Real Estate

A great room outside

Rethinking backyard space expands livable area

At one side of the large backyard in west Menlo Park, various gathering spaces suit family and guests. Different elevation levels define the connected spaces. Photo by Dennis Mayer.

A lot of thought went into creating the new home in West Menlo Park that Hilke and Martin Risau purchased in 2013. But the backyard, with its formal fireplace, pillars flanking the hot tub and a low wall dividing up the space, just didn't work for the family of five.

"The main goal was to create an outdoor living space," architect Helena Barrios Vincent said. The more than 10,000-square-foot lot had plenty of room for a play structure and grass for the three children to enjoy. That was untouched.

Nor was the flagstone patio that extends from the family room. But the walls, pillars and huge fireplace ("not very inviting," Barrios Vincent said) were removed.

Instead, Barrios Vincent created various levels that are separate, yet integrated, spaces. "It creates a dynamic visual. As you come out, you see the different heights," she said. The hot tub now sits at the level of the new ipe deck.

Today, a horizontal planked redwood fence forms a backdrop to the space, with three "interruptions ... an optical break from the wood," noted Hilke Risau. A whimsical sign, "Draussen nur Kannchen" — roughly "outside only jugs," reminiscent of a German tea garden — welcomes the family to drop down on the sofa upholstered with outdoor fabric, or to settle on the bank of pillows before the fire pit a level down.

A canvas canopy is tautly strung between three corten (steel that rusts) poles and an oak tree. "We left as much as possible," Barrios Vincent said, and the only mature tree to go was an apple that broke up the space.

The only down side is a gathering of leaves on the canopy from the shedding trees, but those could be power washed off about once a year.

Color was kept to a minimum, with layers of green in planters near the fence and touches of royal purple in a couple of princess plants and a variety of smaller flowers in planters.

Designing the backyard was a "very collaborative process" between the owners, especially Martin Risau, and the architect, Barrios Vincent said. He was the one who came up with the "interruptions" in the back fence, and he is "quite proud that the eye of a visitor searches for those interruptions, and it does not look like a wall," Hilke said.

By reducing the size of the original planters, a visual barrier was eliminated between the seating area and the landscape. A teak dining table and chairs sit in the middle of the yard, shaded by a large umbrella and lit at night by a string of bulbs.

An outdoor kitchen with bar seating was refaced to coordinate with the redwood fence.

"Apart from yellow jackets, wasps, I'd have every meal out here," Hilke said. "It's an extra room. ... I like when we eat here, then the kids can go to play, and we're all together."

Freelance writer Carol Blitzer can be emailed at

Goal: Maximize functionality of the backyard by creating different gathering spaces

Size of lot: 10,125 square feet

Budget: About $50,000

Resources: Architect: Helena Barrios Vincent, 650-996-3669,

Contractor: John Ericsson, 408-221-0208

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