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Southern California has been backyard-centric for decades. But now, with plasma screens, fire pits and climbing walls, we've entered the age of . . .

X Yards

August 19, 2007|Shawn Hubler | Shawn Hubler is a freelance writer living in Laguna Beach

In the beginning, there was the grill, and it was charcoal. Maybe it came with a picnic table. Maybe it sat next to a swimming pool.

Then came the hot tub. And for a while that seemed plenty. Until an outdoor fireplace went up on the neighbor's patio.

Southern Californians are connoisseurs of private leisure. What we're thinking is always written on our backyards. For most of this decade, we've been thinking big: full-on patio kitchens, swimming pools with rock slides and waterfalls, outdoor "rooms" filled with furniture just as fine as the stuff inside.

Now, if the luxury home market is any indication, the era of backyard excess is entering a new phase--even bigger. Just when you thought the pendulum might swing back toward flower beds and lawn chairs, the mighty X Yard has arrived.

How else to view, say, the landscaped extravaganza that is Jamie Kabler's Palm Springs backyard? On the Fourth of July, Kabler--creator of the "Hollywood 48 Hour Miracle Diet" and its variations--served cocktails at the 20-foot outdoor bar behind his 3,000-square-foot home. Then, after a catered meal at his three outdoor patio tables, the guests slipped into bathing suits for an alfresco "float-in" movie on his poolside big screen.

Because it was an intimate affair, Kabler didn't use the outdoor dance floor and go-go boxes, or hire entertainers to perform on his outdoor stage. Nor did he end up in the outdoor bed near the fire pit. "We just showed 'The Graduate' and lay on floats and watched the movie under a full moon," says Kabler, whose backyard remodel was finished last year. "It was wonderful."

Theoretically, the trend toward elaborate backyard installments should be winding down. Already its obvious drawbacks have spawned a booming sideline in outdoor-kitchen pest removal, outdoor-furniture covering and outdoor-speaker repair. Then there's the report, published this year in the Journal of Family and Economic Issues, on the backyard activity of two dozen L.A. households. The study, led by UCLA anthropologist Jeanne Arnold, found that, despite accouterments such as skateboard ramps and batting cages, only a handful of the studied families spent leisure time in their backyards.

Some outdoor furniture retailers report that sales seem to be peaking, but other outdoor improvements--spas, grills, fire pits, gazebos--continue to sell briskly. Designers and homeowners credit technological improvements--underwater speakers, outdoor big screens, more durable all-weather fabrics--but also note that Southern California is now, and always will be, a particularly outdoor-centric market.

Where else, for example, would a lifestyle naturally suggest the boccie ball court and climbing wall installed by landscape designer Paul Hendershot in Ojai? Or the special seating area for nannies by the children's pool tucked into a recent backyard remodel in Newport Coast?

"Some of these neighborhoods have a running competition for the coolest outdoor barbecue pavilion," jokes Orange County real estate agent John McMonigle, whose most recent favorite is a yard with a glass wall separating the swimming pool from the wine cellar.

"Plasmas, waterfalls, outdoor theaters," he says. "Before, the really cool thing was to have an infinity pool, or knife-edge pool. Now it has to spill over on all four sides."

Beverly Hills designer Jonathan Barnett recently installed a Hawaiian garden, putting green, full outdoor kitchen, waterfall and saltwater pool in the Montecito yard of Jill Schulz-Transki, a daughter of "Peanuts" cartoonist Charles Schulz. McMonigle, who also develops luxury home sites, says that such amenities have become so important to sales that "before we even design the house now, we start with the rear yard, because that is the focal point of the estate."

Remodelers with lower-priced properties also are thinking extreme thoughts. "I'm seeing it trickle down even to people with small homes," says Barnett. "People will do built-in seating areas, put in a fire pit and then tent the area or put in a large umbrella--I think it's because people are more exposed to the idea now across the board."

Still, there is one backyard staple that increasingly is being left out of the extreme backyard scene. "You aren't seeing a lot of basketball hoops," McMonigle says. "They're unsightly, and the neighborhood associations won't allow them."

Hence, he says, the newest X Yard feature: "Homes with basketball courts that literally are built underground, where no one can see them. We have several of them in Newport Coast."

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