Part 1: Renovation Diary, Backyard Edition

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.

Projected budget

$10,500 to CNS contracting, including installation of a new door over existing window opening; removal of bricks under window sill as needed for new door; installation; the door itself; and fabrication and installation of a custom metal staircase.

$188 Filing fees to department of buildings

$1,300 to J.A. Expediting to file the forms

$645 to H.A. Bader for asbestos testing

$500 for structural/masonry inspection

$12,866 Total construction and permitting for door and staircase:

~$1,929 Architect fee (15 percent of the above total)

Rough budget for hardscaping and accessories:


Plant budget:


Source :

Part 1: Renovation Diary, backyard edition
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