Material matters

Material matters

Features - Design/Build

Hardscape products expand creative possibilities for landscape companies.

April 8, 2019

Pavers, brick, cultured and natural stone are the foundation of an outdoor living room – literally, these design-build materials create the grounds for building functional, beautiful spaces in the natural environment. The range of products and creative applications implemented by landscape designers allow for surfaces and structures that complement surrounding buildings – or stand out as a statement. No two jobs are the same.

“There’s a lot that goes into planning a hardscape project, but when you boil it down, most of it has to do with the final purpose – what the customer wants in the end and what their budget is,” says Michael Metcalf, a landscape architect at Kimberly Nurseries in Twin Falls, Idaho.

From designing the project to selecting materials and managing the supply inventory, hardscaping can be a labor-intensive and complex division of a full-service landscape business.

But it’s also an in-demand service, says Ben Carter, president of Carter Land Services in Brunswick, Georgia.

Since Carter Land Services started its hardscape division eight years ago, its southeast market has kept crews busy with patio, driveway and walkway projects. This is not to mention the company’s proximity to one of the country’s largest hardscape suppliers. Tremron Pavers is just 50 miles away and provides easy access to supplies. This convenience eases the planning side of hardscape projects, Carter says.

So many options.

Before selecting materials for a project, Metcalf considers the ultimate use of the hardscape space. “If the homeowners are going to be out entertaining on the surface, you’ll want to go with something that is more acceptable for placing furniture or rolling a barbecue grill around,” Metcalf says, adding that a concrete paver would be a better option than flagstone, with its joints and uneven surface.

On the other hand, a walkway in flagstone can add texture and character to a functional feature, so it’s useful and attractive. Natural stone slabs can form steps and add an organic touch to a concrete paver or cultured stone surface – and boulders can create outcroppings that are less manicured than an interlocking concrete block retaining wall.

Designers weigh both function and aesthetics before selecting hardscape materials.

Carter says more clients are asking for 4-by-8 brick, including reclaimed brick for an antique look in his area. “We have a nice market for reclaimed brick in this area, where old building bricks are salvaged and resold,” he says.

He’s also seeing more interest in brick walkways, patios, driveways and fire pits. “Some are sand-set and swept for a really classy look, and we are also doing projects that are specified with brick-and-mortar soldier lines,” he says. “We’ve done entire courtyards of brick and mortar.”

In Metcalf’s Midwest market, more commercial and residential clients are asking for concrete pavers, and they’re using cultured stone for projects like outdoor kitchens. “We can select stone to match the house,” he says.

Hardscape materials provide endless avenues for creativity, and Metcalf says delivering interesting designs is what separates Kimberly Nurseries from other contractors in the area. “We have designers in-house who come up with creative, custom hardscapes – not just a concrete pad or a monoculture of pavers,” he says. “We spice it up by incorporating seat walls, steps and changing up the patterns and elevations. We also include boulders into our hardscapes so it’s not all concrete block or concrete paver.”

But, you can’t forget the softscape and water, Metcalf says.

“We’ve taken water features and had them disappear into the paver patio, and we try to use specimen plants for focal points,” he says. “The main thing is to be sure the whole landscape works together so it doesn’t look like your patio is sticking out like a sore thumb. You want to soften up the edges.”

The team at Kimberly Nurseries always looks at the end use of a project before selecting materials.
Photo courtesy of Kimberly Nurseries

The inventory game.

While hardscape materials are readily available in Carter’s area of the country with a major supplier nearby, Metcalf says sourcing materials is a little more challenging in Idaho.

“In the Twin Falls/Magic Valley area, there is a limited supply chain, so we try to go with materials that are made locally in the region,” he says.

Metcalf has sourced materials from the East Coast where there is more variety, he says. But that can drive up the cost of a project.

Ordering hardscape materials on a per-project basis prevents a buildup of inventory, which is basically money sitting on the shelf. Metcalf and Carter both source hardscape pavers, stone and brick as needed. “We naturally have material leftover from projects, so we created a very small amount of inventory that we can pull from to complete orders,” Carter says.

Carter Land Services has two locations with a total of about 3.5 acres of yard. Carter is always checking on the buildup of extra product so those materials can be worked into upcoming projects. “We try to get rid of them within a few years because after they weather you can’t match them anymore,” he says.

As for basic supplies to get jobs done – masonry sand, crushed aggregate, polymeric sand, etc. – keeping these products in stock is convenient, and since most projects require the same “ingredients,” those materials are eventually put to work.

Edging material depends on the project and location. Because of the freeze-thaw activity Idaho experiences, Metcalf says Kimberly Nurseries prefers aluminum edging for exposed edges because it stays in the ground better in dicey weather. But in southern climates, this isn’t such an issue, Carter says. That’s why Carter Land Services applies concrete edging (not plastic, he says).

“It all starts with what the customer needs and wants.” Michael Metcalf, landscape architect, Kimberly Nurseries

The cutting edge.

Hardscape services are competitive, and between the growing DIY market and more contractors embracing property owners’ desire to create outdoor living spaces, landscape companies playing in this space recognize a need to maximize efficiency without sacrificing quality. Also, because innovative designs fetch a higher fee than basic surfaces, staying up on the latest materials and techniques creates a market advantage.

“We go to trade shows and look at magazines,” Metcalf says, adding that his hardscape teams are certified with the Interlocking Concrete Paver Institute and have the Landscape Industry Certified designation from the National Association of Landscape Professionals.

“We are always working on improving efficiency, and the biggest thing we have focused on in the last 10 years is making sure that our people are certified,” Metcalf says.

Carter’s team is also ingrained in the industry, attending seminars and tapping into vendor education offerings, he says. “We keep up to speed on the latest products and installation methods,” he says.

Hardscape is a creative base for stunning outdoor living projects, and landscape firms that are growing into this space or elevating their team’s skills will continue to redefine the market.

Metcalf describes a project his team is about to kick off for the Clif Bar & Company headquarters. “We are doing bike pathways out of recycled, crushed concrete,” he says of one small piece of the sustainable landscaping initiative on that site.

The best thing about hardscaping is the possibilities. But, Metcalf says, “It all starts with what the customer needs and wants.”