Whether you’re in Tucson or Chicago, there’s one definitive smell that marks the start of fall when the first cool evening hits. “The entire town smells like a fire,” says Geno Neri, owner of Neri Landscape and Maintenance outside of Chicago.
With its familiar and primal allure, fire can extend the enjoyment of a patio or landscape as the seasons start to shift. Although it may not be a central focus during the day, a fire feature steals the show as soon as the sun goes down – providing heat and light that can keep the party roaring and set the mood for a memorable outdoor experience.
“The firepit is sort of the dream that people want when they come home. They want to hang out with friends and cook hot dogs and S’mores over the flames,” says Neri, estimating that at least 75 percent of the patios he designs and builds include a fire feature. “Fire makes a nice central gathering point, and it makes the patio go longer when we get cold nights.”
As the centerpiece of a successful landscape, firepits must be done right to be safe and functional, while also beautiful and unique enough to meet each customer’s needs. Here are the steps recommended by landscape contractors to design firepits that stand apart.
Ask the right questions.
Most of Bill Krause’s landscape clients come to Terra Design through referrals. “They’ll say, ‘I saw what you did over at Joe’s house, and I want that,’” says Krause, past president of the Arizona Landscape Contractors Association, who received the ALCA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. “But we have to design it to fit their needs, their personality, and their project.”
Likewise, before Neri starts any patio, he asks his clients plenty of questions to discover what they have in mind. “The biggest thing is the communication; really talking to them and finding out what they’re looking for and what they’re going to use it for,” Neri says. “The key is taking the time to ask the additional questions to get to the root of what kind of experience they’re looking for from their firepit.”
For example, if a customer plans to cook out over their fire, Neri wants to know how often and for how many people. These kinds of questions will determine the size and placement of a firepit, and even the type of fuel it uses.
“If they’re going to use it more often, like every couple of days, then I’m going to recommend a gas starter for convenience,” Neri says. “If someone wants a wood-burning fire, then (I ask) where they’re going to be in a few years. Are they still going to get the kindling and the wood to start the fire, or are they going to want something a little easier, where they can just turn the key and light the fire?”
Neri installs just as many wood-burning features as natural gas firepits. Generally, he says, “it seems like the men more likely want to build the big wood fire, whereas lots of times, women are just looking to turn it on and get it going.” If he has to mediate the two, he’ll suggest a compromise of a gas starter to ignite regular wood.
Follow safety rules.
Your client may have a dream of their ideal fire feature, but as the contractor, you’re the expert on what’s realistic and appropriate, according to local safety standards.
As much as customers love the idea of burning wood, it might not be the best choice – especially in dry climates. “Everybody loves the smell of mesquite wood burning, but in the desert, we have to protect from the sparks,” says Krause, who’s based in Tucson. “We have to put screens on the chimney as well as the opening of the fireplace, because we don’t want wood popping and starting the desert on fire.”
That’s why Krause tries to steer clients toward natural gas firepits with on/off valves and safety locks for more control. About 75 percent of the fire features he installs are fueled by natural gas – and since all gas pipes in Arizona require permits, he must follow city and county laws that dictate the size of gas pipe he can run to each feature.
While certain rules may limit the possibilities for firepits, consider how the stipulations might fuel your creativity.
“In our area, a firepit with a three-foot opening needs to be 25 feet away from the house,” Neri says. “That’s one of the things that we’re always educating our customers about. In yards with bigger patios, that’s not a problem, but if we’re on a small lot, that 25-foot rule can limit where you’re putting that firepit.”
Since the local code does allow a 30-inch temporary firepit structure, Neri often integrates that into small patio designs instead. “We might build a platform for that (portable firepit) to be on,” he says, “and we still design everything around that.”
Geno Neri estimates 75% of the patios he designs and builds include firepits.
Design with the flow.
The key to building a firepit with “wow” appeal is making it a cohesive part of the whole landscape.
For example, if fire codes prohibit a firepit on the patio near the house, Neri might move the fire feature to a remote corner of the yard, and then design a path leading to it. “We don’t want it to be an eyesore like a wishing well sticking out in the middle of the yard,” he says. “Sometimes we have to landscape around it differently to make sure it’s incorporated.”
Whether you’re adding a fire feature to an existing landscape or starting a whole design from scratch, the firepit needs to fit in.
“Form and function are key,” Krause says. “A lot of projects I’ve been to (look like someone said), ‘Oh, let’s just throw in a firepit,’ as an afterthought. The fire feature needs to fit the function of the landscape, as well as the look, the feel and the flow. So, when we do a project, we design the overall landscape as a whole package that all flows together.”
Selecting materials that match the surrounding landscape is the secret to creating firepits that fit. “You can’t just use some random material that’s not found anywhere else in the yard,” Krause says. “It needs to look like it belongs there.”
Awesome anywhere: Featuring natural materials allows you to spruce up firepits to match any surroundings.
Speaking of materials, Neri says firepits have been trending toward more natural products, like natural stone and boulders, instead of concrete blocks. By finding creative ways to feature natural materials, contractors can spruce up firepits to match any surroundings.
“We still do a lot of the concrete firepits, but we’ve been doing more of the flagstone masonry and other natural products,” Neri says. “If you’re trying to stand out and do something a little bit different, come up with a different combination of materials.”
For instance, Neri might cap a traditional cement block firepit with natural stone to match the accents in the surrounding seat walls and patio pillars, to create a contrast with a brick patio.
Krause prefers to stick to similar materials. Since rock gardens are popular in the Southwest, he says boulder firepits fit right into the natural stone surroundings. But he advises clients to stay consistent in the overall theme of their landscape.
“A lot of homeowners look on the internet and they’ll come up with a nice natural rock garden, and then they want a standard concrete fireplace. But that doesn’t quite fit with what we’re doing here,” he says. “If we’re doing a nice formal garden, then we won’t put in a natural boulder firewall that doesn’t go with the setting.”
Create an experience.
Neri’s firepit business has been fairly stable, and he expects it to remain steady. Krause, who estimates that about half of his company’s projects include a fire feature, thinks this service will grow as homeowners continue to realize the value of creating their own resort experience at home.
“People are staying home more and not going out and blowing money like they were before the recession hit,” Krause says. “We’re spending a lot of time at home, so let’s have our own little resort in our backyard, versus going to a resort and spending hundreds of dollars over the weekend.”
As this trend continues, he sees more opportunities for contractors who can effectively translate a client’s backyard dream into a cohesive landscape centered around a firepit that fits the form and function of the space.
The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.
John C. Maxwell, famed leadership author and speaker, once said, “A leader is one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way.” Syngenta is proud to sponsor the 2019 Lawn & Landscape Leadership Awards to recognize the industry leaders who have successfully navigated and conquered many mazes throughout their careers, and have worked relentlessly to make the paths straighter for their colleagues and companies. We are honored to work with and recognize these leaders who remove roadblocks, clear the obstacles and get straight to success.
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We also continue to innovate with products like Manuscript® herbicide, which provides post-emergence control of mature grassy weeds like crabgrass, tropical signalgrass and more in certain warm-season turf species. Syngenta also offers many digital tools and programs on GreenCastOnline.com like free marketing materials, soil temperature alerts and Growing Degree Day alerts. Sign up for alerts and receive relevant information to help you improve your customers’ turf all season.
Congratulations to the 2019 Lawn & Landscape leadership class! Your dedication to your colleagues, your business and our industry inspires us to be reliable partners for tools, programs and products that can help you succeed. We look forward to growing beside leaders like you for years to come.
For more information about resources for your lawn and landscape business, please visit GreenCastOnline.com/Lawn.
Turf Market Manager
Syngenta Lawn and Garden
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Client expectations are higher than ever before. Clients are asking for – rather, I mean demanding – a higher-level service. Not only are expectations high, but there’s little patience or tolerance for error when it comes to service nowadays. To further underscore the importance of recognizing and taking the client’s growing expectations and shrinking tolerance to heart: clients have more choices than ever before when choosing a service provider. Fortunately, our capabilities have also been growing exponentially.
Given the tremendous capabilities now available, snow and ice management contractors and service providers have a unique opportunity to meet the challenge of growing client expectations. They can do this all while establishing a competitive advantage over the competition by fully leveraging today’s enhanced capabilities.
I believe all big challenges in business have the ability to actually become competitive advantages, for those business leaders determined to make it so. Widespread challenges in business, even that of growing client expectations, can be capitalized upon and made into a distinct advantage.
An overwhelming majority of the competition will treat a challenge as a challenge, holding open the proverbial front-door for the few who choose to, instead of struggle, capitalize. By exploiting a challenge as a competitive advantage, companies stand to gain market share, profits and positive brand awareness.
So, what is driving rising client expectations?
I believe it’s at least in part because they’ve learned exactly how capable we’ve become. We’ve sold them on what’s possible – what can be done – and now they want it. We’re out there selling how great we’ve become, how advanced and wonderful our operation is; so, they want to see it. And now, clients are more informed than ever before. They understand what level of service is possible from snow and ice management contractors.
Our equipment is state of the art, so we sell that. Our systems and processes are better than ever before, so we sell that. Our technology is beyond impressive, so we sell that. We have GPS systems with geofencing and timestamping. Our anti-icing and deicing abilities are incredibly refined, so we sell that. We have certification programs, continuous education, and training; we sell that. We have ways of mitigating environmental impact, so we sell that.
Perhaps most importantly, we are capable of effectively and significantly reducing liability, so we sell that, too.
As an industry, we’ve increased our clients’ expectations. We’ve done a good job selling them on how incredibly improved and modernized our product and service has become. Now, and rightfully so, they expect us to deliver. Our clients are only holding us accountable to the super-high standards we’ve sold them. We’re more capable than ever before; our clients know that, and simply expect us to provide their service accordingly.
To keep up, or better yet exceed our clients’ expectations, we must take full advantage of all that’s out there. We need to give them all they’ve come to expect, and then some. We must use today and tomorrow’s tools, technologies, and techniques to not only compete, but to set ourselves apart from the competition.
Truth be told, most of your competition will fall somewhere in the middle when it comes to fully utilizing all that’s available. This is how you can turn the challenge of growing expectations into an advantage for your organization.
Business leaders aiming to be on the cutting edge (pun intended Snow Fighters) can do so by continuing to advocate for, and selling an improved and modern way of doing things. What’s next? You have to deliver. You must perform noticeably and consistently better than your competition.
Delivery is key. Results matter. Having GPS, for example, is just an unnecessary frivolous expense if not properly utilized to deliver better service. The latest and greatest anti-icing and deicing equipment does little to advance your competitive advantage, if not utilized to noticeably improve service. Having a well-trained, educated and certified staff means very little if the best practices learned aren’t consistently executed. Furthermore, take time to teach your prospects and clients the measurable value they receive from having well-trained, educated, and certified workers on their site(s). If the client doesn’t know or notice, it doesn’t matter.
If your snow program works to mitigate slip-and-fall liability, make sure your clients know and notice what you’re doing. If you’re working smart to address environmental concerns, make sure you customers recognize this so they can accurately evaluate your performance and value. Your clients must know what you’re doing – it’s your job to teach them. Then, your clients will notice what you did. It’s your job to deliver!
Unfortunately, many will struggle to keep up as client expectations continue to grow. The good news is, there is a golden opportunity within reach for those companies committed to being on the industry’s cutting edge.
By fully utilizing today and tomorrow’s tool chest, and by giving your clients a level of service they can’t easily replace, you’ll be able to set yourself and your company apart. If you meet your clients’ high expectations with an even higher level of service, you’ll effectively turn what’s become a challenge for most, into an advantage for you!
Mike Voories is the chief operating officer at Brilar, a commercial landscape & snow maintenance firm with locations across the Midwest.
The old “my dog ate my homework” excuse holds no weight in a court of law when documentation is required to clear you from a questionable slip-and-fall claim. So, what’s a snow contractor to do?
While a fair percentage of contractors still rely on pen and paper as the core of their documentation procedure, the best advice to avoid dealing with lost or damaged site documents is to go digital.
“Digitally story documentation when at all possible,” says attorney Justine Baakman. “It’s much easier to store documents in the cloud then to find a space for paper documents.”
There are methods for reproducing documents that won’t negatively influence the defense in a slip-and-fall case, Baakman says. For example, if a contractor spills coffee on a site report and it needs to be handwritten, that’s okay as long as it’s noted, she says.
“If you handwrite a report and then later type up a digital version, then both versions should be kept,” she says. “However, if the handwritten copy gets lost or damaged, as long as it’s noted and you can give a credible explanation, generally that’s OK. But we’re always going to need to note that this is not the original document.
“The other party is entitled to the original document,” she adds. “And if for some reason the original isn’t available, we need to make (opposing counsel) aware of that.”
And if a document simply cannot be produced because it was either lost or damaged, Baakman says it’s considered “adverse inference” by the court and is not favorable to the defense in a slip-and-fall case.
“From a jury’s perspective, that’s something that will be looked down upon,” she says. “If a document existed and is now no longer there, it’s seen as benefitting the opposing party’s case.”
While the statute of limitation on a slip-and-fall claim is two years, Baakman recommends snow contractors maintain their documents for at least five years.
“Often, you might get a case where the lawsuit may get filed, but [the contractor] may not be aware it was filed for two and a half to three years after the incident happened because, maybe, the [contractor] wasn’t served properly,” he says. “With digital storage nowadays, that shouldn’t be too much of a burden on the contractor.”
And when in doubt, Baakman recommends snow and ice management contractors always consult their attorneys on the proper way to maintain, reproduce and store the documents that relate to their business.
Mike Zawacki is the editor of Snow Magazine.