Get Inspired by these DIY projects that transform a 625 SF backyard into an urban outdoor retreat

  • Megan Douglas
  • 05/8/21

Small-scale projects net a huge transformation in this young family's tiny townhouse backyard, providing the at-home lifestyle of their dreams. Urban living is wonderful for all of its conveniences but sometimes the outdoor space feels a little tight.  By making it feel planned, purposeful and useful this couple made the most of their urban yard. I found their transformation inspiring. 

Brittany Goldwyn Merth's happy place? Her own backyard. Despite living in a townhome development where shared walls and neighbors within literal reach might make privacy seem unattainable. Brittany and her husband, Mike Merth, have made their 25x25-foot space into a mini retreat just beyond their Frederick, Maryland, back door. 

With the help of Brittany's dad (a professional contractor), the couple created a whole lot of something out of nothing. "One of the first orders of business right when we moved in [in 2016] was building the second-story deck because there was just a sliding door to nowhere," she says. But that left an uneven patch of grass and mud below. So in the spring of 2018, Brittany, the blogger behind By Brittany Goldwyn, got to work designing a space worthy of spending time with her hubby and then-infant daughter, Ramona. The entire project included installing fencing around the couple's small plot and building an 8x12-foot deck at ground level, below the existing upper-level deck. Brittany built furnishings for the space and even a slatted screen to hide the air-conditioning unit.

The result? Paradise. "We spend a lot of time out here," she says, "whether it's just hanging out after work or on the weekends or with a glass of wine after Ramona goes to bed." The outdoor living addition came at an opportune time. "I've also been spending a lot of time out on the deck since I've been working from home," Brittany says. "It's been a really nice change of pace from my makeshift office inside!"

"DIY is a great way to go because most outdoor furniture pieces don't cater to smaller spaces," Brittany says. With limited floor space for furnishings and her beloved plants, she turned to vertical options. "We hung painted clay pots along our deck posts to make more space for high-sun herbs and flowers," she says. "And I have at least seven hooks for hanging baskets and one plant that vines up a corner deck post. This helps fill in the space with greenery."

Brittany's terra-cotta pots (spray-painted satin black) hang on deck posts with "these amazing things called pot clips," she says. Watering is easy because each pot drains into the next, saving water and effort.

Brittany wanted an easy-to-maintain space to "bring my houseplants for the summer, hang out after work, and let our daughter play," she says. When she looked for inspiration, the internet did not deliver. "A lot of the design ideas were for much larger spaces and wouldn't work scaled down to our backyard," she says. "Because of this, a lot of things were trial and error." She hopes her blog will "show people that you can create a beautiful, functional space even if you can't hire a professional landscaper or don't have a big yard."

String lights hung from the rafters of the upper-level deck give the lower living space a magical quality after the sun sets. "I love how it feels at night when you plug in the hanging lights and sit on the deck surrounded by plants pretending like you aren't also surrounded by other houses!" she says.

Brittany furnished the space with retail finds—seating from an end-of-season sale at Target and an outdoor rug atop the gray composite decking. Blanche, one of the family felines, is a fan"Our cats are indoor kitties, but we let them come out onto the deck with us while we are out there so they can sniff around, chase flies, and sunbathe," Brittany says.

On Brittany's list of must-haves for the deck was "a place to relax comfortably—even though we couldn't fit a sectional," she says. Instead, she scored a love seat and a pair of chairs, small-scale pieces that fit the 8x12-foot deck without overwhelming it, partly due to their open-weave sides that allow light to pass through.

Brittany made the matching coffee table and side tables. "I designed them with 2x2 pine for the bases and 12x12-inch concrete pavers for the tops," she says. "I needed a really slim coffee table to fit the space. The pavers were cheaper and easier than pouring a concrete top." The tables, she says, are small and narrow, "but they have been enough for us in the space," functioning as a surface for drinks and snacks, a plant stand, an ottoman, and extra seating when needed.

Brittany's coffee table is a simple box build topped with three concrete pavers. She finished the base using Varathane wood stain in Kona ($9, The Home Depot) and Minwax Helmsman spar urethane in satin ($17, Lowe's). "I decided not to seal the pavers so they act as coasters when you set a drink on them," she says.

Brittany built the L-shape screen that masks the air-conditioning unit beside the deck using 2x4s as vertical posts and 1x4s as slats. The screen, stained to match the tables she built, sits on pavers rather than being anchored to the ground or fixed to the house. "We can easily slide it out of the way if we need to access the unit," she says. Surrounded by plants, it hides in plain sight. Visit Brittany's blog for step-by-step instructions on building the screen and the tables.

Composite deck boards promise to retain their finish and not show wear from weather as wood does. To keep the area around the deck free of weeds, "Mike and I dug up grass and laid landscaping fabric and a simple black landscape edging to create a nice clean border," Brittany says. "I filled this with a pretty river rock that we got from a local nursery. I also added some basic concrete stepping-stones in a few sunny spots where I wanted to put potted plants." Rock landscaping around the deck and AC compressor makes it all super low maintenance—no mowing, weed whacking, or treating required.

pair of DIY raised beds (approximately 11 inches deep, 81 inches long, and 35 inches wide) produce cherry tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, and peppers in one sunny corner of the backyard. "I love plants and really want to instill that in my daughter as well," Brittany says, "so I love taking her out there to 'help' me plant, water, and pick things from the garden." 

The shed was Mike's project, Brittany says. "It's 6 feet tall and sits on a simple platform we made by fastening into the fence. It's just big enough to store the things we need for the yard," she says. Brittany loved the Behr opaque stain and sealer used on the shed so much that she used it on furniture the couple made for 3-year-old Ramona.

Brittany says her space continues to grow with new projects and ideas. "We've changed things as our needs have evolved—like removing the baby swing and building a pebble play box for Ramona and removing the outdoor curtains and replacing them with roller solar shades when our budget allowed."

Source: Better Homes & Garden

Are you looking for your own urban place to call home? Megan Douglas, Colorado Realtor would be happy to show you your options.  There are several townhomes like the one in this Better Homes & Garden article in both Denver and Boulder.  Get in touch here to talk about the options for your next move. 

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