanded possibilities.
* Create a sequence of distinct spaces and experiences between the curb and the front door, such as a gated fence opening onto a winding stone or brick path that leads past a lawn, through a garden, and into an enclosed porch.
* Repeat materials and paint colors to create unity. For example, echo picket fencing and architectural accents with wooden front steps and paint them all the same color.
* Extend the presence of the home beyond the structure with fencing or hedges. Stone pillars or a rose-trimmed arch over a front gate can add drama and anticipation.
* Note the slope of the front yard and work with changes of grade to make the path to the front door less direct and more interesting.
MORE NOT SO BIG
Soon after publishing her first Not So Big House book in 1998, Sarah Susanka started a website, www.notsobighouse.com, where architects, builders, and homeowners who share her philosophy can find one another.
"A book is just a book," says Susanka," while a book with a website is a tree that can live on."
Susanka, Julie Moir Messervy, coauthor of Outside the Not So Big House, and Marc Vassallo, coauthor of Inside the Not So Big House, will make a presentation to trade professionals at Residential Design 2006, Seaport World Trade Center, April 5, at 10:30 a.m. Messervy will give a presentation to the public on "The Landscape of Home," April 5 at 6:30 p.m. For more information, visit www.buildbostonresidential.com or call 800-544-1898.
Carol Stocker is the author of The Boston Globe Illustrated New England Gardening Almanac (Triumph Books, 2006). She can be reached at email@example.com