Vienna, Virginia, is a nice place to live. It’s so desirable, in fact, that Money magazine ranked it third in the publication’s 2013 “Best Places to Live” listing. With a population of just over 16,000, Vienna hosts a town green, a 45-mile bike path and park, and one-of-a-kind merchants. It’s an area of gently rolling landscapes and large private properties—the median home price runs a cool half million—providing a little bit of country near the hubbub of the nation’s capital. Indeed, according to Money, “The small-town feel comes with access to all the D.C. metro area attractions.”

It’s also home to an impressive landscape by McHale Landscape Design: A $4.5 million installation, the residential project entails an oversized pool, three-story pool house, travertine pool deck, kitchen, loggia and green roof. The company brought in mature plantings that helped to transform the two-acre property from vacant lot to established estate, and all the work was performed by McHale’s staff.

A sheer descent waterfall cascades into the raised spa. Perfectly hand-chiseled wall cap stone showcases the craftsmanship and talent of McHale’s masons.

It’s an exceptional project, and it took an exceptional company to bring it to life.

From the ground up

Rarely does a project begin as a blank slate. A new home may provide endless opportunities for building the immediate environment, but how often does a landscape company actually select where that home is sited?

On this project, McHale’s designers did just that. “We had the privilege to walk the entire development and actually selected the lot for the homeowner,” explains Anthony Cusat, McHale’s senior landscape architect. “We had a long-standing relationship with the client, and he entrusted us to pick the lot. We sited the house on the property … with major consideration of maximizing the backyard opportunities.”

McHale Landscape Design had worked on the client’s previous property and had coordinated design with the homeowner’s landscape architect. (The homeowner owns a commercial property management company and employs an LA.) The LA drew up initial plans for the new home’s landscape, but Cusat and his team worked in tandem with the LA to fine tune and provide the critical details specific to the Vienna site.

Viewed from the master bedroom, the rooftop garden is colorful, private and is a favorite respite for the owner.

That included not just digging, but blasting. Cusat explains: “The biggest hurdle we had to overcome was the major amount of bedrock on that property. After the concepts were finalized for the home’s architectural process, we were then able to identify the blast depths for the loggia, pool and the pool house. All the areas were blasted simultaneously by the developer.”

Building out

Once the foundations were established, the house was constructed and the homeowners were in residence, McHale’s crews began work in earnest. “We actually did a lot of interior modifications, for instance; adding a large walk-in closet above the garage. But once the house was complete,” Cusat says, “we started construction from the threshold of the doors out into the landscape.”

The oversized pool with surrounding deck is a dominant feature of the landscape, and the area includes a large, 10-foot by 10-foot hot tub with a sheer descent water feature that fills the basin. The homeowner had requested that McHale provide as much shade as possible, especially around the pool deck, so the tub is covered by a wooden pergola that features a Sunbrella shade cloth operated by a sliding arm that works “just like a set of blinds,” according to Cusat—but horizontally. A misting system adds to the cooling effect. Seating areas that also are protected by the pergola provide plenty of room for resting or entertaining.

A new loggia, stone garden walls, travertine deck and pool have completely transformed this barren backyard into a beautiful outdoor living space.

The deck itself is laid in travertine, “a very popular product in our area—it comes from Turkey,” says Kevin McHale, president and co-founder of the company. “During the recession the price came down quite a bit on that material, almost to where it was very similar to the price of flagstone. It’s a much nicer, classier product, and it doesn’t absorb the heat around the pool deck like flagstone does.”

Mature trees and shrubs were selected to provide privacy as well as the look of an established property. “We brought in some really large crape myrtles—16 to 18 feet tall—that surround the perimeter of the pool terrace,” Cusat says. “We planted Green Giant arborvitae, cryptomeria and Nellie Stevens hollies for screening purposes because of an athletic field located behind the property, in efforts to diffuse the park’s spotlights used during nighttime activities.”

Some of the plants came from McHale’s own 8-acre holding yard in Maryland, but Cusat and McHale “worked with our growers to select trees that were specific to our needs,” Cusat says. “We made numerous road trips to our growers to obtain the appropriate specimens needed.”

Construction of the green roof.

The clients had one specific request, which was to transplant a memorial tree from their previous property. “But then the homeowner relied on us,” regarding plant selection, Cusat recalls. “There was a vegetable garden done for the kids next to the kitchen; and then it was our mission to create seasonal interest throughout the entire year; something always going on from spring blooms through fall color and winter interest.”

Building up

Creating an Eden is a landscape company’s stock in trade, and often that entails structural innovation as well as specifying the best plants. Patios, decks, pools, arbors, pergolas, gazebos … all have found a place in backyard retreats.

But as a part of McHale’s all-inclusive approach to landscape design/build (see sidebar), the company often is called upon to build up as well as out. This property not only boasts the pool and immense deck—with all the trimmings—it also features a three-story pool house designed and built by McHale Landscape Design.

A bird’s eye view of the “outdoor living compound,” shot from an upstairs window, shows the expanse of the project.

“The basement of the pool house is basically an infrastructure mechanical room for all the pool equipment and the spa,” McHale describes. “Then the main floor houses a full kitchen and a sitting area with TV. Upstairs is a loft.”

To provide even more shade and expand the outdoor living space, a large loggia was constructed at the back of the house. And again, McHale Landscape Design took charge from plan through blasting the foundation to rooftop garden. The loggia offers protected outdoor living space: The plan was “to create an outdoor link with dining and gathering space just off of the pool courtyard,” Cusat says.

Because it’s basically attached to the flat wall of the house where the bedrooms are located, he says, “We didn’t want the roof to interfere with the second-story windows of the bedrooms, or alter much of the natural light coming into the home. The design solution led to the great design opportunity for the loggia roof. Instead of a sloped metal roof or an asphalt liner roof, the design of a green roof emerged.”

Rooftop gardens have taken root in the past several years as a solution to rising utility bills, to provide high-rise office workers a place to take a break, even to cover unappealing railroad yards. But most of these installations have been commercial.

At this spectacular residential project, plans for the green roof went hand-in-hand with the loggia, primarily because the weight of such an installation requires additional support—and it begins below ground level. “We actually had to begin construction at the home’s foundation depth; pouring reinforced concrete footings because of the overdig of the house,” Cusat explains. “From the footings we worked our way up to the first-floor level where a steel framework concrete deck was constructed to carry the load of the green roof above.”

Single source for landscape excellence

McHale Landscape Design is known in the D.C. area as the “Single Source” design/build firm. What that means to clients – and to the company itself – is that McHale can handle it all, from landscape design and architecture to construction and installation, horticulture and maintenance, plus management of the few subcontractors that may be necessary for plumbing and electrical. McHale’s inhouse staff is responsible for masonry and carpentry as well.

Co-founder and president Kevin McHale says that the company structure is what enables McHale Landscape Design to tackle projects like the Vienna property. McHale started the company 33 years ago with his brother, Steve, a landscape architect who serves as company vice president.

“We have the typical story of my brother and I mowing grass when we were 12, 13 years old; I guess we found a little bit of the entrepreneurial spirit when we were teenagers,” McHale recalls. Plans for their company took root during college, when “we decided to start this landscape business and all we wanted to do was high-end residential work. During the early years, we felt it was an advantage to us to do our masonry and carpentry in-house instead of contracting it. And that was unusual at the time. A lot of the people in the Washington, D.C., market told us we couldn’t do that. They said, ‘you’ll never be able to keep those guys busy; you’ll never have enough work to keep a mason crew busy very day, and a carpentry crew busy every day.’ And fortunately, we were able to do that.”

Today the company is structured into four distinct divisions. “We have the landscape installation division, which does only residential landscapes,” McHale explains. “And we have our maintenance division, which does only our design/build clients’ maintenance. So when a design/build project is finished, we hand it over to the maintenance division. We have a 98 percent referral rate; pretty much every single client we do a design/build project for, we do the maintenance for.”

The two other divisions are masonry and carpentry. “We have about 15 masonry crews that direct report; they drive company vehicles and they direct report to the job from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day,” McHale says. “The masonry crews function as they would in a masonry company, not like a landscape company. And we do the same with the four carpentry crews.”

This single source approach “sets us apart so that we can go in and do an addition to somebody’s home, we can do a pool house, we can do all the landscaping, all the pool decks, and patios and decks. We can do all of that in-house,” McHale adds. “The ‘single source’ idea is really what we’re all about, and I think it what keeps us as a favorite to a lot of the clients in the Washington, D.C., market. We do a lot of projects that are $1 million to $2 million on a fairly regular basis because the client can call us as the single source. They don’t have to call three or four different contractors.”

There currently are about 200 employees on staff, in four offices. The main office is located in Upper Marlboro, Maryland; others are in Annapolis, Maryland; Easton, Maryland and McLean, Virginia.

The company’s website is

“Using a light weight soil composition recommended by our soil consultants,” he continues, “our structural engineer designed the structural slab strong enough to support the added weight of the soil and plant materials specified by the design team.”

The garden, which features a 12-foot by 12-foot flagstone patio that is easily accessed by a flagstone pathway, extends the length of the loggia. Drought-tolerant plants—mostly a combination of sedums—were selected by Cusat and the homeowner’s landscape architect.

Ceiling fans, a misting system and retractable shades make this arbor the ideal place for relaxation of a hot summer day.

A drip-irrigation system provided supplemental irrigation for the first year, but “we’ve since turned off the irrigation,” Cusat says. The system was installed to help the plants get established, and “whatever we get from Mother Nature is what [the garden] gets now,” Cusat adds. “It was designed to take care of itself.”

And McHale takes care of the rest of the property. Part of the McHale package is professional maintenance of properties the company has designed and installed. From vacant property to residential paradise, from belowground prep to a rooftop retreat, McHale Landscape Design did it all. And the homeowner couldn’t be happier.

Ceiling heat lamps, a TV and fireplace create an inside feel in this open-air loggia.

All photos courtesy of McHale Landscape Design