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Southwest Specialties

By Jenny Boyle, regional editor











Boulders from the site were physically moved to create the fire pit and surrounding rock gardens, significantly saving material and/or removal costs. The tri-level waterfall was built with both existing boulders and some imported Catalina rock and the entire patio area was paved with flagstone at the request of the client.


Whether it's a modern or classic southwestern style clients desire, this design/build team rises to the challenge of creating custom desert hardscapes.

Paul Connolly has always liked creating beautiful spaces for people to enjoy. In fact, he had his own design/build company years ago. When he decided that running the business left him little time to do what he really enjoyed, he gave it up and joined the design/build team at Sonoran Gardens, Inc. Through his work with the company, he has created many unique "backyard paradises" for residents in and around Tucson. Here, we take a look at three of his favorites.

Tri-Level Treasure

The owners of this southwestern home wanted their expansive backyard to be a place for entertaining. Connolly was lucky enough to work on the landscape of the home before it was built and his participation made all the difference in the finished design. "I got to have input on the driveway, the perimeter walls and the elevation of the pool," he says. "We had a clean slate."

The client had requested a lot of paving for their entertainment purposes and they really liked flagstone, so Connolly used their suggestions in the hardscape. The backyard had a natural slope, and he was able to work with that to create three different levels. "We didn't want it to look bland when it was just the two of them out there," he says. "The elevation allowed us to create subspaces."






Workers use a backhoe to move around soil and carry concrete blocks for this stackable wall. The company tries to be environmentally responsible by eliminating waste and utilizing on-site materials whenever possible. With the contemporary home, they were able to take soil from the back and create berms in the front yard--saving the cost of having to get the excess soil hauled away.


When construction began on the backyard, the perimeter wall was built slightly different than the plan specified, so the team accommodated by modifying the perimeter wall. They also had to build around the access point that the homebuilder had set for the driveway. "That always kind of happens," says Connolly. "Sometimes it's hard to work around stuff, but it wasn't really a problem in this case."

There were also issues with the drainage that had to be addressed. "The builder had day-lighted the down spouts and had run them through the patio columns," says Connolly. "They were at a certain elevation that would have put too much water coming out on top of the patio."

The team remedied the situation by lowering the down spouts so that the water came out underneath the new patio area. "It was nice that we were involved in that stage," he says. "Otherwise we would have been stuck having to address the potential drainage problem after the fact."






The company works with a range of retaining wall styles depending on the type of design. For landscapes with a southwestern feel, they build walls with CMU blocks and then cover them with stucco and paint. More traditional designs, like the wall pictured here, require a simpler stackable wall.


The three levels of the backyard have a spa at the top-most level. Behind the spa is a rock water feature that flows into the spa, and the overflow from the spa continues underneath the upper level patio and then reemerges into the next waterfall that spills into the pool. The entire backyard is dotted with boulders and existing saguaro.

"All the boulders used came from the site," says Connolly. "It's a lot of physical labor to place those where you want them, but the homeowner doesn't have to pay for the cost of the material, or pay to haul them away. We try to do that a lot on our projects. I always try to be environmentally responsive."

Contemporary Quarters

Though Sonoran Gardens is known for creating mainly southwestern-themed landscapes, Connolly always enjoys the opportunity to work on something more modern. A job for a client who wanted an outdoor fireplace and kitchen gave him just that. "This was a fun one," he says, of the project that had him taking some risks.

The owners had purchased the two-year-old contemporary-style home and made a number of renovations to it. But the front and back yards had been poorly laid out and needed some reconfiguration to make room for the new fireplace and outdoor kitchen. For starters, the home's driveway was not positioned out properly. "I come across that a lot," says Connolly. "No one pays much attention to how a driveway lays out and people tend to run over their plantings."






Instead of using flagstone, the front pathway was paved with travertine tile, an extension of the tile used inside the home. Cobbled paving stones make up the driveway, which had to be modified based on the access point the homebuilder had set for it.


"We didn't want it to look like a patch job, so we got the color of the original mix from the builder and matched it to how the original concrete was laid," he says. "It's always tricky matching concrete, even if you know the color, you never get the same color twice."

In addition to the problematic driveway, the backyard posed an even bigger challenge. The home's existing pool equipment was right next to the pool and master bedroom, which closed off the backyard. By relocating the equipment behind the pool, it helped create a bigger space for Connolly to work with, but it wasn't quite enough.

"To put that whole outdoor kitchen in and the fireplace, we had to get special permission to extend the building envelope," he says. "The existing building envelope was so close to the corner of that house that we wouldn't have been able to build the barbeque and fireplace the way I had designed it."






Before this home had a great view of the mountains, but an unwanted view of other homes







The team built a beehive-style wood-burning fireplace with walls that function as seating, counter space, and a storage area. The structure is tall enough to cover the above homes, but still leaves a large view of the mountains.


Connolly had to write a letter to the homeowner's association and cross his fingers for approval. "It was a risk, but I felt it was worth it and the homeowner's association agreed," he says.

The result is a beautiful outdoor kitchen with all the amenities, and a fireplace area that serves a dual purpose. "The elevation behind the fireplace is about four feet higher than the backyard," says Connolly. "The fireplace was designed to serve as a retaining wall. It also shields the home from the house up above it. I think whenever you can kill two birds with one stone, that's always a plus."

Functionally Fabulous

Though he enjoys creating contemporary landscapes, Connolly says that most of his clients prefer the southwestern look, as the owners of this beehive-style fireplace do. They originally hired Sonoran Gardens to create a functional outdoor cooking area that would be hidden on the side of their yard. "The homeowner wanted the fireplace to be hidden," says Connolly. "They just saw it as a functional item, but I knew it could be a great focal point."






The pool equipment was moved behind the pool, and a special building permit was obtained to extend the building envelope and build an outdoor kitchen on the patio. The team had to install virtually everything that could be found in the home's indoor kitchen because the two rooms were too far away from each other to have the owners running back and forth.


He says part of his decision to make it more of a centerpiece was so that it would block out the houses further up the hill, without completely blocking the beautiful mountain views. He added two racks inside the wood-burning oven to necessitate cooking, and walls were built around the fireplace for seating, food-preparation, and to house a simple storage cabinet. "The owners liked it," he says. "I didn't ignore what they said, but I was able to show them how my idea could work with what they wanted. They have another home in Boston and they really wanted the southwest feel at this home. They didn't want to feel like they were back east."

Though Connolly will always give his input, he says ultimately it's about the customer. "It's just working with what the homeowner wants," he says, "and what the design allows."






The approximately eight-foot tall fireplace structure acts as both a retaining wall and a way to block out onlookers from a home further up the hill (inset, before shot). Montach blue slate--used as a backsplash in the kitchen--was carried out on the patio floor. The team planted several agaves and cereus cactus in large planting pots to emphasize the contemporary southwestern theme.



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October 21, 2019, 8:42 am PDT

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