As the economy begins to stabilize, homeowners are still spending on outdoor living and landscape architecture, but they're foregoing many of the bells and whistles that became fashionable during the housing boom and instead are refocusing on the basics, according to a recent survey by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). The ASLA surveyed residential landscape architects about their perception of the popularity of various outdoor living and landscape features and elements for 2010.  

Nearly 95 percent of the survey respondents rated outdoor living spaces such as kitchens and entertaining areas as somewhat or very popular this year. Overall, the market for residential landscape design has dropped significantly, according to Nancy Somerville, Hon. ASLA, the organization's executive vice president, but there is still plenty of demand from clients who need to sell their homes and are looking for any way to differentiate their properties from the many others on the market. Upscale residential landscape design hasn't paused, however, Somerville notes. High-end homeowners are still requesting outdoor living and landscape design as much as ever.

Creating outdoor living and entertaining spaces is still popular, but a lack of ready financing means that homeowners are changing their approach to projects. "The real difference is that people are looking at ways to economize on what they're doing," Somerville says. "We're seeing people scaling back or doing bigger projects in increments."

While classic outdoor living elements such as dining and seating areas (according to 95.6 percent of survey respondents), grills (94.4 percent), lighting (93.4 percent), and fire pits or fireplaces (94 percent) remain very popular, interest in elements such as outdoor sinks (50 percent), refrigerators (52.8 percent), and showers (36.5 percent), as well as high-tech systems such as outdoor televisions (35.6 percent) and stereo systems (57 percent) has declined overall. Other outdoor living elements rated somewhat or very popular for 2010 include:

  • Installed seating such as benches, seat walls, ledges, steps, and boulders (90.6 percent);
  • Weatherized outdoor furniture (77 percent);
  • Counter space (73.5 percent).

Many types of water features will still be popular this year, including decorative elements such as ornamental pools, waterfalls, grottoes, water runnels and bubblers (86.8 percent); hot tubs and indoor/outdoor saunas (79 percent); and swimming pools (72.4 percent), the survey found. However, other recreational amenities such as sport courts are reportedly much less popular.

Somerville notes that the back-to-basics attitude among residential landscape design clients is driven in part by economic concerns—from financing to return on investment—but it's also partly due to a desire for lower-maintenance features and the growing interest in sustainability.

The residential landscape architects surveyed indicated high interest among homeowners in landscaping and garden elements that require less maintenance and consume less water overall (94 percent), contribute to a household's sustainability, and even supplement a household's food needs. Many of the strategies for creating a low-cost, low-maintenance landscape deliver dual benefits, because they also contribute to a more sustainable landscape. Sixty-seven percent of surveyed practitioners also said that organically managed gardens will be somewhat or very popular this year. Other highly popular landscape and garden elements include plantings of native flora (83.9 percent) and vegetable gardens/orchards and vineyards (78.5 percent).

Other sustainable landscape design elements that will be somewhat or very popular in 2010 are:

  • Drip or other water-efficient irrigation systems (85 percent);
  • Native, adapted, or drought-tolerant plants (85 percent);
  • Reduced grassy lawn areas (73.9 percent);
  • Permeable paving (72.5 percent)
  • Recycled landscaping materials (68 percent);
  • Rainwater or graywater harvesting systems (64 percent).

Although they have been affected by the economic downturn, landscape architects luckily haven't been hit as hard as many of the other design and construction industry segments, according to Somerville. The diversity within their practices tends to mean they can focus on planning services when demand for landscape design and construction is low. Also, landscape architecture tends to trail declines in the larger design and construction segments, to experience less dramatic declines, and to recover before building design and construction, notes Somerville. Landscape architecture's recovery will be slow and gradual, mirroring the recovery of the broader economy

ASLA offers several tips for designing resource-efficient, low-maintenance residential gardens and landscapes on its website.