How to Capitalize On Underutilized Landscape Space

Appreciate design strategies that involve targeting underutilized space, as well as the blending of existing and new materials

By Danilo Maffei

see it time and again: underutilized space in landscape. Many of my clients don’t realize that they aren’t capitalizing on their outdoor spaces because they’re too close to the property and don’t realize its full potential. Throughout my work, I’ve learned that the best way to solve this problem is to bring in a fresh set of eyes; a third party who can identify which existing materials can be preserved, while also referencing aesthetic cues that already exist on the property.

For instance, during one of my renovations at the historic Highland Mede residence in Chester County, Penn., the family had a charcoal grill just outside of the kitchen, around which they realized everyone congregated, meaning they desperately needed more seating.

With no level ground nearby to make into useable space, we took a hard look to see how and where we could create usable space without losing the convenience of serving food from the kitchen at an outdoor dining space. To this end, I took a fresh look at the existing site and noted that both the brick masonry of the grill and the patio itself were still in good shape, and I used my outside perspective on the space to reimagine how it could be used.

Using Vectorworks design software to visually articulate my ideas with the owners, I was able to help them easily understand concepts and have confidence in my plans from the beginning.

Instead of trying to make space where none could be found, I recommended pushing the grill farther away from the house. I adapted the former grill cabinet by elevating it approximately eight inches to countertop height, creating space for a group to sit. The space provides comfortable circulation, feels useful, and there aren’t too many stairs.

Additionally, we chose materials that kept with the rustic, 18th-century inspired nature of the design, including a planted trough through the middle of the tabletop and plenty of natural stone in the walls. The materials retained the house’s farm-like character, blending new concepts with the history of the site.

The owners have since noted that the patio is their family’s favorite place to spend time together, and the entire family, including grandkids, fits comfortably in this outdoor space.

Another project where I had to approach the site from a new perspective was a project I did for the childhood home of Dr. Mehmet Oz in Greenville, Delaware.

The current owners completed many home renovations, but they neglected the landscape. In addition, the property had an enormous, circular driveway for guest parking that was dysfunctional. Once you put two or three cars into the mix, the first car that entered would be blocked in, and the last one in couldn’t quite fit.

My solution was to just completely move the parking area. I designed an exposed aggregate concrete, three-car guest parking lot off the side of the house for easy parking and entry to the house. Then, we were able to shift the previous parking space into a garden. My clients were self-proclaimed non-gardeners, so I ensured that the selection of plants required minimal maintenance. This included Elijah Blue fescue, Shenandoah switchgrass, and Green Velvet boxwood. Three years later, the plants and lawn have maintained a crisp, clean, mid-century look without much fuss.

We created something that was not only usable but also functional for the space that remained true to mid-century design with bold, geometric forms helping to make everything feel like it worked as one unit. Indigenous materials such as Avondale brownstone and Pennsylvania bluestone offered a local flavor along with ubiquitous concrete and Belgian block.

These are just examples to explain how customers appreciate design strategies that involve targeting underutilized space, as well as the blending of existing and new materials. My advice to all designers is to avoid having a narrow vision of what you could accomplish with site designs—encourage your clients to take time to dream before starting a project and especially before they get bogged down thinking about costs. If they don’t allow themselves time to dream in the beginning, they’ll never truly explore the possibilities of what their project could become.

Danilo Maffei, APLD, PCH provides creative direction and relevant design solutions for private residential, public, and commercial properties. In addition to running maffei landscape design, LLC, he is also the president-elect of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers (APLD). He may be reached at

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