More than good looks

Features - Design/Build

Choosing pavers or stone comes down to more than appearance.

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March 14, 2016
Catherine Meany
Assess the site conditions and the expected use of an area before choosing the material to make sure it can stand the test of time.
Photos courtesy of Richter Landscape Company

Hardscapes can be the perfect complement to well-maintained landscaping, both on a client’s property and for the growth of a contractor’s business. But the success of this pairing often depends on how well a contractor keeps up with the latest trends in materials. Whether it be the timeless, classic look of natural stone, or the contemporary, linear look that many pavers have, contractors have more options than ever to fit their clients’ tastes.

“We’re always going to go where the market is taking us and with what the client wants. That’s what’s most important to us,” says John Richter, owner of Richter Landscape Company in Birmingham, Alabama. After more than 20 years in the business, Richter has noticed that clients in his region continue to prefer the look of natural stone, particularly the earthy Alabama Brown flagstone as well as bluestone.

In Michigan, Decra-Scape President Matt Caruso has found that larger plank and slab pavers are trending with both his commercial and residential clients. Decra-Scape takes on projects as large as roadways and parking lots to ones as small as a front walkway. While each client’s preference is always the primary factor in material choice, there are factors unique to each case.

“We were just looking at an application where they really loved these 6 by 24 pavers for a drop-off area at the front of a hospital where there’s going to be ambulances and maybe fire trucks driving across it,” Caruso says. “That’s where you have to be careful. That paver doesn’t meet the aspect ratio for a vehicular application and it may break. So you have to change your whole system to accommodate that.”

Survey the land.

A contractor must have a good understanding of those techniques and be able to assess other site conditions to make the best decisions for their clients. In this case, the bituminous application method would make the system rigid enough to make the project feasible.

But other factors like soil percolation, grade and water drainage systems must be addressed to prevent problems like ponding and cracking of the surface material.

“Eighty percent of the work is below the surface,” Caruso says. “If you’re going to have a successful application, the work is absolutely in the base or the subgrade.”

Richter also attributes the majority of the problems he’s encountered with pavers and stone to mistakes made when preparing the subgrade. If a contractor rushes through the process and fails to build a layer correctly, it often results in recurring issues that may ultimately lead to redoing the job.

“If you do a weak job on your subgrade, your paver job is going to be trash and you’re going to have a nightmare on your hands,” he says.

“I’m going to sound like my grandfather here, but you’ve got to have your foundation. A house is only as good as the foundation it sits on. A paver or flagstone wall is only as good as its foundation.”

Ready to install.

Luckily, the latest paver products can help contractors battle these challenges. Pavers allow for flexible systems that can endure freeze and thaw climates well. Permeable pavers have also gained popularity for their ability to alleviate water runoff issues.

These features, along with probable cost-savings compared to natural stone, make pavers appealing for many clients.

“If a client wants to cover a large area, there may be a cost savings in using pavers,” Richter says. “But then again, you could choose a three-piece paver that’s on the higher end and it could be close to the same cost as installing flagstone.”

Both the material and labor cost are higher with natural stone because of the specialized skill level required to lay and maintain it. Contractors must take a natural product and get it to fit like a puzzle piece. It also requires precise work with mortar and sealers to fill and protect joints against environmental factors, Richter says.

Large manufacturers have simultaneously made pavers easily accessible, Caruso says. They have tried to compete with the aesthetic appeal of natural stone by offering look-alike options such as cleft finish and wet cast pavers.

But for many projects, contractors don’t have to choose one or the other, he says. Mixing and matching different products may not only add interest and dimension to a space, but may also solve certain logistical issues and allow contractors to take advantage of the benefits of different products.

Tools for the job.

In addition to choosing the right products, contractors should ensure that they are using the appropriate equipment for the job.

Caruso sees a lot of contractors who aren’t using the appropriate tools to compact the base and subgrade.

“The minimum centrifugal force you should look for out of a compactor unit is 5,000 pounds on your base system,” he says. “Most contractors aren’t using something even comparable to that. This can cause movement in the base over time, which leads to deformations in the grade and collecting water.”

Contractors should also stay up to date with new and improved tools that can create labor efficiencies. Equipment such as mechanical layers and paver lifters make what would normally have been a two-man job doable by one, Caruso says.

“You’d be smart to take advantage of the tools that are available to you to get more done with less,” he says.

The author is a freelance writer based in Louisville, Kentucky.