By: Carole McMichael
This Ashlar Slate is a great color for interfacing with warm woods. Photography courtesy of Specialty Concrete Products
Hardscaping, which is anything in landscaping that is made of concrete, stone or architectural paving, is not just on the move or expanding the range of decorative concrete work - it is exploding! At least, when you talk to manufacturers and distributors in the field about where the market is going, that is the word that keeps popping up. When asked "why?" they all point to the new products, tools and techniques that are being developed. They point to better solutions to landscaping problems that they can provide. But, they also agree that the strongest push is coming from the homeowners who have been turned on to the value of curb appeal.
HGTV, with shows such as "Curb Appeal" and "Landscapers Challenge," and various other home shows devote a lot of time to selling the importance of quality hardscaping. It not only makes a home look good, it increases the monetary value of what is, for most people, the greatest asset they own. The more homeowners watch, the more they look for contractors and specialists that can give them what they want.
"The decorative concrete market is probably the most rapidly growing niche in the concrete industry," said Jeff Hartzog, sales manager for Specialty Concrete Products, based in West Columbia, S.C. (www.scpusa.com), "The market is a good mix of commercial and residential hardscaping. Residential projects are more frequent. More architects and engineers realize the benefits that decorative concrete products offer. They are time-tested; cost less than natural materials; have higher strength and greater versatility; and offer a sealed surface."
Randy Rodgers, owner of Concrete Impressions, based in San Antonio, Texas, (www.concreteimpressions.com) noted the growth in interest in decorative concrete coming from contractors. "Three years ago," Rodgers said, "there were three or four contractors in the telephone book here doing decorative hardscaping, now there are several. Engineers like it because they tend to think in terms of structural concrete and they like the steel in it. Architects see decorative concrete as less expensive than tile, stone or brick. Also, there are a lot of new firms that are manufacturing chemical stains, color hardeners and integral mixes."
Bill Tott, technical director at ArcusStone Products Inc., based in Oakland, Calif., (www.arcusstone.com) also commented on the growth of the market for building professionals. "I have seen interest from architects and specifiers and guys who have done miles and miles of standard cast-in-place concrete. They are looking for something to do to differentiate themselves from the competition. They come to our school of skills to get another arrow in their quiver - something they can use to enhance a job."
The availability of experienced installers is trying to catch up with interest. There are a lot of markets where there is a lack of installers, according to Hartzog, or there may only be one or two and they will be very busy. Hartzog's customers have to wait about two months. Most installers won't travel more than 50 miles to a job site, but that depends on the job. The larger the project, the more likely they are to go a distance.
The type of training available depends on what kind of products a company markets. Specialty Concrete Products manufactures a wide range of decorative concrete systems, including overlays and stamped texturing mats, as well as additives and coloring items. It usually shows new techniques at monthly four-day training seminars. Anyone who is interested in getting into the decorative concrete business can sign up, but the seminars attract mostly concrete contractors, architects, engineers and resurfacing specialists. Attendees are expected to know how to finish concrete already as the seminars concentrate on how to do imprinting and other techniques.
Bomanite Corp. (www.bomanite.com), based in Madera, Calif., manufactures colors, tints, sealers, veneers, cures and additives. It focuses training on licensing people specifically for Bomanite products, which are available to licensees only. The training includes business and marketing, as well as technical skills. Bomanite, which is a worldwide company, holds regional training in the United States several times a year. It runs three to five days and involves hands-on experience with the products.
"What is particularly interesting," Jennifer Fitzjarrell, marketing and public relations manager for Bomanite, said "is that there is a meeting held for all licensees to get together and share ideas. They can even design their own stamps and we will develop it strictly for their clients. Once licensed, they can work on a subcontracting basis or do the entire hardscaping from the ground up."
Training at Concrete Impressions is sometimes done by inviting people to job sites to observe installations using Impressions' tools, their specialty, and colors and sealers. However, according to Rodgers, they have found that the best way to train people is to send their crew to the customer's jobsite to demonstrate and explain what to do. Architects, he noted, especially needed to learn how the processes are done. The company frequently gets designs to bid that can't be built the way they are specified by the architects.
ArcusStone's products are a limestone crush that is blended with polymers and other additives in portland cement. The look is like a travertine, limestone or sandstone. Most trained applicators are cement finishers, plasters or in some cases faux painters. Tott recommends that if builders are truly interested in using ArcusStone products, they should go to a training class in their process and get certified.
"In the last eight months, we have just been deluged with inquiries for training," he said. "You have to remember that a company can make the best product in the world, but it won't matter if installers don't know how to install correctly. Training eliminates most of the rookie mistakes."
Besides inspiring a great number of potential homeowners to take advantage of all the hardscaping innovations, HGTV and building programs encourage a lot of "do-it-yourselfing." However, the nature of the training offered is really not intended for that. Acid staining and sealer application are the only projects that might fit in that category. Generally, the cost of equipment and the complexity of techniques make it more practical and cost-effective to have hardscaping projects done by professionals.
What is offered
Hardscaping includes: walks, driveways, patios, pool decks, walls, stairways and even streets, which are gaining popularity with closed communities (using a cobblestone or brick pattern) to give them a particular unifying character. According to Fitzjarrell, "The only limit to what hardscaping can do is your imagination."
Just as varied as the uses in hardscaping are the products themselves.
Stamped or imprinted concrete is currently the most popular technique and Ashlar slate, a favorite pattern, but contractors can choose from a broad selection of textures, stains, stencils, sealers and, of course, color. Besides acid stain, which is more commonly used for interior concrete finishes, there are two ways to do color: add integral color to concrete before the pour or use a shake-on color hardener. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches.
"To color concrete before you pour it," Hartzog said. "put it into the truck as an admixture. The advantage with integral color is that you reduce the labor and the concrete is colored all the way through. The disadvantage is that you have a limited color selection because gray concrete is too dark to get the lighter pastel shades.
In contrast, with the color hardener, you are doing surface coloring, which allows you even to do white. A color hardener is a blend of cement sand, color pigments and some proprietary ingredients. It is broadcast dry onto the concrete where the surface moisture causes it to adhere to the top layer of the concrete. The advantage is that it increases your surface strength over integral or plain concrete. The disadvantage is the increased labor time, and that application can be messy if the wind is blowing.
Also, significant to hardscaping's big expansion, is what the customer doesn't see: the tools used to form the imprints and join the sections.
"Twenty-five years ago, when we were first involved," Rodgers said, "the tools were old and difficult to fit together and were like cookie cutters that would imprint but didn't do anything to the surface. Since then, we have developed a lot of tools in different kinds of materials that didn't have a stopping place, such as the fishscale cobblestone. Everyone of our tools was developed to address issues about hardscaping."
The hardscaping market is pretty much split between jobs calling for repair and resurfacing of existing features and those involving new construction. Both markets are expected to remain strong. HGTV's "Curb Appeal" usually involves repair and resurfacing, so clients need to know if their walk or driveway or deck is a good candidate.
Hartzog said mechanical abrasion, using a scarifier or blast track machine, can remove the top 1/16- to 1/8-inch of an old surface to get back down to sound concrete.
"Provided the old concrete slab is in good structural shape, you can go over it with a veneer or overlayment (made of polymer-modified cement), creating the same effect of new stamped concrete with a half-inch topping, Hartzog said. "The basic technology has been around since the 1980s. Stamped overlays have been around seven years. If concrete is settled or severely cracked, you might just as well tear it out because the overlays are only as good as the concrete you resurface. But, as long as the concrete surface is properly cleaned and the overlay is properly installed, there shouldn't be any delamination whatsoever."
The amount of traffic a hardscape feature can expect (new or resurfaced) will affect the thickness of the overlay. Driveways and roads would call for some modification in the mix - and applying them about 1/2-inch thick.
"ArcusStone product is used as an overlay of 3/8-inch to 1/2-inch over poured concrete, wood systems or pretty much any other substrate that is stable." Tott said. "We use an admix of liquid acrylic to boost compressive strength from 3,500 psi to 6,000 psi. Although our stone is more dimensional and individually crafted than some systems, the curing is the same as for plain concrete (depending on climate conditions and mixture). You can walk on it in a couple days.
Maintenance of hardscaping features involves periodic cleaning and reapplication of sealers - usually every two to four years depending on how much use they get. The synthetic pigments that color the features are UV stable and shouldn't fade.
Which one to choose?
Homeowners looking for the right hardscaping contractor and style of products should pick someone who has been doing just architectural concrete for a minimum of five years. Actually, that requirement is frequently written into specifications by engineers. It is easy to get references, but they should get a list of installers' jobs that they can visit, as well.