High-profit Hardscapes

By Kathryn A. Navarra

Pavers and hardscape projects have been gaining popularity in the United States during the past two decades. Compared to Canada and Europe, the installation of pavers and retaining walls is relatively new for the United States landscape industry. “Originally pavers migrated from Europe into Canada and then spread throughout the United States,” said Gretchen Spear, director of marketing and communications for Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI).

It is no secret that pavers are becoming standard on newly built homes. Older homes are receiving landscape upgrades that almost always include paver walkways or other hardscape projects. The trend has moved more toward pavers with an antiqued or “old world” look that are manufactured in earth tones or natural colors. “The residential market strongly leans towards the old world look and feel compared to requesting a paver that looks like a brick,” said Spear.

The hardscapes industry has seen several changes in product offerings. Most recently, hardscapes manufacturers are expanding the paver systems they offer to remain competitive in the marketplace. With new products hitting the market each year, two distinct products have gained a foothold in the marketplace and are quickly becoming popular — permeable pavers and outdoor kitchens/fire pits.

Permeable pavers are being installed more frequently. Not only are homeowners concerned with environmental issues, but national legislation is requiring construction companies and municipalities to use products that help manage storm water runoff.

Designed for use on residential sites, parking lots, new construction and municipal sites, permeable paving systems allow for water and air to move through the systems once they are installed to help provide water a place to go on a developed area.

“In a sales survey released in 2007, a total of 1.8 percent of all paver sales in both the residential and commercial market were permeable pavers,” said Spear. “More and more municipalities are becoming aware of the product and are using them to comply with regulations. Most permeable pavers are designed to fit in on high-end jobs while at the same time serving a purpose — to control water runoff from the site.

Outdoor life

In addition to installing permeable pavers, many landscape contractors are also being asked to create outdoor living spaces for clients. As the economy tightens and new home building slows, many homeowners are choosing to invest in the properties they own rather than purchasing new.

Outdoor living spaces are also increasing in popularity across the country. “We think that most homeowners ask for a design that includes an outdoor room,” said Steve Ross president of Outdoor Living Products. “The customers who are looking for new landscape projects such as lighting, hardscapes or plantings also want an outdoor living area (and are not just looking to repair existing pavers or convert a driveway into pavers). About 80 percent follow through on the request for an outdoor kitchen or fire pit.”

In the past, contractors would create the outdoor kitchen or fire pit out of retaining wall material. Today, however, many landscape companies are turning to pre-cast kitchen units because of the significant savings in labor. “A company may invest more in a pallet of product than if they purchased wall material to build an outdoor kitchen, but they are spending significantly less on labor,” Ross explained. “When considering the costs on a job, with this system 60 percent of the costs associated with the project are in product and 40 perecent are in labor.”

Using a composite unit can reduce the risk associated with an outdoor living space project because the contractor is able to estimate a majority of the costs, including labor, up front. “A typical project using traditional wall stone would take a contractor 5 to 7 days to complete, but using a pre-cast shell that is finished with stone veneer can often be compressed into one day or even as few as two hours,” said Ross.

Outdoor living areas are rapidly gaining in popularity in areas like Portland, San Diego, Long Beach, Atlanta and Charlotte. These cities are experiencing a rise in the installation of outdoor kitchens for the following reasons:


  • These cities are located in climates where homeowners convert their backyard into an extension of their home.
  • Apartment complexes, condominium developments and home owner associations are rethinking the outdoor amenities offered at the properties. “We’re seeing a lot of HOAs eliminating Jacuzzis and pools because the costs for maintenance are continuing to increase,” said Ross. “Over time, the place where a pool or Jacuzzi was is being filled in and replaced with interlocking pavers and an outdoor fire pit.”
  • With outdoor space scarce in cities, communities are now looking to incorporate rooftop plazas complete with a fire pit. “We’ve seen projects begin with the piping of propane so that a fire pit can be constructed on a rooftop plaza,” said Ross. “The overall volume of materials is reduced by 80 percent when a composite unit is used on site in place of traditional materials. The unit can weigh up to 1/7th less than a unit made of traditional wall stone. And, most importantly, the integrity of the product is still intact.”

Staying current with industry changes and customer preferences is key to running a successful business. But also acknowledging the importance of safety and high-quality installations is becoming critical in a homeowner’s decision making process. “Safety and certification are becoming bigger and bigger issues,” said Spear.

In 1996, the ICPI Level I Certification program was introduced. Level I certification focuses on job safety and job management. So far, nearly 14,000 contractors have been certified nationwide. In an effort to encourage quality installations, the ICPI launched a Level II certification course, which focuses on the installation of raised patios. “We set out to improve the standards for installation through our certification programs,” said Spear.

Until recently, a majority of landscape companies identified a niche market and remained within that niche to develop a customer base. “We are finding that companies are incorporating additional services into their business so they can remain on the job site longer and complete all facets of the project,” said Ross. Using a creative approach to the hardscape industry, either through the use of permeable pavers or outdoor living areas, contractors can return to their customer list and offer even more services than before.

Kathryn A. Navarra is a landscape industry professional based in New York. She is also an accomplished author and freelance correspondent with more than 200 published articles to her credit. She can be reached via e-mail at katienavarra@yahoo.com

Photos 1 and 2 courtesy of the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute.

Photos 3 and 4 courtesy of Outdoor Living Products.

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