Story of a Landscape: Building a Family-Friendly Backyard Living Room


With a company named Past the Gate, it’s probably not surprising that Greg Wrenn’s specialty is backyard renovations.

Wrenn admits his work isn’t for everyone. A design/build firm in Walnut Creek, California, Past the Gate specializes in residential projects, and more specifically those where the clients are planning a complete living space remodel. They also must plan to be in the homes at least 10 years.

“We want to make sure they don’t want to dress up the property just for sale,” he says. “Our client demographic ranges from people in their 40s to those in their early 70s who want to do their landscape right the last time they do it.”

He adds that he first screens would-be clients over the phone before scheduling a home visit with them.

“We want to know their lifestyle,” Wrenn says. “We don’t just show up and say, ‘Tell us what you want.’ We ask them a lot of questions about their lifestyle, their family, how often they entertain and what size groups. And, we also look at the architecture of the home to see what their style is, because we want to bring that same style to the outside.”

PHOTO: Past the Gate/CLCA
PHOTO: Past the Gate/CLCA

The clients for this particular project – the Lemmles – found Past the Gate via a Google search, which Wrenn describes as his most-effective form of advertising, backed up by the company’s website.

“I like to think we’re either the right landscape contractor for them, or we’re not,” he says. “We talk over the phone and then I’ll go out for a site visit. At that point we do a ballpark estimate based on what we talked about.”

Wrenn says that gives him an idea of how much passion they have for their yard, and also eliminates the people who want to spend $5,000 when a more-realistic budget is $50,000.

“Once they have the estimate, if they say it sounds good, then they’ll sign the design contract,” he explains. “Probably 80 percent of the time we get the contract with the job to do the construction.”

PHOTO: Past the Gate/CLCA
PHOTO: Past the Gate/CLCA

In the case of the Lemmles, their two biggest desires were to have a space for their two young and active sons, and to entertain their friends.

“We carved out a little corner in the yard for a basketball hoop, so they have a place to go,” Wrenn says. “Particularly people who have teenaged kids want them to be there, so we try to find spots in the garden where kids can go off and not be hidden but feel they’re a little secluded.”

Because the total project is only about 3,500 square feet, Wrenn notes there wasn’t room for a pool. However, the clients were on the fence about adding a spa. Wrenn adds that he worked hard to talk them out of putting in a spa, and they ultimately decided against it.

PHOTO: Past the Gate/CLCA
PHOTO: Past the Gate/CLCA

They were adamant, though, about having an outdoor kitchen, and after some discussion that was included in the job.

“It’s a solid structure with a grill and a refrigerator,” he says. “We also did travertine marble countertops. It has a raised bar seating area at one end that can accommodate nine people. It’s concrete block with a stucco finish. The travertine is similar in color to the stone that was used on the seating walls and the fire pit.”

Beyond that, he says the design is fairly balanced, starting with the lounging area, which is directly off the family room and goes back to the fire pit and seating walls and is shaded by a pergola.

“The dining area is off to the right with another pergola over it,” Wrenn explains. “The cooking area is off to the left. I always try to take into account the views out the windows, because people will still spend most of the time in the house. However, we really addressed their entertaining needs.”

Serving as a base for the entire project is acid-stained concrete. Wrenn says there are a couple reasons behind the choice. One is that he feels it’s a better surface than pavers or flagstones for playing children and teens. The other is based on the neighborhood in which the project was built, which he describes as being one of nicer tract homes.

“I try to design not just to the clients’ budget, but also to the neighborhood,” he explains. “I’m not going to put in travertine if it’s a tract home. Not only does it need to be nice, but you can’t outspend the neighborhood because at some point everybody sells out.”

PHOTO: Past the Gate/CLCA
PHOTO: Past the Gate/CLCA

As a general contractor, Wrenn adds that he’s been installing and staining concrete for about 15 years now, and while there’s a bit of a learning curve involved with it, the end result is a chemical reaction that gives not only depth but also a marbleized look that complements the stone used in the project.

Also important to this job was what he describes as “quite a bit of lighting.” Ultimately, the project includes three different types of lighting: lighting up into the trees, under-the-seat-wall-caps and bistro lighting in the pergolas.

“That way they can use them or not, depending on the lighting effect they want,” Wrenn says. “I don’t like the lights on all at once. I think the garden lights are much better for all-the-time use, and then the bistro lights when they’re entertaining.”

The entire project took approximately two-and-a-half months and cost about $90,000, although it won the 2015 award from the California Landscape Contractors Association for best installation in the $75,000-$150,000 range. During construction, Wrenn had anywhere from two to five men on the site at any one time.

In addition, Past the Gate has continued its relationship with the Lemmles. Wrenn always offers to do a weekly check of irrigation systems the first two months after a job’s completed, and continues to go back two or three times a season to check on the irrigation, fertilize and do hand-pruning.

“We also try to train the client to notice plants that are starting to suffer, and if we get calls, we’ll go back more often to check the irrigation,” he says.

PHOTO: Past the Gate/CLCA
PHOTO: Past the Gate/CLCA

Wrenn admits to being quite proud of the project, and for more reasons than just the quality of the job and how it blends together.

“I love how it really fits their lifestyle,” he says. “Obviously, we’re still in touch, and every time they tell us how thrilled they are and how well we met and exceeded their expectations.”

As for his own favorite part of the job, he says it’s simply the way the lounging area serves as an extension of the family’s living room.

With a flat lot and easy access to the backyard, Wrenn adds the biggest challenge to the job was guiding the clients to make the best decisions. For example, he says, they didn’t let go of the idea of having a spa easily, although now they’re thankful they opted not to add one.

“They also thought everything was too big, and I kept telling them that once we had everything planted it would shrink to just the right size,” he says. “They’ve thanked me for that, too.”

If anything, this project has taught Wrenn to stick to his guns – but also to know when it’s time to cut his loses, as a more recent job showed him. In that case, he ended up doing the best job he could for the clients and then getting out quickly.

“A lot of this is having the perseverance to keep on them,” Wrenn concludes, adding he often meets with clients two or three times a week while a project is under construction. “I know if they’ll let me guide them, the project will come out much better. Sometimes you have to step back from a client when they’re making a mistake and force them to make the right decision.”