Home court advantage: backyard sport courts let homeowners play on their own turf.
Backyard sports have come a long way from lazy afternoons spent playing croquet and catch on the lawn. Encouraged by health experts to exercise three to five times a week, baby boomers--the first generation of Americans to grow up exercising--are intent on staying fit well into their 70s. But rather than getting in their cars and driving to the local tennis courts or community gym, many homeowners are tucking sport courts into their own landscapes, where they can also keep an eye on their children. John Shaffer, president of Rhino Sports in Scottsdale, Ariz., which manufactures and sells multipurpose athletic courts nationwide, says sales have doubled each year for the last five years. "I think backyard recreation is a big growth industry because people are concerned about having healthy and active kids," he says. "You want them safe in your backyard, so you create a comfortable environment that still gives them creative play time."
Unless you're working with a very large property, however, integrating a recreational court into the landscape can be a challenge. A regulation-size tennis court, for example, is 120 feet by 60 feet--essentially an unattractive, 7,200-square-foot asphalt plane. To minimize their scale, landscape architect James van Sweden of Oehme, van Sweden Associates in Washington, D.C., sites tennis courts a good distance from the house and often screens them with a meadow of 10-foot-tall grasses.
There are architectural solutions too. To lessen its impact, he might lower the court a few steps and detail it with a bluestone edge or set it in a clean gravel frame. Creating an adjacent terrace for watching a match or eating lunch also helps to balance the scale. For Oprah Winfrey, van Sweden designed a tennis court parallel to an 85-foot-long swimming pool, with a pool house in between that serves both areas.
The tall fences required to keep balls in bound can look imposing too. Forgoing unsightly chain link, van Sweden designed a fence for Winfrey's court with decorative metal panels between the posts. On another project he used wood posts with turkey wire, which virtually disappears, and treated it like a trellis, planting it with climbing vines. Another way to downplay the fence is to vary its height. "The fences are at least 10 feet tall, but you can step them down a third of the way in, so they're maybe 4 feet high at the net," van Sweden says.
For homeowners who play a variety of games, sporting goods companies offer multipurpose athletic surfaces on a concrete base. They're more expensive than asphalt--running roughly $50 a square yard for just the playing pad, compared with $25 a square yard to pave and coat blacktop--but they save space by consolidating multiple sports on a single springy surface. The Cedar Rapids, Iowa-based Backyard Sports Center, for example, offers pre-designed configurations such as a 30-foot-by-55-foot pad for playing basketball and volleyball, and a 16-foot-by-30-foot badminton/basketball court. At Rhino Sports, Shaffer says home sport courts range in size from 900 square feet to 7,200 square feet, though the most popular size is about 2,000 square feet. They're typically constructed with a water-permeable polypropylene pad over a concrete slab that's been sloped one-third of a percent for drainage.
In addition to aesthetics, light and noise factors come into play. "Light pollution is a big deal in most cities," Shaffer says. He recommends a shielded metal halide light system to cut down on glare and keep the neighbors happy. And when siting a basketball court in an urban or suburban setting, check local civil codes for setback restrictions.
By contrast, the Italian lawn bowling game of bocce is a quieter, more social sport, and one that slips more easily into a home landscape. While it's commonly played on a flat gravel or oyster shell surface measuring 10 feet by 60 feet, the court's size can be adapted to fit the available space, ideally close to other activity areas. "I'd recommend that someone take a survey tape and mark off a flat area and play in it for awhile to see if it feels comfortable," says Tom McNutt, founder and CEO of Boccemon, a bocce court supplier in Bellingham, Wash.
San Francisco landscape architect Topher Delaney likes to make bocce ball courts the centerpiece of her design. A current project in Napa, Calif., includes a 72-foot-by-12-foot court surrounded by heirloom fruit trees. The court follows the line of an upper terrace and the mature redwood trees behind it. With its crisp rectangular shape and reflective surface, she thinks of it almost like a painting. "Bocce is a linear, sculptural thing, like a Mondrian," Delaney says. "The oyster shells contrast with the more light-absorbing lawn and it works equally well within a landscape of geometric or biomorphic shapes."
Bocce courts are fairly basic to construct, but they must be perfectly flat and well-drained. They're held in place with a 6-inch-deep layer of No. 2 road base--3/4-inch stones or less--and topped with gravel or crushed oyster shells. The frame can be made of a material that's indigenous to the region, such as wood, concrete, or brick, though McNutt points out that its density affects how the ball banks off the sides. A soft wood will absorb bounce, whereas oak, ironwood, or concrete create a more efficient transfer of energy.
Unlike croquet or horseshoes, sport courts are relatively large surfaces with a single use. But if they're well-detailed and designed to blend with other landscape elements, they won't ruin the view.--Cheryl Weber is a freelance writer in Lancaster, Pa.