Putting the cart before the horse takes on new meaning in the landscape contractor?s vocabulary when he explains to a homeowner that he must install hardscapes before softscapes. This is particularly torturous when strict budget constraints put the design on a phase plan.

Even so, this scenario occurs repeatedly because, as a contractor, he can make a greater impact by installing certain hardscapes, and dedicated landscape artists strive to meet the challenge.

The contractor frequently finds himself explaining to his client the difference between hardscapes and softscapes. Softscapes are easy to describe ? all living plant material. Hardscapes aren?t so easy because of hidden factors.
Patios, pavements, walkways, boulders, wood elements, arbors, gazebos, fences, retaining walls, water features and swimming pools ? these fall under the category of hardscapes.

?If it?s hard to the touch and hard to do, it?s a hardscape,? declared Harry North, owner of Creative Environments in Occidental, California. ?Whether it?s a phase project or not, I design the project all at once and the infrastructure goes in first. I ask the clients for a layout of the property and endeavor to base the design on existing natural elements. This preserves the natural shape of the land and keeps costs down.?

Chris Strempek, president of Complete Landscapes in Dallas, Texas, agrees, ?For maximum efficiency, hardscapes go in first. Installing in the correct order saves the customer time and money because you avoid duplication of expenses. I call it establishing a backbone, then coming back and filling in.? Sometimes the client has tunnel vision, his eyes being on the final product.
Aaron Williams, director of operations of the landscape division for East Coast Professional Landscapes, Inc., Springfield, Virginia, asks his clients to compare the process of installing hardscapes to that of building a house. ?When I relate it to putting in windows before finishing the framing, they understand the logical sequence of events, especially when I mention bringing in equipment that would damage their new softscape. When it affects their wallet, they listen.?

Routinely, the contractor receives a call from the prospective client who knows ?exactly what he wants.? However, he hasn?t a clue to the cost of his wish list. Developing a ?qualifying? interview format for the receptionist and fellow designers to follow would eliminate confusion in the early stages of the client/contractor relationship. Training in how to conduct this interview is important.

?Time is a valuable asset,? Strempek stressed. ?I ask the client to prepare a list of what he has in mind, with its desired location, to have a copy of his survey plot, and most importantly, a budget ready for our first appointment. Sometimes he won?t have a budget or his budget doesn?t come close to covering his ?wants.? I?ll give him a ?historical budget? since there?s no need to waste his time or mine by designing from an unrealistic budget.?

Strempek believes a budget is very critical. When a client has an idea of the costs, he?s able to give the contractor a realistic idea of what he wants installed and the time frame for completion. When the contractor returns with the design, there isn?t ?sticker shock? because the client has been acclimated.

North believes budgeting is an educational process for the client. ?Many times my clients have good taste in landscaping, but not a good sense of what hardscaping costs.?

Clients need to be apprised of hardscaping costs up front. Hardscapes in landscapes are major costs and one ?piece? can?t be removed from the design at a whim, the same as a ten-gallon azalea or twenty-gallon maple might be removed from the softscape. Before departing that first on-site visit, give a broad estimate to eliminate wasting time.

The hardscape can be the focal point or it can simply enhance the natural landscape. This is true for both functional and decorative hardscapes, and is dependent on the needs of the client. It?s also relative to the client?s budget, the existing architecture and the type of construction. However, whether the hardscape is functional or decorative, the focal point, or a subtle addition, it should be a visual enhancement.

?We?ll have a client who wants a bluestone patio or a pond as the focal point, with plants to complement them,? explains Williams. ?Another client may have a big boulder, statue or a Japanese Maple he wants as the focal point. Then we?ll come up with a look to complement his choice. Often the focal point is dependent on the type of house.? Retaining walls and bridges have stone incorporated into their design and some designers construct pieces of art.

Where do the ideas come from? Williams studies books of other great landscape designs by famous landscape artists and has his clients look through these books. When something catches their eye that will work on their property and in their budget, he weaves it into his design.
North?s ?pet peeve? is that water doesn?t just appear. If his client wants a waterfall in the backyard, his challenge is to give the appearance that a stream is feeding the waterfall. He?ll sometimes build a fake mountain or work with the natural surroundings to make it look natural, ?not contrived.? ?We are in the Disneyland business,? he chuckled.

Frank Davis, president of Finishing Touch Landscape Construction in Pompton Lake, New Jersey, has a project he?s particularly proud of ? a segmental retaining wall, an engineered wall within a wall that?s functional and decorative. The elevated driveway retained by the engineered wall system has a facade of aged applecreek stone and an all-natural stone staircase. The magnitude of this project is an example of one that might require the client to see the work in progress to appreciate the value of the costs of hardscapes, an echoed sentiment voiced by contractors across the nation.

When your client observes the equipment pulled onto his property he?ll also have a better understanding behind the cost of the project. Davis describes the equipment his company has found the most efficient. ?We use backhoes, excavators, forklifts and skid steers for the earth moving part of our large jobs. In our part of the country, we have to use soil compaction equipment to install hardscapes on disturbed soil. We have special cutting saws, demolition saws, hand tools, etc, for stonework and masonry. If a job calls for anything bigger than the equipment we own, we rent it.?

Williams? company installs numerous residential jobs with entry restrictions, such as four-foot gates. While they still need the same equipment, they?re limited. ?We found a small mini excavator with lots of attachments to be the answer for these jobs. On larger jobs, we rent.? They use a quickcut saw for cutting brick, stone and pavers, a vibrating plate compactor that?s used to compact, crush, and run gravel and soil, and various hand-held tools.

Rather than renting equipment and stretching crews too thin when work backlogs and clients are waiting, Strempek streamlines by adjusting workloads and subcontracting out larger earthmoving jobs. ?We own backhoes with lots of attachments and our men use them with no outside help during normal times, but when things are hopping, I?ve found subcontracting to be the most efficient choice.?

North believes anyone can buy tools and equipment, but you need to know how to operate them properly. He uses a specialty crew approach, i.e. masonry crew, carpentry crew, concrete crew, etc. ?This leaves the control in-house as opposed to subcontracting out, allowing us better communication and coordination of jobs.?

By using the specialist approach, North?s manpower is predominantly full time. The area of the country where the landscape company is located determines its full-time manpower. While hardscapes are installed year round despite most weather conditions, overall production is slowed and labor numbers fluctuate. Temporary employees are hired, based on the size of the jobs going in.

One common delay caused by weather conditions is pouring concrete, which won?t set up properly if the temperature drops below freezing. According to Davis, another costly delay is if the backfill material is too moist to put back, or if it?s clay. ?We export the unusable material and bring in material that?s clarified or compactible. This is an unforeseen expense if you haven?t covered yourself in the contract with exclusion for unforeseen obstacles,? explained Davis.

Shortages, delays, employment and weather aren?t everything affected by the location of the landscape contractor?s business. The trends of the clientele tend to be zonal as well. Strempek, (Texas) explained that his clients ask for fire-related hardscapes. ?They like sitting on their stone patios, throwing logs on the fire, but they don?t want smoke in their faces. So we build fire pits with chimneys to carry the smoke away from the patio.?
North (California) said water features are still hot with his clientele along with stamped concrete and garden sculpture, and the occasional boulder drilled for water to come through. Davis (New Jersey) has calls for tumble-manufactured stones used for concrete pavers and walls. ?The manufacturers tumble a manufactured product to make it look old world or antique.

Williams (Virginia) feels folks want to entertain outdoors, but don?t care for the maintenance of wood decking. His clients are requesting brick pavers, especially with new natural looks on the market and additional options in edging.

Frank Gandora of Creative Hardscape, Denver, Colorado, specializes in hardscapes. His is a small, but growing part of the green industry. Gandora networks with landscape contractors and designers to work with them.
Visual selling techniques work best for closing the sale of a landscape design that includes costly hardscapes. Pictures, videos, colored design plans with overhead and frontal views are some of Strempek?s suggestions. ?People are ?touchy feely? so I provide product samples when applicable. Don?t be afraid to make suggestions to the client, create the interest. I use the ?Do you know you can do this?? sales pitch. I also use menu pricing, itemizing by project within the design, giving them the choice to pick and choose by price.?

North agrees that looks sell the project. He shows photos of other projects, magazine articles featuring his projects and emphasizes service and quality versus best price. ?I don?t want to be the best price; I want to be the best quality.?

After the first visit to the client?s house, Williams invites the client to his office to go over the proposal. ?This tells me if the client is serious, plus allows the customer to see degrees on the wall, pictures of the employees, etc. Sometimes, if it?s a simple patio, we close the deal on the first visit. When we have a second meeting to go over the conceptual design, we try to close the deal. If not, then we set an appointment within the next few days.?

?It boils down to the experience and knowledge that you carry to the job,? Davis summed up. ?If you?re truthful, the customer senses it and trust forms. Don?t try to sell them what they don?t need; they?ll buy it if they want it.?

March 2002