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The Green Scene in Westlake Magazine, June 2006

The Backyard Battle of the Sexes: Outdoor Design for Men and Women

If someone asked you to describe the backyard of your dreams, what would you say? Your answer may depend on whether you're a man or a woman, says outdoor designer Scott Cohen. According to Cohen, when couples get together to plan their backyards, sparks fly. This is because they often find that their wish lists are worlds apart.

For men, the emphasis is usually on fun, action, and entertainment. Bigger is usually better - especially when it comes to their barbeques. For women, cozy, relaxing, and intimate are often the ground rules for just about everything from water features to outdoor fireplaces.

Cohen should know. As president of The Green Scene, an award winning outdoor design and construction firm, Cohen has 20 years of experience creating dream landscapes for couples who don't always initially see eye to eye.

Fire pit and bocce

"When we're designing for couples, we often find ourselves in the middle of a tug-of- war," says Cohen. "Men and women each want it their own way and they both try to use the designer to make that happen. The man might casually pull me aside to say he's in charge of the decision-making on this project. But as soon as he leaves the room, the woman will quickly tell me the same thing." While Cohen acknowledges that women actually make the majority of buying decisions, it's his goal to make sure that both parties have a chance to make their wishes heard.

So what are the latest outdoor "must haves" for men versus women?

An outdoor fire
Fireplaces can make a bold, artistic statement in the backyard and are becoming a popular way to define a gathering space. "Women see themselves relaxing in the glow of a crackling fire with their husbands, sipping a glass of wine, and discussing plans for their next vacation," says Cohen. "Men on the other hand, see themselves gathered around a blazing fire with the guys, smoking cigars and telling jokes." They usually want a fire pit and not a fireplace.

Outdoor Fireplace

Water features
Water features also hold different appeal for men and women, according to Cohen. "When women think 'waterfall,' they see a gurgling stream with a soothing sound and a peaceful setting that would attract hummingbirds and dragonflies." And men? "Picture something more like Niagara Falls," says Cohen. "Lots of boulders and crashing water."

wine bottle spa

Outdoor kitchens are gaining a huge popularity in landscape design and Cohen says the battle of the sexes shows up here as well. "Ladies want counter space and lots of it. They want a cutting board with a through-the-counter trash receptacle and built-in stainless steel drawers," says Cohen. "For men, it's all about the barbeque. They want the biggest grill they can find. We have men who pick a barbeque so big with a lid so heavy that the lady of the house can barely lift it. Maybe this is their way of making sure that they'll always be king of the BBQ," he laughs.

outdoor kitchen

A lot of men also want a beverage center where they can perform their bar-tending duties in style. "Think Tom Cruise in Cocktail," says Cohen. For these men, the wish list includes a through-the-counter beer tap and a stainless steel drop-in cooler with an accouterment tray for their array of lemons, limes, and cocktail umbrellas.

Sound and lights
Entertainment can be another sticking point. "Outdoor kitchens are starting to include plasma screens," says Cohen. "Men want outdoor surround sound systems that can really rock. Ladies want that too but they don't necessarily want to see the speakers."

So how do today's top designers avoid the fight scene with couples who clash on their landscape picks? "We always advise couples to get together to set priorities on their wish list before meeting with the designer," says Cohen. "There's an amusing negotiation that often takes place between men and women during this stage. Often it starts with a basic budget and a list of wants. The man might want a screaming sound system, huge barbeque, and a gushing waterfall. The woman might want a cozy fireplace, soft night lighting, and fragrant plantings. Some times this preliminary negotiation may result in a more realistic budget, but often, opposite tastes can be accommodated."

Yet, Cohen doesn't rely on the revised budget strategy. Instead he takes couples through a process that involves careful attention to the needs of both. "When I sit down with a design questionnaire, I always make sure both parties are present," says Cohen. "There's a difference in the importance and interpretation they each have for every landscaping element. I want to hear both interpretations."

Fire bowl

The planning process also involves educating clients on the possibilities. "It's not a matter of either/or," says Cohen. "If one wants a gushing waterfall and the other a relaxing trickle, we can provide a secondary pump. That way they can have it both ways: calm and relaxing or wild Niagara. The same thing applies to the spa. If each has a different preference on what feels good - gentle or forceful - we can add a booster pump. With a punch of the remote control we can go from relaxing and bubbly to "blow your mind."

Other elements can accommodate both tastes as well. An outdoor fire can provide a warm, relaxing ambiance in an elegant outdoor living room, but it can also blaze into glory when the guys come around. If one member wants outdoor sound but the other doesn't want to see speakers breaking up the landscape, they can be integrated into decorative faux rocks that blend in.

Finally, Cohen makes sure to include unique creative elements that he knows will captivate both. Cohen is known for using his own striking ceramics and sculptural work to create pieces that reflect the personalities, hobbies, and loves of his clients. By learning as much as he can about each, he can include touches that capture their imagination, bring them together, and remind them of the things they both love. "In the end," says Cohen, "our goal is an environment where both can feel great about the space they've created." The result is a landscape that keeps harmony in the relationship as well as in the garden.

Scott Cohen