Life Is But a Stream. And Stone Steps. And Outdoor Lighting

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily…Life is but a dream. Well, it was kind of a bad dream at one client’s home until we helped them tame the steep hill that was hindering their hospitality.

Hiking is a favorite activity here in the Northeast Georgia mountains. As much as we enjoy it, we usually do stop short of requiring our guests to do it as a condition of visiting. But this Sautee Nacoochee couple had been doing just that.

It was a long trek up from the parking area to their lovely home. And the journey demanded jumping over gullies formed from rainwater carving its way down the incline. Depending on the weather, there was often a lot of slipping and sliding—and cursing, no doubt. Occasionally, friends arriving for brunch shouted up the hill to request climbing harnesses and ropes.

Nighttime was even more challenging, as they sent departing guests down the same treacherous hillside toward cars (and who knows what else?) parked downhill, with only the stars and their cellphone flashlights to guide them.

Steps and walls in progress 1
The client’s home is perched at the top of a very steep hill that was unsightly and difficult for guests to climb. They dreamed of having a real entrance at the bottom, with a water feature and a path to the home’s entrance

Besides all that, the wide open, barren, inhospitable landscape didn’t match the welcoming feeling of the house or reflect the warm personalities of the homeowners. After we talked about their dreams for a friendlier approach to their home, I came up with a landscape plan that incorporated their specific wishes, backed by some solid design principles that promised to make the project a success. It all started with a meandering pathway.

Creating` a meandering stone pathway

The first order of business was functionality. Safe access to the home. A long, straight flight of stairs could have accomplished that, but would have gone against the whole point of the project:   to create an attractive outdoor space that unified the landscape with the home’s architecture, the natural environment and the parking area at the bottom of the hill. So the design started with a meandering, stone pathway.

The choice of path style is a good example of how design can be used to influence behavior. If you’re just trying to be efficient in helping people hurry along from one point to another, you create a straight path. Like a sidewalk. But if you want to slow people down, encourage them unwind and take in the sights and smells, you add curves so getting to the destination feels more like taking a pleasant stroll in the park.

When there’s a steep incline, as there was here, a meandering path will also be easier for guests to navigate than a long, steep span of steps.

Framing steps before pouring
Once the route was laid out for the pathway, the framing for the steps was constructed. The steps have to be designed so they’re safe, there’s comfortable walking distance between treads and they look nice.

The first step to constructing the pathway was to lay out the course. You can see where the pink landscape marking paint has been sprayed to indicate the route.

We excavated the ground where the steps would be, then constructed wood framing for the steps. Care was taken to design the steps so they’re spaced and angled properly for safety’s sake, they’re comfortable for walking and they’re going to look good from above and below. Of course, this is where getting them all level is critical.

Retaining walls in progress
Jorge is working on two retaining walls near the bottom of the hill while waiting for the concrete to cure.

Next, the concrete was poured. The focus turned to constructing two retaining walls at the bottom of the hill while the concrete cured.

Flagstone top and manufactured stone risers
This photo angle is a little dizzying, but it shows the manufactured stone being applied to the steps’ risers, beginning with the corner pieces. There are benefits to using manufactured stone for the risers, including ease of installation and cost savings

Once the concrete was cured, it was time to finish the steps with stone, which would blend in beautifully with the wooded lot. We chose manufactured stone for the risers—the vertical spaces between the steps. Since it has several benefits over natural stone for this use, it’s a good place to save some money. Manufactured stone is colored concrete that’s been formed into shapes that look like stone. Since it’s lighter weight than real stone and smooth on the back, it’s easier to apply. It’s also faster to work with than real stone, which has to be hand cut to fit each space.

Flagstone step tops
Now for the good stuff. Beautiful, durable, natural flagstone was used on the stair treads

Finally, beautiful flagstone was laid on the treads and grout was applied in the spaces in between.

Stone steps on hillside with landing
The pathway widens and levels out for a bit on its way up the hill, giving foot travelers a chance to catch their breath and take in the sights and sounds along the way.

The flagstone steps turned out perfectly. With the addition of some plantings and impressive boulders, the meandering path from the bottom of the hill to the home was exactly what the clients had envisioned.

But hold on! That’s not all.

You may have noticed in the earlier photos of the step construction that there was a wide gap in the path.

Concrete steps
A gap was left in the path to make way for a mountain stream to flow by. The stream would be bridged by a heavy stone slab


As the steps were being built, it became apparent that erosion was still going to be an issue. After all, it is a big hill. The client asked us to install a dry creek bed to direct the runoff and slow the erosion. Then he thought, why make it a dry creek bed? Let’s add water! So we left a gap in the meandering pathway to install a splashing, mountain stream.

Building a mountain stream

The homeowners were excited about the idea of a mountain stream, but they didn’t want the upkeep of a pond, which would have required keeping the water clean, managing mosquitos and bugs and keeping critters out.

So we designed and installed a circulating water feature that doesn’t require a pond at all. Runoff water is collected and drains into the stream on its way downhill. At the bottom of the hill, the water is captured underground, where a pump delivers it back uphill to cascade its way down again in the stream channel. No more mudslides.

Stream on steep lot
The fieldstone pathway winds its way up the hill and crosses over a 100-foot-long mountain stream near the entry to the home. Boulders, rocks, waterfalls, pools and eddies make the cascading water feature look nature-made.

The result is amazing. We ended up creating a show-stopping mountain stream that tumbles across 100 feet of the property. Lined with rocks and small boulders and complete with waterfalls, eddies and pools along the way, the stream looks for all the world like a naturally- occurring feature. The sound of the water splashing is instantly calming.

Now, the meandering stone pathway gently winds its way from the parking area up the hillside, crossing over the mountain stream as it nears the entrance to the home at the hilltop, where a heavy stone slab forms a bridge over the water.

The homeowners love to entertain, so the pathway would be used at night as much as during the day time. Outdoor lighting would complete the project.

Installing outdoor lighting

Outdoor lighting was the perfect finishing touch for the overall landscape project. It expanded the hours of enjoyment of the entire outdoor space. And it made negotiating the steps at night safer. As an added benefit, exterior lighting increases home security.

Lighting a stream
A heavy slab of stone creates a bridge over the lively stream. Low-voltage lighting, strategically placed in the stream channel, adds drama and illuminates the path at night.

By placing some low-voltage lights at strategic points in the stream and pointing others at the stream, we were able to create drama, highlight the shimmering movement of the water and enhance the natural beauty of the property. See how the lighting enriches the experience of the stream?

Lighting and steps from parking area
Additional lighting at the bottom of the hill improves safety and security for guests.
Hillside Walls Steps and Water
A meandering stone pathway, a 100-foot constructed mountain stream and strategically placed outdoor lighting turned a once barren and inhospitable approach into a welcoming entrance for guests

With the project complete, the landscaping is in perfect harmony with the surrounding natural environment as it unifies the home and the parking area. Guests feel welcomed and look forward to strolling along the stone pathway, enjoying the plantings and the splashing of the stream as they make their way to the home’s front porch and entrance.

Ah…Now, life is but a stream. And stone steps. And outdoor lighting.

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