Weigh the pros and cons of adding deck building to your service offering.
Diana Grundeen runs her company, Trio Landscaping, a little differently than others in that she handles the design work and client interaction and leaves the labor up to a variety of subcontractors. That goes for deck building, too, since, in Minnesota, you have to be a licensed contractor to do construction. “This is because you’re attaching to the structure of a home,” Grundeen says.
“And I have to admit that, for the most part, the landscape industry isn’t a licensed industry. So if you don’t have that, you can’t be building decks.” Codes have to be complied with, the work has to meet inspection requirements and certain standards have to be met.
“It seems simple to do that type of work, but staying up with all the current codes and what’s needed is very important. Working with the partners I do can educate me, and I can then forward that information to our clients,” Grundeen says. But providing deck services in her portfolio is worth it.
She can give customers the full effect of a backyard and how the deck will interact with the patio, plantings and how the family moves throughout the space. Plus, the deck and patio need to work together because the deck needs to have its steps land on the patio.
“So we can plan ahead for those spaces a little more efficiently to know that they are going to work instead of adding a patio and then realizing there is no place for a deck,” she says.
Working with subs.
Trio Landscaping earns about $500,000 in annual sales with 10-15 percent of that coming from deck work, and caters to mostly residential customers. Grundeen, who says she sells two to three decks a year, is the only employee, but she can have up to five crews of five people working for her at any given time.
She offers consultation, design and project management for outdoor living from concept to completion, including plantings, trees, shrubs, perennials, patios, retaining walls, lighting and water features. She allows the subcontracting companies to structure the crews that work on her projects.
Grundeen has been including decks in her projects over the last 10 years. She has been in the industry for 20 years, running her own company the last four. Throughout her career, she has been developing networks of subcontractors she can trust to become valued partners. “I am putting my name on things, and it’s my reputation on the line, so I have special relationships I’ve built over time,” she says. “There are some people I’ll say, ‘I have this project and I’m going to see how you do, and if you do really well then maybe I’ll have more work for you.’ And there are some people I won’t use again because they weren’t able to follow through on the product they said they could deliver and conduct the work in a timely fashion.”
Grundeen advises landscape companies that are looking to build decks themselves to look into the local codes and licensure regulations because there are certain liabilities that go along with that. She says there is the national building code, but state and cities can add to that. In Minnesota, you must be a licensed contractor to build, which requires an application and fees.
Also, make sure you’re properly insured, have the proper equipment and have a decent crew that’s knowledgeable on home construction. Grundeen says her crews have special trucks to haul the lumber needed, a skid-steer with an auger bit to create footings, a hammer drill and a truck full of carpentry tools for the wood working itself.
Then, you should also ask yourself if they have enough work to keep their crew working. Grundeen says deck building is different than landscaping because you don’t need ideal weather to build decks. “Planning ahead keeps the opportunity to work open,” she says. “It doesn’t take long to install footings vs building the rest of the deck.”
Grundeen says she doesn’t do any stand alone decks, and many times sells both the landscape job and deck at once to phase them in and help a client’s budget. “Sometimes a deck is a better solution for a client’s needs, or needs to happen in combination with the landscape to create the opportunity for using the yard, as in coming out of an upper level door,” she says.
Matt Breyer’s company, Breyer Construction, in Reading Pa., does its own decks. The company started out as two companies, one construction (his) and one landscape (his brothers), and merged the two, blending the residential remodeling (with a focus on decks) with maintenance/hardscape. The company has approximately a 90 (deck)/10 (landscaping) percent split to its mix. “Realizing that we had a lot of well-qualified landscape/hardscape contractors and no dedicated deck contractors, plus that our personnel tended to prefer construction over maintenance, we started to get more specific in our marketing and training,” Breyer says, adding the company has a gross profit of between 25-35 percent on deck projects. "And when we hired, we focused on carpentry skill over landscaping skill."
Breyer, whose company grossed $1.5 million in sales in 2013, has 10 employees and mostly residential clients, says landscaping is highly competitive in his area, but it’s trending towards a more complete picture of "backyard living.
Landscapers looking to add it to their portfolio of services can expect training costs, tool costs and a learning curve of “real-world training” that will most likely hurt their bottom line as they grow in that direction.
“But for some contractors, it can be the right move, especially if it can provide a service that’s lacking in your marketplace and a leg up on other comparable service providers,” Breyer says.
Licensing is an issue now for many states, Breyer says, forcing landscapers to reclassify their laborers to carpentry for insurance purposes. And that can cost a good bit more money. Also, he says decks have gotten a lot of attention from code development and are now fairly well-regulated.
“Knowing codes better than your local inspectors and having a solid relationship with an engineering firm that understands residential decks (and is realistic on engineering fees) is a critical asset,” he says.
Breyer advises to spend time learning and subcontract with a local deck builder on a few projects first to gain a better understanding of how decks integrate into your landscaping business.
You may end up deciding to stay on that level, while bringing in a specialist on occasion. Or you might find a new “deck crew” and make them part of your company.
At the very least, you’ll get a better understanding of your competition and what personnel and equipment you’ll need in order to do the best job for your clients.
The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.
Visit bit.ly/Grundeen to hear Grundeen talk about how she works with her subcontractors and what challenges she faces.