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Sanctuary in the suburbs

Posted: August 1, 2008 6:40 p.m.
Updated: October 3, 2008 5:03 a.m.

So, where do you go for a little peace in this rush-around world, for a little down time with your family? Do you haul a trailer full of motorcycles to the desert, or a boat to the river? Do you fly the family to the islands? Maybe you do. But with gas and air travel at a premium these days, maybe you do - a little less often. Besides, as great as these trips might be, they can only bring your family together for a few days a year. What you need is your own private oasis, right in your backyard. You need a place where family members will naturally gather and rub elbows casually and incidentally, with no agenda necessary.

So what if it costs you more than $40,000 and takes nearly a year to create?

The Todd family did it.

"It's important for us to have a comfortable place for the kids to be and to have friends over," said Teresa Todd.

Just a patio cover
The Todds live in the 1965-era Serena Park tract in Newhall, across Sierra Highway and up the hill from Friendly Valley. The family includes Teresa, who runs her own marketing-PR-consulting business; Bob, a labor negotiator and VP at CBS; daughters Ryan, 24, and Rachel, 17; and son Robert, 20. Creating an outdoor haven, where these older children would want to bring their friends, was a major consideration for the Todds. But the complete backyard redo snuck up on them.

"Our initial plan was to replace the patio cover," Teresa Todd said. "And we knew we had to replace the wooden patio deck." The 20 x 40 foot patio cover was 17 years old and deteriorating. They figured maybe $10,000 would cover the project, and it would take about 14 days to complete their backyard upgrade.

That was in July 2007 - before the winds blew down their fence and the rains floated their existing koi pond.

Fencing anyone?

While the firestorms of last October were drawing everyone's attention, the high winds that created them did their own damage across the SCV. One casualty was the Todd's backyard fence. Its replacement required removing a lot of existing vegetation, including large oleander bushes and overgrown palm trees.

"Those palm trees grew from a couple feet tall to be enormous ... causing damage to walls. They need space, they grow so big and fast," Todd said.

Oh, and the pond, too
"We weren't planning to redo the pond," Todd said. But the existing, ground-level pond had been damaged by the 1994 earthquake and had leaked ever since. This past winter, with the ground torn up from the patio cover work, the rain soaked under the pond liner and raised it. It was finally time to replace the pond.

The Todds had recently joined the Santa Clarita Koi and Water Garden Club, and found the club a valuable resource. "We were able to get the best pond possible for our needs from the information these people were able to share," Todd said.

The pond replacement added many months and an additional cost of "probably $9,000" to the yard project. And while the pond was being replaced, the Todd's numerous large koi spent their time in a holding tank. But their new home has a fountain/waterfall, is much deeper (protection from raccoons) and vastly more appealing to the human eye. It will also be much easier to fix if another earthquake (like Tuesday's) should ever damage it.

Todd also pointed out that a new leach-pipe system allows the pond to be 1/3 drained for periodic maintenance without this water being dumped down the storm drain.

The pond's high-tech filtering system, including an ultraviolet light sterilizer, and skimmer, is much smaller and more energy efficient than the former system. "I can clean this myself. It's so simple," Todd said.

Just a few more things
The Todds replaced the wooden patio deck with a beautiful, patterned concrete in Victorian red with medium gray and bayou beige accents. Of course this had to be continued beyond the patio, to where the spa stood. Since no one really used the spa anymore, it was removed and replaced with built-in wall-benches and a raised second patio area to support an outdoor table and chairs.

All of this concrete work required a new drainage system, as well. The new system will also prevent rain water runoff from soaking under the new pond liner.

These upgrades led to changes in the side yard. Visible from the large bay window in the dining room, the side yard had always had some grass, which Teresa Todd found to be a pleasant view. But when the narrow sidewalks there were enlarged to complement the other concrete work, it didn't make sense to keep the now-tiny patch of grass.

But Todd still wanted a pleasant view. The answer was another fountain. "The other fountain was a sudden throw-in," she said. They purchased the 1,000-pound-plus fountain from Garden Concepts on Sierra Highway. It cost them about $1,200, plus $200 delivery and installation.

When all was said and "done" (the front yard is still being redone) the Todd's back yard had become more than just comfortable. It had become an oasis and the kind of place everyone naturally gravitates to. The patio cover has been raised to accommodate two remote-controlled fans, and accent lighting highlights the patio, koi pond, fountain and other areas at night. Stacked stone, capped by the Todd's original flagstone, forms the pond's retaining wall and the bench-walls, and the patterned concrete brings everything together with clean lines and an elegant look. New or existing vegetation provides shade and a natural feel and the splashing of the fountains offers peaceful accompaniment.

"It's not a large yard, but I think we've used the space in a very creative way," Todd said. "We spend a lot of family time out here."

Contractors & lessons
Todd said she has utilized about eight contractors in the yard renovation, including three electricians.

Randy Banaga was her masonry contractor (who also recommended other contractors she used) and worked well with her pond contractor, Dominic Carone of So-Cal Ponds.

"I wanted them to coordinate. Not everyone would do that," she said. The Todds used Mike Dion of Dion & Sons Construction for their patio cover and fence. "He was amazing, so efficient and did a nice job, too."

Lessons learned during the project include the fact that a lot of electrical work was necessary for the patio fans, pond and fountain - and that more comprehensive planning might have been more efficient. "We did everything (electrical) in three stages," she said. "Probably the hardest part for homeowners is coordinating. You don't want to go back and redo, but you never have a full idea of what you are going to do."

The change of contractors and lack of thorough planning also led to the television cable getting accidentally cut - three different times.

But the permit process went very smoothly, and Todd said the city of Santa Clarita permit folks were "a pleasure from my perspective."

For advice to those considering similar projects, Todd said to stay organized and keep a file for your plans, invoices, etc. "Keep a file - who said what, what was the plan," she said. "I can't wait until the day I retire this file. That's my goal."

Todd figures the whole project has cost about $41,000 when, "Our original budget was $26,000." But she feels better when she searches out bargains for her yard accents, including finding ultra-low prices on plants, ceramic pots and lights.

"It's been a process absolutely worth doing," Todd said. "I can't say it's added value. That was never a consideration for us. It's about having a nice place to live and entertain. "What price can you put on family, to really enjoy your space."


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