Home & Garden

Hardscapes Make Outdoor Life a Breeze

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Stone walkways, patios and retaining walls are no longer reserved for stately old mansions. Thanks to a variety of new materials, hardscaping creates special outdoor areas for homes contemporary and traditional.

Cypress Group Inc., West Chicago, designed this patio with fireplace and walkway with pergola (right).

Landscaping can be as important to the look of a property as the house built on it. After all, “curb appeal,” that all-important first impression, makes a home more inviting and more valuable. While landscaping refers to the soft greenery of plants, trees and bushes, hardscaping uses non-plant materials to add beauty, prestige, structure and functionality.

And it’s on the rise.

Hardscaping is by no means a new concept – think of the stone and brick elements that adorn graceful old estate residences – but it is evolving and making a comeback with high-end homes, both contemporary and traditional. Examples include stone patios, walls and walkways; wooden decks, gazebos, pillars and pergolas; fences, fountains, boulders and lawn sculptures.

The aesthetic value of hardscaping speaks for itself. A stone pathway winding around a property, passing under a pergola and leading to a patio that is, perhaps, bordered by a brick wall, adds a crisp, refined look. It also makes space more livable; increases resale value; adds privacy; distinguishes a home from others on the street; and reduces lawn maintenance.

Most vegetation goes dormant during a Midwestern winter, but hardscaping elements remain bright and attractive all year round. Brick patios, retaining walls and seating walls continue to be the most common hardscape projects, but modern trends encompass outdoor kitchens, fireplaces, wet bars and paver-clad, rather than cement-poured, swimming pool surrounds.

“There are even ways to build outdoor TV viewing areas,” says Jeff Cox, landscape architect and head of the residential division at Cypress Group Inc., 250 E. Roosevelt Road, West Chicago.

While first thoughts about hardscaping may run to ground level, some of the most interesting projects Cox has seen involve pergolas and jazzed-up gazebos, some with stone siding. “Overhead structures can be quite striking for entertainment areas, and practical too,” he says. “A pergola is a wonderful way to temper sunlight as you’re waiting for a tree to grow.”

Outdoor kitchens continue to grow in popularity, “some with stone cabinet fronts, ever-more elaborate grills and burners, and outdoor refrigerators,” says Cox. “Also, a lot of people are getting away from decks and retaining walls made from wood, in favor of stone or prick patios and seat walls. This cuts down on yearly maintenance, and lumber has increased in price so much that pavers are a real alternative.”

Although some materials will show wear over time, a properly-installed hardscape project should last a lifetime, and then some. “Think of the old fired clay pavers installed at Colonial Williamsburg that have lasted for hundreds of years,” says Cox. “But proper installation is the key. Like most things, it all starts with a strong foundation. You must have a very compacted gravel base, 5 inches at minimum for a patio, 8 inches for a driveway. What goes underneath the paver is critically important.”

Whispering Hills Garden & Landscape Center in Cary designed and built this outdoor kitchen, which includes a fireplace. Unilock paving products were used.

Cox advises homeowners to ask plenty of questions before hiring a contractor, such as whether their installers have attended training sessions sponsored by manufacturers or trade associations. A landscape architect can help homeowners to make a good match between their home styles and the many paver, stone, concrete and brick products now on the market. He chooses to work with all major manufacturers, in order to give customers the best selection.

Among industry leaders are Unilock, Paveloc, Silver Creek Stoneworks, Belgard, Borgert and Rosetta, all with interesting Web sites sure to spark project ideas. Relatively new to the marketplace are granite aggregate pavers, which don’t show wear as quickly as limestone, and tumbled pavers that offer aged patina.

Indeed, the evolution of such building materials is a welcome trend to those who’ve spent decades in the industry, like Michelle Anderson, who, with husband Allan, owns Whispering Hills Garden & Landscape Center, 8401 Ill. Rte. 31, Cary.

“The expanding array of choices for homeowners is so impressive,” says Anderson. “We started installing pavers 18 years ago, when paver choices were limited. There weren’t a lot of colors or styles available. Now, there are limitless possibilities to design beautiful outdoor living spaces. Manufacturers are constructing accurate reproductions of pavers and wall materials that look like natural stone, flagstone, tumbled stone and cobblers.”

Hardscaping can be an environmentally responsible endeavor, when recycled materials and water-saving devices are used. More hard surfaces mean less lawn to water and treat with chemicals.

“Trends include permeable pavers with new technologies and styles,” says Anderson. “We’re incorporating permeable pavers and rainwater harvesting systems into outdoor living spaces, driveways and bubbler systems.”

When designing and selling outdoor “rooms,” Whispering Hills staff members ask customers how they hope to use their spaces and what features they envision. “We offer advice, educate homeowners on all available options and guarantee all of our work, 100 percent,” says Anderson. “This gives homeowners peace of mind when taking on a project of this magnitude.”

Each project becomes a unique signature work that may include accent borders and custom inset patterns within classic paver designs. Anderson likes the fact that families can enjoy an evening by the fireplace in a one-of-a-kind “room without walls.”

“A backyard oasis, maybe with an outdoor kitchen, provides the perfect place to entertain,” she says.

While much enjoyment can be derived from the simplest projects, the possibilities are as endless as the imagination and budget. The Andersons recently completed an elaborate project for an estate in Barrington that took three months to complete and includes brick paver walks, seat walls, pillars, drives and paths, a pool deck and lush landscaping. But hardscape projects aren’t only for the ultra-wealthy.

“The tough economy is keeping consumers grounded, and the current interest in outdoor living is tremendous,” says Anderson. “Customers are looking for outdoor living areas where they can relax, entertain and reconnect. They’re investing in outdoor areas and enjoying that investment every day.”

This waterfall and pond, designed by The Gardens of Woodstock, blends easily into the newly-installed patio.

Whispering Hills Garden & Landscape Center displays many Unilock products, including patio pavers, walkways, seat walls, fireplaces and outdoor kitchens. Al personally oversees all hardscape projects, and a landscape architect and designers are on staff. The Andersons estimate that 55 to 60 percent of their current business revolves around hardscaping projects.

Once the decision has been made to do hardscaping, plans should include a very deliberate mix of compatible hardscape and landscape materials. The interior style of a home should be considered, also, since the yard is its natural continuation of living space.

“Backyards are being transformed into outdoor living spaces that are extensions of the homeowners’ inside spaces,” observes Mike Balleto, who co-owns The Gardens of Woodstock, 5211 Swanson Road, with brother Len. “They’re no longer just concrete patios.” One of the most popular additions to any backyard is a water feature, such as a pond, waterfall or fountain. While fish ponds were all the rage a few years ago, more of today’s homeowners are opting for “pondless technology” water features that are easier to maintain.

The Gardens of Woodstock showroom has been transformed into a beautiful oasis that features several waterfalls. The two largest have 5-foot drops that produce the serene sound of cascading water, especially nice for homeowners who wish to muffle street noises.
Bubbling brooks and small ponds are carefully placed alongside meandering brick walls and patios. “We like to think we’re beautifying the earth, in the same way as the larger botanic gardens,” Balleto says.

Paver patios and walkways, along with seating walls, are among the most common hardscaping requests the Balletos receive, but they also find that customers give great thought to ourdoor sitting and cooking areas.

“Outdoor kitchens are on most customers’ wish lists, and many times, these can be phased into a project as funds become available,” Balleto explains. “The most important element of hardscaping is the design. We do all of the design work in-house and develop a plan according to the extent of customer’s needs.”

The Balletos foresee a bright future for hardscaping projects, as people discover how much they enjoy the end results. Hardscaping has already become a larger part of the landscaping business they take on. “People are upgrading their backyards to be more useful,” Balleto says. “And when it comes to materials, concrete is being replaced by brick, and timbers are being replaced with stone.”

Today’s swimming pools need not be surrounded by plain slabs of cement. This elegant design by Runde’s Landscape Contractors, Elgin, helps to define functional areas.

Factors to consider include lifestyle, budget, topography, shape and size of space and style of the home itself. Working with a landscape designer helps to make the process easier and more manageable. No matter the hardscape design, it must be carefully balanced with appropriate and compatible living materials.

“You can’t have a nice-looking project without landscaping with greenery that complements the hardscaping pieces and softens the look,” says Elgin landscape contractor Joe Runde. “It’s a marriage between the two.” He and wife Kim own Runde’s Landscape Contractors, 9N299 Rte. 47, Elgin.

“I like the creativity in this business,” he continues. “It’s like painting a blank slate. Each job is individual, and we’re seeing creativity in hardscaping that enhances homes and creates better gathering spaces for family members and their friends.”

Working with heavy materials can be very labor-intensive. For this reason, many landscaping companies, including Runde’s, maintain both a plant nursery and a landscape/hardscape contracting business. One-stop design, shopping, consultation and installation is convenient for clients.

“People are investing in their homes and ‘going out’ to their backyards,” Runde explains. “An increased interest in gardening is fueling a desire for more interesting surroundings.”

Typical projects run $10,000 to $15,000, while more elaborate designs can cost $100,000 and up. A project which includes a patio, grill island, fire pit and other features, like a pergola and outdoor kitchen, can run upwards of $55,000. Runde says he’s installed hardscaping at properties that range from row houses to 20-acre estates.

The first step in planning a hardscaping project is to identify the goals and investigate the options for achieving them. Runde brainstorms with clients to create a plan.

“We look at what the customer is trying to accomplish with the space, we talk about what they would like to enhance, and we look at the topography,” he says. “There are new stones constantly coming onto the market, and it’s my job to remain educated about the options, so that I can best guide my customers in their decisions.”

Runde offers locally-sourced materials, permeable pavers and devices for catching and using rainwater. Along with an increased interest in recycled and other “green” materials, the use of energy-efficient LED lighting is very popular.

Another growing trend is the use of polymeric sand, which hardens like mortar when it’s swept into the joints of pavers and moistened. Its use goes a long way toward eliminating weeds and bugs that tend to take up residence between two stones.

As homeowners see the gorgeous results of their neighbors’ hardscaping, more and more are sure to take on their own projects, raising the bar on property standards.

The great outdoors is a never-ending source of pleasure. There’s much to be said for staying home to enjoy the beauty and leisure that life has to offer in our own backyards. ❚

All About Stone

Boulders
Angular or rounded, these are generally priced by the ton but can be purchased in smaller amounts.

Fieldstone
Used for small walls, garden borders and accents, this is commonly available in limestone, marble, granite, hematite, quartz, sandstone and schists.

Flagstone
These irregularly shaped pieces are 2.5 to 4 inches thick and are priced by the ton. Smaller pieces are often called flagstone steppers, about 12 to 24 inches across and 1 to 3 inches thick.

Building Stone
Used for home construction, fireplaces, outdoor grills and walls, this is available in full depth or veneer thickness and is sold by the ton.

Ground Cover Stone
Used in decorative flower beds in place of mulch, this is sold by the ton.

Concrete Products
Offered in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors, these are most often used for retaining and seating walls.

Crushed Stone
A fractured limestone with excellent compaction capabilities, it’s most often used as a base material for walks, walls and patios.

Source: Lafarge North America Fox River Stone

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