IF YOU PUT ALL OF YOUR CONSTRUCTION FOREMEN AND laborers together in one room and asked them to describe how they would build a paver walkway or patio, how many different answers would you get? Would they do the same things in the same order and use the same products and materials? The reality is that you are going to have as many different answers as you have employees. The problem is that you shouldn’t.
When you think about it, some of your employees have learned their skills at your company while others have been trained at other places of employment that have an entirely different set of installation policies and procedures. Even though your employees may have years of experience in landscape construction, are they doing things correctly? More importantly, are they following your company’s standards and procedures, with the level of detail you demand?
Does your company even have a defined process or set of construction standards and details? If you’ve answered “Yeah, well kind of,” to most of these questions, don’t worry—you’re not alone. You should, however, be concerned about this and take the next ten minutes or so and read on.
One of the most important things that you can do for your business, your clients and yourself is to develop “standard operating procedures” (SOPs) for everything that your company does. Not all at once, mind you, but rather one process at a time. To properly develop SOPs, you first need to agree to what your standards and processes are and then develop standardized procedures and construction details, document them and train your employees to do things by these standards.
As landscape contractors, we are required to have so many different skill sets just to perform a typical residential design/build installation, it’s no wonder that we have trouble managing even small projects. Not only do we need to have extensive knowledge of plant material and turf care, we build and install retaining walls, patios, ponds, pools, landscape lighting, irrigation and underground drainage systems.We need to understand physics, chemistry, hydrology, geometry, engineering, meteorology, accounting and auto mechanics. Lastly, throw in some Psych 101, marriage counseling, conversational Spanish and emergency medical training and you start to see that this is a very demanding profession.
Although landscape contracting is extremely diversified, in this article we are going to look at just one aspect of it—pavers and paver installations. By the time you’re finished reading this article, you will have a new respect and appreciation for why it is imperative that you begin to standardize your construction details, techniques and materials. So please read on to get a better understanding of what this is all about. Get some ideas on how to solve problems and start saving time and money today.
Why is it that something as typical as a paver installation can have so many problems and cause us such grief? For example, after a walkway is completely installed, your customer decides that this was not the color that they picked out and they really don’t like the paver. Or for some reason, your foreman thought that a five percent slope on a patio was okay this time. And of course, once again, no one put a sleeve under the pavers for future irrigation and lighting. It’s enough to make you crazy. Has this ever happened to you?
Truth be told, it’s not them—it’s your process. Your construction process and business practices allow these types of mistakes to occur over and over again. Many years ago, I developed a very rational philosophy when it came to training and developing standard operating procedures, “If one crew makes a mistake, it’s their fault; if more than one makes the same mistake, your procedures are to blame.”
What can you do to better define your process and minimize your mistakes? First, let’s take a look and see what’s involved with installing pavers. When it comes right down to it, there are only six basic procedures that are required during a typical paver installation (although some are repeated several times):
1 Excavate, 2 Compact, 3 Level, 4 Cut, 5 Edge, 6 Sweep
Ironically, there are only six primary materials that are required to install a paver patio or walkway. What materials you actually use will vary by region, company and manufacturers’ specifications:
1 Base Material, 2 Screed Material, 3 Pavers, 4 Edge Restraint, 5 Spikes, 6 Joint Sand
It seems simple and straightforward enough, so how and why do so many things go wrong? Let’s dig a little deeper (pun intended) and see what actually happens.
As stated earlier, the first big problem is that many of your employees have different installation procedures and use different materials to complete the same task, based on their individual experience, background and training. For any company to be successful, this cannot be the way.
The very first thing that you need to agree upon is: what are the standard and specific materials your company will use in each process? Will the base material be quarry process, recycle or shoulder stone? Will you screed with stone dust, chip stone or a sand product? Is your standard specification to sweep the joints with mason sand, play sand or polymeric sand? What type of edge restraint will you use?
Once you have the basic materials specified, you need to develop a standard installation process that will cover the majority of the paver work that you do. Here are some basic things that you need to decide:
What will be the excavation depth for typical walkways and patios? How much should you over-dig on each side?
When are the sleeves or conduits installed? What size are they, how many do you use and where are they typically located (curb or steps or both)?
What will be the depth of the base and screed bed?
What do you use to screed your setting bed? Screed pipes, screed boards, 2x4s or whatever is lying around the shop? If you use pipes, what is the diameter—1", 1" or 2”? (If you use 2x4s, you should switch to pipes or boards; if you use whatever is lying around the shop, you have some much bigger concerns.)
Will you compact the sub-base, base, screed bed and pavers? Is this done before or after the sand is swept in the joints, or both?
When is the edge restraint installed, and what is the spacing on the spikes?
What is the minimum and maximum allowable percentage of slope?
Once you have defined all of these processes, materials and procedures, they should be documented. When a new project is to be started, you should have the written procedures along with construction details and drawings that explain your process to anyone in your company. Finally, you need to train your employees to make sure that everyone knows these procedures, understands them and uses them.
But you’re not done yet! You may be on your way to solving the first part of the problem—defining your installation process. There is still another important part of this SOP that must be addressed. It’s the paver itself.
As you know, there are dozens of paver manufacturers, each with their own unique styles and colors. When you really think about it, there are literally thousands of pavers, patterns, borders, colors and textures available to you and your clients. That’s right—thousands! Unfortunately, there are only “one or two” combinations that your client is looking for. Sounds like pretty poor odds to me, and the potential is there for a variety of problems. Instead of just looking at the problem, let’s review some simple things that you can do to improve your odds.
An integral part of developing and defining your paver installation SOPs is deciding as a company which manufacturers, colors, styles and construction details you are going to use. To be productive, minimize confusion and improve your quality control, you must limit the selection of pavers that your clients can choose from—period. Pick your most popular pavers, colors, patterns and borders and limit your clients to them.
Believe it or not, by limiting their selections, it is actually less stressful and will provide both you and your clients with some major benefits. Keep in mind that this is probably your client’s first and only time doing this type of work. So why let them choose something that you know doesn’t work? Help them pick from your most popular colors and styles that you know will work with their style of home. You’re the expert, so be the expert.
Besides reducing stress for you and your clients, limiting paver choices allows you to stock and reuse extra pavers. Instead of wasting time constantly organizing those left over half-pallets of unknown pavers (which you will ultimately dump at the recycling center for a fee) you will have halfpallets of “useable” pavers that can be installed on your next project. Instead of running to the supply yard to buy a “row” when you run short, you can bring that extra half-pallet in case you need it. If you get to do enough paver installations, instead of picking up a few skids of pavers for each new project, you can order a trailer load directly from the manufacturer and have them drop-shipped to you at a 15% cost reduction.
Another tremendous benefit from developing SOPs is that your estimates will become incredibly accurate, because you are now estimating and building to a specified company standard. Suddenly, your estimated labor and materials versus actual will seem to be identical. And from this information, you can quickly determine which crews are efficient and which crews require more training. Without thinking you will know that, “A standard 500-square-foot patio with minimal cutting will require 11 tons of QP (or=), five tons of stone dust (or=), 540-square-feet of pavers (8% waste), approximately 100LF of edge restraint, 100 10" galvanized spikes, seven bags of polymeric sand and should take you 74 man-hours to complete with five hours of machine time. Now you can watch your crews install pavers faster with a higher level of expertise, while you lower your costs and raise your profits.
By creating standard details, limiting material selections and developing standardized operating procedures, you can take a seemingly impossible task and turn it into a highly manageable and profitable one. In a very short time, you will reduce your costs, increase your profits, reduce your installation time and improve your overall customer satisfaction rating and company satisfaction rating.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Jody Shilan, MLA, is a former landscape contractor, designer and salesman. As a green industry consultant he uses his 30 years of experience to help landscape design/build companies grow their businesses. He is a board member of PLANET, NJLCA, APLD and BCC and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 201-783-2844, or go to www.jodyshilan.com.