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.”
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.
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.