Heavy in hardscapes

Features - Cover Story

As the escalation in design/build projects slows for some, hardscape companies are contesting material cost increases and shortages while plowing through a backlog of work.

September 22, 2022

Editor’s note: These results are based on approximately 150 contractors. Due to rounding, not all percentages will equal 100%.

When the coronavirus hit in 2020 and stay-at-home orders became mainstream, everyone was dreaming of a backyard oasis, which caused a boom in design/build work for hardscape companies.

Fast-forward two years, and some lucky contractors are still just as busy. But now they are battling supply chain issues along with fluctuating material costs and inflation in addition to their backlog of work.

Despite all of this, the state of the hardscape industry seems to be trending in the right direction.

Photo © bmak | Adobe Stock

Booming backlog

“The past two years have been incredible,” says Scott Gasparini, VP and partner with Gasparini Landscaping Co., in Camillus, N.Y. “We’ve been busier than can be. The whole pandemic created this idea of staycations — everyone wants their own vacation in their backyard. Whether that’s a small patio with a firepit or an elaborate design with a pool, outdoor kitchen and the whole dream. The pandemic created a huge demand for hardscapes.”

Sales for new projects haven’t slowed down, Gasparini says. In fact, he believes the company will be selling halfway into next season by the end of the calendar year.

“Right now, we’re telling people June 2023,” Gasparini says. “We’ve got quite the backlog… Our season in New York typically ranges from St. Patrick’s Day to Christmas.”

Dave Busch, a landscape architect with Chick Landscaping in Burtonsville, Md., says they are even busier in 2022 than they were at the height of COVID-19. “We’ve seen an uptick in project size, scope and budget, definitely last year but more so this year,” he says. “We work with a couple other local landscape architects who trust us with their clients, and those projects have pushed the boundaries of our schedule, which has been great. Through them and new leads, we’re getting to where we haven’t seen a slowdown whatsoever.”

Busch says he’s scheduling projects nearly seven months ahead already. Surprisingly, he says customers are OK with this wait time, too.

“In regard to our client base, everyone is on board in terms of timelines and delays and supply chain issues,” he says. “Managing their perceptions of schedules is really the key in terms of sales right now.”

While all these jobs pouring in are great, Gasparini says it’s good to be realistic — he doesn’t see this overabundance of work lasting much longer. “I see that changing just with rising interest rates and new home construction starting to decline a bit,” he says. “A lot of people pay for stuff like this with a home equity loan, and when interest rates get up to 6 or 7% it doesn’t look as appealing. I think we’ll start to see some pullback.”

Courtesy of Rolling Hills Landscapes

That slowdown is already starting for Rolling Hills Landscapes, of Pittsburgh, Pa., according to Owner Amanda Linder.

“For a lot of companies, the trouble is usually finding labor and work is just overflowing — we’re having the opposite problem,” she says. “We’re steady but we’re never crazy busy or backed up… we’re never more than four to six weeks out.”

The same dilution of new projects is true over in St. Louis for Jason Vahle, owner of Green Thumb Lawn Care N’ Landscape. However, he says having a solid labor pool has kept his crews from getting behind this season.

“I participate in the H-2B visa program,” he says. “In the last few years, we’ve been fortunate to be in Group A. This will be our fourth year in a row that we’re Group A, so we got our guys and that’s in addition to our local talent that we hire. As of right now, we’re fully staffed and on no overtime. From a backlog standpoint, we aren’t doing too bad.”

Regardless of the slowdown, Vahle says the pandemic was critical in helping him and others better shape their business to handle increasing work and other struggles.

“COVID forced organization for everyone,” he says. “There are no last-minute changes anymore. You have to be practical and pragmatic about your ordering and study your schedules three weeks out so you know what crews are going to need.”

Suffering shortages

There’s been no shortage of supply chain struggles for Busch, Gasparini, Linder or Vahle. They all say things are taking significantly longer to get in then they did pre-pandemic, and it’s having an impact on how they plan projects and what products customers can select.

But Busch says with such a backlog of work, the extra time to get materials lined

up is beneficial.

“Having the lead time we have for projects gives us the opportunity to get those orders in upfront,” he says. “We haven’t had too many major problems — a couple little things here and there with specific items but they haven’t been holding up a project. If we are just waiting for a particular firepit or pizza oven, we’ll just build around it. We do all the groundwork and then when it comes in, we put it in and finish around it. We aren’t getting in there to get started and then having to pull off a project leaving the people’s yards ripped up for extended periods of time.” For Linder, supply chain issues weren’t too common before this season.

“We really didn’t experience this stuff last year,” she says. “Materials are proving to be a problem now. Wet cast pavers are hard to come by and planning to get them when we need them is difficult. We’ve had to go find alternatives that are available and that the customer likes.”

Linder recalls being on the phone recently with her supplier who told her it’d be at least 10 weeks to get her stone in. This was a major problem, she says, as the customers were looking to have their driveway done by the end of the summer.

“Some places have a wait time of 40 to 60 weeks,” she adds. “And for some products, they won’t even give you a timeline because they don’t even know when it’ll be in.”

This lack of availability has caused some customers to change course on a project or (even worse) cancel it, Linder says.

“People are having to make some more compromises on what they want just based on what’s available,” she says. “I’ve lost two driveways to colors that aren’t being made anymore. People have a certain color paver already on their property and wanted to match it.”

Additionally, Gasparini says purchasing trucks and equipment has been hard, too.

“There’s been some equipment struggles,” he says. “We used to be able to just buy a new machine… we’ve had a couple new machines on order since January and we still haven’t received them yet. Getting trucks and equipment timely is a thing of the past. No longer can you just get a truck right off the dealer’s lot.”

This is also an obstacle Vahle knows all too well.

“Finding trucks has been a problem this year,” he says. “I ordered five brand-new trucks in January, and we only received three of them by the end of April. They still can’t give us an ETA on the other two, so I had to purchase two used trucks just to get through.

“But given the used vehicle market right now, I paid over and above what I’d normally pay for a used vehicle. It was practically the same as a brand-new truck,” Vahle says.

Unpredictable prices

While limited supplies are already one hurdle, Linder says the frequency in which prices are changing for materials can be even harder to combat.

“Materials are costing us and causing us to scramble,” she says. “As soon as I get a deposit, I’m reaching out to our vendors to make sure things are reserved. This is the first year that block and paver prices have gone up in the middle of the season. The price of pallets themselves have doubled.”

This has caused a slight change in sales tactics for Rolling Hills Landscapes.

“On one hand, it’s kind of a positive because it’s made people hurry up and get under contract when they hear prices are going up,” Linder says.

Photo courtesy of Green Thumb Lawn Care N’ Landscape
Photo courtesy of Gasparini Landscaping Co.

The everchanging prices has also caused Chicks Landscaping to redo their contracts.

“The one thing we do contractually, if it’s a big job or a ways out, is we tell the people unless you buy it right now, these prices are good for 90 days or 60 days or whatever it is. I’ve done some projects where pricing is good for seven days. If they don’t pull the trigger in that time frame, then potentially there is a cost increase.”

Vahle says even with the ongoing cost increases, Green Thumb is still on par number wise. He, too, has lowered his quotes from a 30-day guarantee down to five days.

“We’ve never really been pushy about sales, but we have been telling people if they’re going to do this, they need to make a decision and not sit on it too long,” he says.

The uncertainty in pricing is even impacting suppliers and what special deals and things they can offer, Vahle says.

“We could usually talk to our vendors and get some pretty long-term pricing fixed for things and know that for the next two to four months it’s going to be that price,” he says. “But that’s not the case. Not only is that a problem, but now I don’t even know if one vendor to the next will have what I need.”

Gasparini says he’d take the supply chain disruptions over these rising costs any day.

“The hardest part has been cost-wise,” he says. “We keep seeing costs continue to increase. So, the biggest battle has been trying to keep costs down on signed contracts.”

Customers still are looking for elaborate backyard hardscapes, but material shortages and rising costs play a factor in how quickly companies can deliver.
Photo courtesy of Chick Landscaping
With material costs changing rapidly, some companies are shortening the window on quotes they provide.
Photo courtesy of Chick Landscaping

Wheeling and dealing

Inflation and rising costs aren’t just a problem for the green industry though.

“People are used to that factor,” Busch says. “It’s on everyone’s radar. No one likes it and we get a little wheeling and dealing but that’s part of the game, too. It’s a tough thing because everyone’s looking for the best price and I think everyone’s going to start tightening up a little bit in terms of competitive pricing.” Linder says this season has been especially bad for lowball competitors and customers price shopping more and more.

“There’s still guys out there that are willing to do anything for any price,” she says. “This year, there are lot more customers trying to wheel and deal. They’ll tell us, ‘I got prices from two other guys and yours is the highest.’ Knock $800 and we’ll do this deal today…’ I’m thinking this might be a product of inflation.”

Even though Busch believes inflation will cause companies to bid projects higher, he notes it’s still a balancing act.

“We aren’t the most expensive people, but we aren’t the cheapest guy out there. We try to give a good, quality professional product at a competitive price and that’s where we always want to be at,” he says. “We want to be that reference to friends, neighbors and everyone.”

The author is assistant editor of Lawn & Landscape.