Abraham Lincoln understood the importance of preparation. One of his more famous quotes says: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” Paver installation is no different; you must have the knowledge and correct preparation for a successful, profitable outcome.

When Corey O’Steen, owner of Creative Habitats Landscaping in Auburn, Alabama, decided to add paver installation to the services he offered, little did he realize the amount of knowledge it required to expertly install them.

“You have to put them down properly. If you make a mistake, you’ll lose all of your profit on the job.” He had to learn the hard way. He de scribes it as “taking a $3,000 lesson on a $10,000 job. It’s not rocket science, but it’s not something you want to put a day laborer on.”

Although pavers have been around for many years, they are now much more readily accepted in lieu of poured concrete. “There are many more colors, styles and textures available today,” says Kevin Brandt, owner of Minneapolis, Minnesota-based Yellow Brick Road Pavers and Landscapes, LLC. “Instead of single pavers that you could only do one or two things with, now they’re more like multi-piece modular systems.”

“The number-one driving force in the popularity of pavers is the trend toward outdoor living,” said Jason J. Stoddard, regional sales manager for Willamette Graystone, headquartered in Eugene, Oregon. “Creating these outdoor environments where people can use their landscapes yearround is gaining in popularity so fast. Interest in outdoor kitchens, patios and retaining walls has just spiked tremendously.”

Today’s segmental interlocking pavers, otherwise known as concrete paving stones, are truly marvelous inventions. However, one decision that needs to be made at the outset is whether or not permeability is desired.

In addition to a great look, pavers offer you and your clients a special feature; they are environmentally compliant. Any paver-covered surface can be made permeable, depending upon the type of sand used to mortar them in. There are some pavers where the concrete has been made more porous, allowing water to drip right through them, trickling down through the subsurface and recharging the aquifers. More importantly, the water does not run off into the sewers, causing stormwater contamination.

The way pavers are installed will make them permeable or not. Some contractors who work with segmental pavers use polymeric sand, which seals out water. So before you begin a project, consult with your client and determine whether they are looking for permeability.

But before you jump into installation, take the time to learn how to do it right. Although this is not meant to be a ‘how-to’ article, there is one important point we continue to make: it is all in the preparation. If you get that right, you’re on your way to installing a great paver patio, driveway or walkway.

Installation: prep and pack

There are really only six basic steps to paver installation: excavate; compact; level; cut; edge; and sweep.

In addition to the pavers, you’ll need base material (such as Class 5 crushed limestone), screed (leveling) material, such as metal pipe, edge restraints, spikes to hold in the edge restraints, and joint sand. Some contractors, especially those in wetter regions, also use geotextile fabric between the soil and the subbase.

Roger Myers, owner of American Beauty Landscaping in Youngstown, Ohio, says the most frequent mistake most contractors make is failing to prep the base properly. “Prep is everything. It’s important that you have proper drainage, use the right kind of base material, and don’t skimp on it. In the case of a walkway, you need at least four inches of base; a driveway, at least six inches,” he says.

The choice of base material will depend on soil conditions. Some soils hold more water. “There are different theories,” says Myers. “Some guys use straight backwash gravel, which ranges from golf ball-sized rocks down to fines. It allows water to drain with no problem at all. Others will use a straight Ag-Slag (crushed limestone) that’ll solidify as hard as concrete. When it gets wet, you can pound it down with a vibratory tamper.”

The importance of packing can’t be overstated, and not just of the polymeric sand. More than one contractor interviewed for this article emphasized the importance of packing and repacking both the subbase and the grouting sand after the pavers have been laid.

“The only issue I have with pavers is the polymeric sand (used for grouting after the pavers have been laid down),” says O’Steen. “The pavers have to be perfectly dry when you put the sand down, otherwise it’ll stain the tops of the pavers.”

“Once you put it down, you have to run a packer (vibratory tamper) over it,” O’Steen continues. “An inch and a half of polymeric sand will pack down to about one inch. Then you have to put more down and pack it again. At that point, you have to take a blower and blow off any dust. Then, do a gentle watering of that sand. Not too little, and not too much, or it won’t bond properly.”

O’Steen has seen what happens when you don’t adequately pack the polymeric sand. “Everything is going to look fine, until the first hard rain. The sand will absorb water and become porous. Then you’re going to have to go out there with a pressure washer and redo the whole thing.”

Why they’re popular

Poured concrete has traditionally been an inexpensive way to get a patio, walkway or driveway done.

Stamped concrete, which is a poured surface with a pattern rolled or “stamped” onto it, can mimic the look of brick or natural stone, but not as convincingly as concrete paving stones. “The interlocking concrete paver is a superior product, compared to poured concrete,” said Terry Morrill, owner of Pacific Pavingstone in Sun Valley, California. “You can get so many great looks that it’s becoming the pavement of choice.”

“People just aren’t pouring concrete in their backyards anymore,” said Steve Biernacki, landscape manager at WaterQuest Landscaping, Inc. in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Terra firma?

Ground moves, and not just in California. Freeze/thaw cycles cause expansion and contraction. Segmental pavers can move with the Earth, instead of cracking. “The sand joints make them able to move,” says Mark Schmidt, senior customer service and sales representative at Willamette Graystone. This also makes them portable. Paving stones are unique in that they can be reused and relocated easily.

Paving stones are also four times stronger than poured concrete, which “is going to crack at some point. It’s inevitable,” says Morrill. If a paving stone becomes stained or damaged, it can easily be replaced and no one would ever know the difference. “With poured concrete, when you cut a section out, you’ll always see the repair marks.”

Paving stones’ color is through and through, not just surface-dyed. However, over time, there may be some fading. “There is a little bit of a fade that happens in all products, but in some cases you can’t even tell,” said Ken O’Neill, vice president of marketing for Belgard Hardscapes Inc., in Atlanta, Georgia. “A lot of it is dirt. You clean and reseal it, and people say, ‘I thought it was faded.’ But it was just dirt and grime.”

Myers suggests two things to mitigate fading: one, choosing neutrals over brights; and two, sealing. “If you put sealer on them, you’ll have extended life in terms of color and vividness,” he says. O’Neill adds, “Paving stones have a porosity to them; they should be sealed.”

“Concrete paving stones are replacing whatever the previous materials in a home were—poured concrete, blacktop or decking,” said Myers. “We’re building terraces where we used to build elevated wooden or composite decks; now the decks are history.” Unlike wooden decking, which rots, warps and splinters and must be replaced every ten years, concrete paving stones are estimated to last fifty years or more.

Morrill said that when he started in the business in 1999, he and his sales staff had to educate customers about what paving stones were and show them pictures or take them to see completed jobs. Today, “three-quarters of the people that call in wanting estimates know what the product is and they want it, because they’ve seen it at their neighbor’s home and it looks great.”

Do it yourself? Maybe not

“One thing we’ve had to deal with every now and then is the do-it-yourself client who says, ‘I’m going to go get me a bag of sand and put in pavers,’” says O’Steen. “They’ll say, ‘Pavers are three dollars a square foot, so why are you charging me $16?’”

In his estimates, O’Steen spells out exactly why. “We tell them, we dig out about eight inches of dirt, bring in about four inches of crush, and then pack it. You have to use a packer to do this right. Then we roll across it with six-foot-long galvanized steel roller bars to make sure that it’s flat and level, or there’ll be a dip underneath. We also have to make sure that the grade is proper. Then people say, ‘Now I understand why it’s $16 a square foot.’”

“The ‘big box’ hardware stores sell pavers as do-it-yourself projects,” says Brandt. Of course, DIYers vary in skill, from the practically-a-professional to Homer Simpson-esque ineptitude. “The problem is, if people see a poor or novice installation, they can think, ‘Pavers aren’t for me.’” There’s also “the gardener guy down the street with a pickup truck who says, ‘Oh, I’ve seen pavers, I know how to do pavers.’ Then, when we’re doing our estimates, we’re competing with that. All of this drives prices down and drives people away from wanting the real deal.”

Brandt knows the true cost of the ‘the real deal.’ “It’s taken us 30 years and millions of dollars. We have a whole crew of experts and a million bucks’ worth of tools to be able to come out and do these projects at a certain level.”

Permeable pavers

In the commercial arena, where managing stormwater runoff and collecting LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) points are both crucial, permeable concrete paver systems that allow water to flow through are king. “The industry has had even greater sales growth in permeable pavers, a 16 percent increase in the U.S. over 2010 and 2011. This is certainly the case in the commercial and municipal markets, due to stormwater regulations,” said Jessica Chase, director of marketing with the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI) in Herndon, Virginia.

Stoddard says that the commercial market accounts for 80 percent of Willamette Graystones’ permeable paver sales. Schmidt cites one large U.S. company as an example. “Walmart is always asking, ‘How do we get more out of the land we have?’ Land is very expensive, especially in the commercial application.”

Schmidt explains that many Walmart stores have parking lots surfaced with permeable pavers, circumventing the need for bioswales to contain stormwater runoff. This frees up more real estate for parking spaces. Water collected in the aquifer underneath the lot recharges the groundwater and is recycled to irrigate landscapes.

There are other kinds of permeable paving products that use highdensity polyethylene geogrids at their core. Products like NDS’s Permeable Pavers, and Grasspave by Invisible Structures, Inc., are rolled products that, once impregnated with growth medium, can be hydroseeded or overlaid with sod.

They’re used for low-traffic areas, such as church parking lots and environmentally sensitive areas where runoff is a problem.

Paving stones vs. stone and brick 

In the Minneapolis area, interlocking concrete pavers are the most popular paving material. “It’s not even close,” says Brandt. “But when you get into the higher-end backyard environments, stone becomes more popular. Someone who owns a multimillion-dollar home is going to want high-end, cut and patterned stone that is a little more exclusive,” said Brandt. “Stones such as bluestone, travertine, or slate.”

This may be a regional preference, however. “I’ve seen it go the opposite way,” said Schmidt. “A lot of these million-dollar homes are being built with paver driveways, creating intricate designs up to the entryway.”

Stoddard adds, “Most of our large estate jobs here are going with pavers, particularly the premium product.”

Pavers have one big advantage over stone: consistency. “The thing about pavers is that they’re manufactured, so we know when they were made, how strong they are and how thick,” says Brandt. “They’re engineered, and stone isn’t. Each batch of stone can be a little different.”

Myers advises clients who want to use flagstone to choose concrete pavers instead. “Paving stones are cheaper, stronger and more durable. We’ve already had to replace a couple of flagstone patios. Flagstone can crack, chip, peel and split layers off.”

As for durability, the consensus among those interviewed is that concrete pavers outlast both traditional red-clay brick and stone. “A dry-laid application is going to outlast a wet-set one,” says Brandt. He also cites pavers’ ‘aspect ratio.’ Because paving stones are of a certain thickness and size, the individual units don’t crack. He said, “Stone, as it ages, can break. There can also be cleft layers that can shale out. In general, it seems to me that pavers last longer.”

Paving stones are beating brick in both the popularity and the longevity contests. “What we’re seeing trendwise is that brick or clay pavers are being used for coping strips around pool decking, stair treads, or bands in driveways and walkways,” says Schmidt. “We’re not seeing all-brick herringbone patios like we did in 1997 and ’98.”

Cost is one of the reasons.

“Lifecycle costing of brick is twenty years; lifecycle costing of a paver is forty years. Schmidt says, “Pavers give more bang for the buck.” He points out that in Germany, Italy and other European countries, pavers that are way past their 40th birthdays are still holding up well.

“Homeowners are always concerned, ‘are they getting value for the amount of money they’re about to spend?’” says O’Neill. “Well, with paving stones, they’ll be getting a very costeffective square footage added to their homes.” “They’ll absolutely recoup their investment,” says Morrill. “It really makes houses so much more attractive. You just can’t compare gray concrete or asphalt to an aesthetic, well-done paving stone driveway or patio.”

There are so many different shapes, textures and colors in pavers that narrowing choices down can be hard for clients. To help with this, Belgard has just added a new feature, “Style File,” to the company’s website. “It allows consumers to go in there and really pick out styles and colors, package them up and send them off to a contractor,” said O’Neill.

Concrete interlocking pavers have so many selling points, it’s hard to say which ones are the most important. Is it their durability? Their ease of maintenance? The vast variety of looks that can be achieved?

The cost factor? The fact that they’re environmentally compliant?

The best thing about these products may be their ability to let you give a client exactly what he’s looking for, whether that’s an elegant entrance to a corporate headquarters or an inviting backyard oasis, at a reasonable cost. They can give you, too, what you’re looking for: a solid foundation for success.