Playing with Blocks
The New Versatility of Today´s Wall and paving systems
The diversity of today’s landscape building products is almost staggering. For the creative designer, it’s like graduating from a preschooler’s box of building blocks in two basic sizes to a roomful of units in a vast assortment of sizes, shapes, colors and textures.
This expanding palette opens up worlds of opportunity. It’s not just about paving and retaining anymore; it’s about comfort, beauty, outdoor living and even environmental protection.
Today’s hardscaping materials create backyard areas with spacious outdoor rooms and distinctive architectural elements. They offer looks that complement the home and nature.
Many building products even offer environmental rewards. For example, some new paving systems actually help prevent runoff instead of contributing to it. Green walls can effectively hold back the earth while displaying an eyecatching expanse of vegetation or colorful wildflowers (see side bar).
As more homeowners, commercial customers and public agencies recognize the potential of these new options, they want in.
An evolving market
The market for manufactured concrete paving and wall units has undergone tremendous change in recent years.
“The industry is evolving very quickly today,” says Joe Friederichs, structural wall specialist with Keystone Retaining Walls. “The biggest change is in aesthetics. There are more multi-size units and more units with a natural stone look. There are also twosided units for making freestanding walls and other features.”
As the looks get better, the uses for these materials expand and the market grows. Customers who may not have considered using manu factured concrete wall systems in years past now recognize the value.
“You have better looking walls for the same money,” says Friederichs. “There’s better texture, varying unit sizes and multiple colors within the unit. Every year, we get closer and closer to natural stone.”
That natural stone look is in high demand right now. Blocks and pavers are tumbled for a weathered, rough-hewn look. Many systems come with units in multiple sizes and shapes. These allow installations that combine the look and seemingly random design of hand-placed stone with the speed, ease and consistent engineering of a manufactured product.
Natural looking hues add to the authenticity. Companies license their products to regional manufacturers who create blocks that complement the surrounding geology.
“All have colors to match the regional rock,” says Karl Bremer, Versa-Lok Retaining Wall Systems, Oakdale, Minnesota. “In the desert Southwest, you may have reddish colors; in the Midwest, you have more limestone colors; in the Northeast, you might have more of a granite look.”
More than walls and
Contractors use wall units for more than just walls. Many of these building blocks can be used to create benches, fireplaces, stairs, columns and other landscaping features—even outdoor kitchens.
“There’s so much versatility,” says Austin Keay, owner, A. Keay Landscaping, North Branch, Minnesota. His company specializes in patios, driveways, walkways, small garden walls and large retaining walls. “You’re limited by almost nothing but your imagination and determination,” says Keay. “If you can think of it, you can probably design it.”
Some wall units are easy to modify in the field. “With a block splitter, a cut-off saw and a couple of quick splits or cuts, you can turn retaining wall units into pieces you can use for a variety of different elements,” he adds.
Marketing a lifestyle
Keay spends winters as a consultant, training other companies about this rapidly evolving market. He tells contractors to sell their work by showing the clients the full range of options.
“Whenever you’re working with a client or estimating a job,” he says, “instead of providing a bid for a simple flat patio in the backyard, don’t be afraid to suggest a retaining wall block for freestanding walls, permanent patio furniture and other features. Upsell your craftsmanship. A lot of homeowners don’t even know these things exist.”
Once homeowners see the possibilities, it’s often an easy sell. Even in places where new construction has fizzled, homeowners are still investing in outdoor improvements. By adding outdoor rooms, they gain more living space with fewer construction dollars.
Many are skipping the vacation home—or even the vacation away from home—and sinking the savings into the backyard. “People are spending more money on their homes because they’re spending more time there,” says Bremer. “These materials aren’t just for people with an eroding hillside in the backyard. With these products, you can take a lot of yard that’s not functional for anything else and make a nice useable space.”
Keay definitely sees demand for outdoor rooms in his business, despite the cold winters of a northern climate. “Customers want a place where they can spend more time in their backyard instead of on vacation, a place where they can have family gatherings and entertain neighbors. With the same retaining wall block you use to hold up their backyard, you can build them a nice outdoor kitchen.”
If you’re not already working with today’s versatile hardscaping materials, you may want to consider what it could do for your business.
In this economy, diversifying services can mean the difference between having customers or not.
This is one service that offers jobs in all sizes, from small patios and fire pits to multiple-room backyard additions to huge commercial retaining walls.
“Being involved in more market segments can help make you more viable,” says Friederichs. “This is a relatively easy market to get into. It doesn’t take a significant amount of equipment.”
Training is essential, but it’s easy to find and is often inexpensive or free. The National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA)— www.ncma.org—and the International Concrete Pavers Association (ICPI)—www.icpi.org—offer seminars, certification programs and other professional development opportunities. Manufacturers also offer free or low-cost seminars.
Certification and training help distinguish companies from the competition and helps ensure that work is being done as efficiently as possible.
Some manufacturers also offer extensive engineering services or engineering support. Many provide free design ideas, marketing support and estimating software.
“There’s a little bit of headscratching at first,” says Keay. “But you’ll find that experience is the best teacher. After you‘ve been through the process once, after you’ve designed an outdoor kitchen or some of these other outdoor elements, you’ll become more efficient.”
He says the biggest obstacle for some contractors is lack of confidence. “They fear it’s beyond their expertise. They don’t think their company is big enough or that they have enough experience.”
He assures them that the size of the company doesn’t matter. With the right training and some basic equipment, you can easily add these marketable hardscaping services to your list of offerings.
Green Walls and Permeable Pavement...
Many hardscapes are getting an environmental facelift these days. Green walls and permeable paving systems are soaking up stormwater, shoring up shoreland and keeping the landscape soft and beautiful.
Permeable paving is helping to undo some of the damage caused by urban development. By allowing water to soak into the ground, it keeps runoff out of conventional storm systems and allows for a natural recharge of groundwater supplies.
Traditional paving has long been an environmental blight because it causes stormwater to bypass nature’s efficient water filtration and purification systems.
As stormwater races across smooth parking lots, streets, sidewalks and driveways, it carries sediment and pollutants right along with it to the nearest storm drain. There it travels to lakes and streams, where it damages water quality and habitat.
Urban runoff is one of the top causes of water pollution today. In many areas, people are using clean water faster than it can be replenished. Permeable paving is one of many Low Impact Development (LID) strategies designed to address this issue by keeping stormwater on site.
There are several systems available. Selection often depends on the load-bearing requirements, expected traffic and the aesthetic needs for the application.
Permeable asphalt and pervious concrete are among the options. Manufactured high-strength plastic grid systems are also available. These can be filled with sand, sod, gravel or vegetation, depending on the application.
Pre-manufactured concrete units have become a popular choice for permeable paving. Some produce a solid surface while allowing water to more easily drain between units. Others are designed to produce a void-filled surface. The voids allow for both infiltration of stormwater and living vegetation. This creates a truly green surface.
Green walls are another way to create a more environmentally-friendly landscape. Several concrete block manufacturers offer plantable systems that add beauty and soften the look of the wall.
Concrete isn’t the only option. Agrecol, Madison, Wisconsin, offers a system where the vegetation itself becomes an integral part of the retaining wall, adding living strength that grows with time. It features soil- and sand-filled bags that are locked together and vegetated with native grasses and shrubs.
Each bag covers about one square foot of exposed earth. The bags are used much like concrete structural retaining wall units and the installation process shares many similarities. Attention is paid to drainage, appropriate fill and proper compaction. Many applications are reinforced with geogrid.
But there’s one big difference. The soil-filled bags create a monolithic structure strengthened by the deep-growing, intertwining roots of the native vegetation.
“The wall will get stronger with time,” says Mark Doudlah, president of Agrecol. “With natives, there’s way more happening below ground than above.”
Imagine a matrix of root masses extending from seven to 15 feet deep or more, anchoring the wall to the earth. A combination of grasses and shrubs are planted via hydroseeding and live plantings. “All of these species grow together, through the bag and into the parent material,” says Doudlah.
The bags are used for many applications, from sensitive shoreland restoration projects to decorative landscaping features. Some projects blend hard and soft systems. In these, stone or concrete retaining walls are interspersed with vegetated sections using the soil-filled bags.
Green walls are quickly catching on for their good looks and environmental benefits. “There’s a limit to how much hardscape people want to look at,” says Doudlah. “They want to see a softer, more aesthetically pleasing landscape. There is also a trend toward a wider plant palette. Natives are becoming more mainstream.”
Green walls also enhance wildlife. They promote pollinators by serving as habitat and providing food for birds, butterflies and bees.
But keeping water clean remains one of the biggest reasons for permeable paving, green walls and other modern environmentally-friendly strategies.
We’ve over-engineered our landscapes,” says Doudlah. “We have to get back to infiltrating rainwater where it lands and let springs and seeps naturally recharge lakes and rivers.”