Industry Outlook

Gross sales for segmental concrete pavement contractors in the U.S. and Canada increased by 8.8% in 2016, according to a new report recently released by the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI). In all, 218 contractors from all-sized companies participated in the 2017 ICPI Contractor Industry Survey conducted during January for ICPI by Industry Insights of Columbus, OH. Three-quarters of the companies responding to the survey pave residential projects and the remainder place commercial pavements, including housing and publicly funded works.

Most of the respondents to the survey were company owners, presidents or executives. Most companies have been in business 10 years or longer and almost half had annual sales of $1 million or greater with 10 or more employees. Most companies provide on-the-job training on installation best practices as well as on worksite safety and equipment maintenance. 69.1% of contractors required crews to review and participate in formal, documented safety programs, an increase of 4.1% from 2015.

Over half of the companies use wet saws for cutting, dust masks and/or respirators to reduce silica inhalation on job sites. Over two-thirds use wet saws for cutting with a vacuum dust collection system. Almost one-fourth use dry saws for cutting with a vacuum system.

The strengthening economy is making reliable labor harder to find, as reported by almost three-quarters of the respondents. The next most challenging aspect of running their businesses is increasing overhead costs. Almost all respondents have at least one ICPI Certified Concrete Paver Installer on their payroll. Average wages/salaries increased by 3.0% in 2016 and are forecasted to increase again in 2017 by 3.2%.

Man cutting pavers at jobsite.

Since new OSHA rules on reduced exposure to silica dust start in June 2017, the ICPI contractor survey specifically addressed how employees avoid dust exposure when cutting pavers at jobsites.

While all companies install interlocking concrete pavements, the largest companies install most of the segmental paving slabs, likely in commercial projects. The average annual total installed area of pavers is 71,000 sf. Larger companies installed as many as 300,000 sf in 2016.

About three-quarters of all projects are sand-set and 12% are permeable interlocking concrete pavements. To support sales, ICPI Tech Specs are the most often used resource, with ICPI guide specifications a close second. ICPI’s detail drawings are the third most used resource.

While about 13% of all jobs in 2016 required an ICPI certified installer, almost half of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed that ICPI certification helps increase business.

Marketing expenses constitute 4% to 5% of revenue and most leads come from referrals, jobsite and vehicle signs, dealers or general contractors.

The report also includes respondent answers about length of construction season, gross sales, salaries and wages, number of employees during the construction season and more. The detailed study provides deeper insight into an industry that installed over half-a-billion square feet of concrete pavers, slabs, and grids in 2016, as well as other paving and wall products. The complete 59-page report is available for purchase for $100 at ICPI members can purchase it at the member discounted price of $25. Shipping and handling are extra.


Retrospective: Dayton, Ohio

As the birthplace of aviation and key manufacturing industries, Dayton, Ohio (2013 pop. 143,355) is also the birthplace of the first machine-assisted municipal street with interlocking concrete pavement. Built in November 1985, the repaving project likely never generated much cocktail chatter among Dayton’s historical society, but it was part of the city’s multimillion-dollar investment to help revitalize several historic districts. The city supported millions in private investment by urban pioneers during the 1970s and 1980s. Such funding renewed vintage late-1800s homes and brought physical and social stability to old neighborhoods.

After 20 years, this magazine issued an interim report in 2005 on the 11,000 sf Tecumseh Street in Dayton’s Oregon Historic District. When constructed in 1985, it was considered a demonstration project by the City, an expression of support for a rundown neighborhood being revitalized with a consistent infusion of restorative sweat equity by residents. While a lightly trafficked pavement in a residential neighborhood, the editor again visited the 31-year-old street last year to inspect the project. Since the editor was responsible for building the project for the City in 1985, the visit was more like listening to an old friend.

From a functional perspective, there were only a few cracked interlocking concrete pavers. Most pavement cracking occurred within the deteriorated concrete collars set around manholes and shutoff valves. By comparison, the pavers will certainly outlast the cast-in-place collars.

Tecumseh_StreetThe decades-old road base is a 7-inch thick mix of cement and aggregates, a hardened slurry that once supported a macadam surface, a thin layer of asphalt mixed with sand. This base had roughly 20% of it removed and replaced in 1985 due to deteriorated areas. As part of the renovation, the macadam, an early version of today’s asphalt surfacing, and the top of the concrete base were ground out and removed to receive an inch of bedding sand and 3 1/8-inch thick concrete pavers. These were machine-set in a 90-degree herringbone pattern in three days.

The aging base shows in a few areas where the paver surface has settled. Had the surface been asphalt, they would have been potholes. The pavers accommodate such movements while continuing to provide service to passing vehicles.

The pavement structure has at least another decade of remaining life. The pavers will almost certainly outlast the base. The strongest indicator of a need for repairs will happen when the base settles in places that eventually set off neighborhood driver complaints. That is unlikely as vehicle speeds are generally below 20 mph.

From a life-cycle cost analysis (LCCA) perspective, Tecumseh Street asks the question, what’s the long-term expense to Dayton’s taxpayers compared to asphalt or concrete? Would more street pavers ultimately save the City money? Since 1985, asphalt prices have fluctuated while interlocking concrete pavement has not. For residential streets in northern states, resurfacing (shave and pave) can be reasonably set at 17 to 20 years. An LCCA favorable to interlocking concrete pavement would compare costs for periodic asphalt pavement resurfacing. Such resurfacing during higher priced markets could likely register a savings by using concrete pavers.

The larger question asked by the street is institutional in nature. Just about every city has organized design, specifications, construction and maintenance equipment, and labor around asphalt and, to a lesser degree, concrete pavements. From a certain perspective, cities’ street maintenance departments are committed to asphalt because it’s cheap. Rather than a single street in pavers, what if Dayton had an entire neighborhood, district, or city with them? While an investment in a third pavement is an additional expense, would interlocking concrete pavement be less expensive to maintain from a city budget perspective if it was the majority pavement, replacing asphalt?

Cost comparisons could be modeled using pavement management software that most cities use to project maintenance costs. One aspect is for certain, departmental investment in construction and maintenance equipment, as well as labor and materials, would be significantly lower for concrete pavers than that required for asphalt. If deemed a cost savings, a shift by any city street maintenance department to pavers would require phasing out asphalt in low-speed streets. There would likely be a commensurate increase in property values due to enhanced neighborhood character. Whether a historic district or not, such enhancements benefit the City and property owners alike.


Holistic Design

As the car pulls into the driveway at the end of a long workday, worries about schedules, traffic, politics, rising prices and other everyday concerns suddenly begin melting away. Stepping out of the car, the driver immediately is embraced by a stylish, welcoming environment promising joy, relaxation, family warmth and good company.

A rapidly growing number of stressed-out homeowners nationwide experience this transformation daily. Thanks to innovative contractors building imaginative designs with interlocking concrete pavers, dull driveways are transformed and cliché backyard patios become relaxing, resort-caliber environments.

“For both new homes and remodels, people are looking to create beautiful extensions of their homes,” said Joe Raboine, Director of Research and Development at Atlanta-based Belgard Design Studio & Elements. “They’re furnishing and putting in fireplaces, outdoor kitchens, lighting and music. They want to create a cohesive and beautiful space with a uniform look throughout their whole property.”

From Driveway to Patio

For people looking to give their property visually and functionally integrated styling and luxurious amenities of a high-end resort, pavers are the best way to go, said David Park, CEO of Landmark Pavers in Temecula, CA. “When they hear about the benefits, they’ll often contemplate, for the sake of uniformity more than anything else, doing all of their hardscapes at once, including their driveway, walkway and patio, using interlocking pavers for the whole project, front and back.”

Mr. Raboine believes that more homeowners are transforming their exterior home space into a welcoming, engaging environment as a dedicated effort to re-connect with family and friends. “It may sound a little bit sappy, but I think that as we become more connected and electronic, we’re actually becoming more disconnected than ever before in face-to-face interactions,” he said. “These types of spaces help bring people together.”

It’s not only homeowners in warm climates such as Southern California, Arizona and Florida that want to upgrade their homes’ surroundings. “In Colorado, we have four seasons,” observed Tim Lindgren, president of Lindgren Landscape & Irrigation in Fort Collins, CO. “Our winter season is not always warm enough for us to get outside, but the shoulder seasons can be extended when we build these areas and put in fireplaces and fire pits, outdoor heating elements, infrared heaters and fans.”

Mr. Raboine agreed, noting that there’s also a strong demand for visually and functionally integrated home environments in many northern areas. “In the Midwest, Northeast and Eastern Canada, their seasons are so much shorter that people want to spend every possible minute outside when it’s nice.”

Rising home prices also play an important role in motivating people to upgrade their current properties, rather than simply picking up and moving to a larger property. “In some markets, real estate sells at a premium, especially in many major cities,” Mr. Raboine says. “Land is becoming increasingly expensive and harder to find. Our market here in San Diego has really changed within the last 10 years, from pavers as a replacement of concrete, to pavers as part-and-parcel of a large, all encompassing project,” Mr. Park said. “The very successful paver installers in our area have been able to change with the market and offer a full landscape design option for the customer.”

Environmental conditions sometimes make pavers the only logical choice for a major exterior space project. “In Northern Colorado, we have very expansive soils and a freeze/thaw process unlike anywhere else that I’m aware of,” Mr. Lindgren said. In January, it’s not uncommon for daily temperatures to reach 70 degrees or higher. A few days later, lows may bottom out at sub-zero levels. “So the ground freezes, and then it thaws, then it freezes, and thaws, and it expands and it contracts,” Mr. Lindgren said. “That’s devastating on concrete, especially decorative concrete or stamped concrete—the finish doesn’t hold up.”

Designing and Planning

Not surprisingly, major, complex projects, such as a complete exterior space remodeling, require much thought and planning. “We have five designers in house, and we try to find the best designer for the scope of work that we understand the client wants to do,” Mr. Lindgren said. “Some designers have strength in hardscape, some have strength in plant material, some have strength in retrofits and others have strengths in new construction.”

The next step is an onsite consultation. “We sit down with the homeowners and listen to their wish list for the property and their goals,” Mr. Lindgren said. “We walk the site with them, give them a little insight on what we think the site is capable of and by the end of the meeting we have a proposal ready for them.”

Mr. Park said convincing homeowners to use pavers isn’t all that difficult. “People generally love the look of pavers, but when they find out the benefits—the structural integrity and the other benefits of pavers—they really are very happy with that.”

Addressing Challenges

The scope and scale of an integrated home environment project can be intimidating, even for an experienced contractor. Suddenly, the contractor finds itself responsible for an array of tasks extending far beyond paver work, including landscaping, electrical and plumbing installation and, in some cases, even long-term maintenance services. And the client always wants the job completed yesterday—or sooner.

Mr. Lindgren said contractors should be realistic about their capabilities and to outsource work they don’t feel comfortable tackling. “We, as a general contractor, will hire the electrician, framer, plumber and mason—whatever trade we need that we don’t do in house,” he said. “We handle the pavers, we do the landscaping and many other things, but we still have to coordinate with a handful of subcontractors to complete most projects.”

Finishing a project on time and on budget requires a great deal of planning and coordination with subcontractors. “The biggest challenge is trying to make sure that everything is thoroughly thought out from beginning to end,” Mr. Raboine said. “When you start talking about things like adding electrical, plumbing, gas lines, music and lighting, all of those things can take several to perhaps a half-dozen subcontractors to create.” Mr. Raboine noted that it’s important to plan tasks with as much detail as possible and to make sure that subcontractors are meeting all of their work and schedule obligations, including following local codes.

“Lighting and all other fixtures must be decided and planned before a shovel ever touches the ground,” Mr. Lindgren said. “The gas line, its size, who’s doing the installation, electrical switch and outlet locations, model numbers and so on all need to be spelled out before starting work.”

Attracted to the Flame

An increasingly popular patio centerpiece is a fireplace or fire pit, available in either kit form or custom built. “Manufacturers offer really neat kits that can be put together with predesigned segmental units,” Mr. Park said. “They’re much more cost-effective to build.”

Palletized kits can be assembled on-site with very little planning or work, Mr. Lindgren said. “I think they’re great, especially when you have an inexperienced contractor that doesn’t have the industry knowledge necessary to do custom work.” Mr. Lindgren noted that to the untrained eye, a kit is virtually indistinguishable from a conventional installation.

Kits also save a great deal of manpower. “Fire pits go together without any mortar—they’re all free stacking,” Mr. Lindgren explained. “You don’t have to build a foundation, do any mortaring or veneering on the stone or put a masonry cap on top—it’s basically a puzzle that you put together.”

However, fire pit and fireplace kits have their limits. “They have their place, and they work great, but if you have a custom site where the homeowner wants the installation to match the house’s stone or capstones, and everything needs to tie in, then kits don’t work,” Mr. Lindgren said. Fireplaces require concrete foundations due to their weight and these are generally hidden from view by the fireplace.

Another downside to kits is the relatively limited number of design options. “You kind of get what you get with a kit,” Mr. Park said. “Typically, if someone doesn’t like the look of a unit that’s prefabricated, you don’t have any alternative as a contractor other than to build something with a custom design, which, of course, costs more.”

Mr. Lindgren also recommended against mixing fireplace/fire pit kits and paver brands. “It’s nice to stick with a single manufacturer when picking products so that the colors and styles match,” he said. He suggested using the same manufacturer for pavers, fireplaces/fire pit kits, vertical elements, retaining walls, bench seating and most other key project elements.

Kit and custom-built fireplaces/fire pits generally require the same amount of maintenance. “If they’re designed to use gas, there’s very little maintenance,” Mr. Lindgren said. If they’re wood burning, there can be a lot or work.” Park says his San Diego customers rarely ask for wood-burning installations. “They’re worried about casting off embers and starting a fire in an arid climate,” he said.

Moving Forward

The growing demand for visually and functionally integrated home environments is taking paver installers into areas where many have little or no prior experience. “The trend for the traditional paver installer is going to be one of offering more all-inclusive landscape designs,” Mr. Park said. “Not only installing pavers, but also doing landscaping, synthetic turf, patio covers and offering a wide variety of other products.”

As contractors cope with new customer demands, they also face the challenge of rising prices. “The cost of materials is going up,” Mr. Lindgren said. “The cost of labor is also going up, and labor in our industry is so hard to find.” Mr. Park, however, is optimistic that most contractors will be able to adjust to the new challenges and to continue operating profitably in the years ahead. “The bottom line is that as long as the job market in a region is strong, and the housing market is strong, the hardscape market will also be strong,” he said.


Enforcement Postponed

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recently postponed enforcement of new, stricter rules regarding worker exposure to silica dust on job sites. Originally scheduled to begin June 23, 2017, enforcement of the new rules will now begin Sept. 23, 2017. Current rules will be changed this fall to reflect substantial reductions in exposure to airborne dust on job sites. A key rule change is a reduction in the 8-hour exposure limit from 100 to 50 micrograms per cubic meter of air averaged over an eight-hour day. Determining exposure to these small concentrations is typically done by workers wearing lightweight, portable air monitoring equipment that captures dust while on the job site.

Current rules require a written exposure control plan with specific tasks to protect workers. This is implemented by a designated, competent person who articulates housekeeping practices that reduce exposure with feasible alternatives. Employers must offer medical exams including chest x-rays and lung function tests to employees. These must be done every three years for workers who wear a respirator for 30 or more days annually. There must be ongoing worker training in saw cutting and other operations that result in silica exposure with instruction in ways to limit exposure. Finally, employers must keep records of workers’ silica exposure and medical exams.

OSHA’s new silica exposure rules are delayed to give more time for construction companies to comply. Silica dust on job sites requires control measures via wet (or dry) saw cutting with a vacuum system and worker protection equipment. The pavers shown here are among 5 million square feet in container yards at the Port of Oakland, CA.