Is Grass Passé? A Look at Hardscaping Your Grounds

When most people think of landscaping, they think of shrubs, trees, meticulously laid-out and maintained flowerbeds, and artful plantings scattered around a building or development. Landscaping doesn’t end with growing things, however; hardscaping is a industry term coined to describe non-plant-related landscaping; things like rock gardens, patios and outdoor kitchens, walking paths, terraces, and decorative wall elements.

Not only are plant-free landscapes an interesting departure from the more traditional bushes and shrubs approach but rocks and paving stones require far less maintenance than a tree or delicate flowerbed, and may represent an opportunity for cost savings.

Beyond Bushes, Transcending Trees

While the focus of landscape design is on the flora and fauna, the pavers, pathways and patios are just as essential to both the aesthetic of the finishing product, and, more importantly, the ability for residents to interact with the landscape. What good is a picturesque garden if you can’t walk through it?

Hardscaping is a specialization within the larger landscape heading. “Hardscaping is defined as any element of landscaping that is not plant material, which is called softscaping or greenscaping,” says Craig Naparstek, managing member of Rock Solid Hardscaping, LLC, in Baltimore, Maryland. “This includes decks, concrete, paver work, stone—anything that is physically hard” or non-organic.

“Hardscaping is the construction side of landscaping,” adds Brannon Seaman, owner of Seaman Hardscaping, LLC in Oxford, Pennsylvania. In this case, construction takes on a larger meaning; hardscapers have to be familiar with the use of materials, but also with engineering and architectural concepts such as drainage and storm water treatment. Hardscapers also work with water—what is sometimes called aquascaping. And it doesn’t hurt to know about the plants either; Naparstek has a degree in horticulture, for example.

Although the term hardscaping is relatively new and perhaps somewhat arcane, the practice has been around for ages. “People have been working with interlocking pavers for thousands of years,” Naparstek says. Indeed, paving stones were used on the roads in ancient Crete over five millennia ago, and they remain the signature material used by modern-day hardscaping firms.

Most condominium complexes, of course, are already built. Therefore, any hardscaping work done must fit within the framework of the existing structures.

“There are so many variables that come in to play when approaching design,” says Seaman. “You have to consider the scale of the project first and then look at any existing landscaping. You have to look at the flower beds and current plantings and how they might work together with a new curved walkway, for example. Additionally, you want the design to soften the overall appearance of the property—including existing structures.”

A good site for hardscaping is the path to a second or tertiary egress. “You could use it as a secondary area-level entryway,” Naparstek suggests.

“Clients should also consider creating barriers between neighbors with a sitting wall, instead of installing a patio without one,” Seaman says. “You want to create a sense of enclosure and comfort in the design. Overall it comes down to experience and knowing what will look appropriate and what will look and work right.”

If a community is starting from scratch, it all begins with a solid plan that allows room to grow. “You never know what you might want in the future,” says Seaman, “so it’s often a good idea to provide additional outlets and wiring for lighting, for example.”

While initially more expensive than concrete, Naparstek says pavers are cheaper when longevity is factored in. Concrete breaks down over time, especially when exposed to ice, snow, and rock salt, he says, but in Rome, people still walk on stone pavers installed by the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago. And upkeep on the pavers is a snap as well. “They require very little maintenance,” Naparstek says. “Take a mild soap solution, brush the stones, spray it off.”

Hiring Right

Like most artisan professions, hardscapers have a system of licensing. In New Jersey, hardscapers need a home improvement license, at minimum. The ICPI (Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute) and the NCMA (National Concrete Masonry Association) both provide certifications as well. Additionally, manufacturers of hardscaping products, including Techpro and D.P. Henry, have training programs that Naparstek describes as “rigorous.”

That said, “a lot of companies operate without one.” Naparstek recommends that HOAs only hire vendors who have valid licenses. “If they don’t care enough about the company to do it in the legal way, they don’t care enough to do good work,” he says.

Because hardscaping, especially large projects involving the flow of water, can be complex, it’s especially important to hire the right vendors. Often, engineers are the first part of the process, to ensure the work is done the right way.

“The makeup of the soil is very important as it is critical to the drainage,” Seaman continues. “Then you must consider other issues like the geo-grid, retaining walls, hydrostatic pressure and electric and plumbing.”

New Trends

The latest craze in hardscaping is PICP, short for Permeable Interlocking Concrete Pavement.

“Instead of the 97 percent runoff you have with regular pavers, nearly 100 percent of rainfall is absorbed through the permeable pavers,” Naparstek explains. This is achieved by the composition of the material between the stones themselves, a coarse composite that both drains and filters rainwater. This might not sound like a big deal to the layman, but it’s something of an engineering breakthrough.

A large Fortune 500 company, he says, just used PICPs to build a parking lot at their corporate headquarters. “The storm water management system is under the parking lot,” he marvels.

PICP parking lots lend themselves well to condominiums too, says Naparstek. “On a few acres of land, it might make the difference between having one condo building or two,” he says, “because that water system is under the parking lot.”

It “reduces or eliminates stormwater detention and retention ponds, storm sewers, drainage appurtenances and related costs,” according to a study provided by North Carolina State University. “It also meets U.S. Environmental Protection Agency storm water performance criteria as a structural best management practice (BMP) while providing parking, road and pedestrian surfaces,” and is “LEED-point eligible for Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Materials & Resources and/or Innovative Designs.” It also contributes to Green Globe points, he says.

Although the technology has been around for a quarter century, the procedures are so new that it’s like “an infant baby in this industry,” Naparstek quips.

Greg Olear is a freelance writer and author living in New Jersey and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.

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