Rocking The Wallet

1107 40Given the increasingly popular trend of creating backyard oases, the desire to include rock features around the waterscape should come as no surprise. But when it comes to designing a backyard that simply takes your breath away, money is relative.

Let's be real, the majority of America cannot afford an array of two-ton real boulders imported by crane into the backyard. The transportation costs alone would be astronomical. And many can't drop the thousands of dollars it takes to create a custom oasis designed to the liking of a bottomless pocketbook. But there can be a perfect and affordable backyard for just about anyone if artificial rock is incorporated in the mix.

"A lot of people who are looking to do something like that in their yard have the same questions: What can I expect to pay and what are the different styles?" says Kevin Lowe, president of Water Features Unlimited in Valencia, Calif.

The predominant players in the faux-rock category include glass-fiberreinforced concrete (GFRC), pre-cast concrete kits, and hand-sculpted, freeform work. Depending on what your clients are looking for and willing to pay, each can be used to achieve the desired outcome.

Naturally Molded

According to Fillmore, Calif.-based Rock & Water Creations, GFRC is "a pre-cast, Portland cement-based composite with alkali-resistant glass fibers dispersed in a specialty mix" that is sprayed into molds taken from nature to emulate the look and feel of actual rocks and boulders.

"The majority of our castings have come out of the Palm Desert area," says Lowe, "which is just riddled with these giant rock cliffs and boulders and God-made rockscapes." The latex molds of the cliffs and boulders include minute details that yield natural-looking designs. Once the molds are taken, the manufacturer creates panels, or what Rock & Water Creations general manager Mike Reinwald refers to as "the likeness of veneers." Think "decorative covering." "The president of our company went out and [applied latex to] rock cliffs and brought them back and created these molds," says Reinwald.

"And from those molds, we spray into them GFRC product, the material, peel that out of the mold and sell them as panels. And then contractors come in and select the types of various panels that they want. They put these panels together to create the look around the pool or the backyard [the clients] want."

GFRC products are definitely for the client willing to invest a nice chunk of change into their backyard. Due to the labor intensity required to re-create a mountainous range, contractors like Lowe charge anywhere between $75 and $125 per square foot of GFRC castings.

"The good thing about GFRC is that literally we can build whatever," says Lowe. "You are limited only by your imagination because of the ability we have. What we do with these [castings] is cut them, bend them, twist them, reshape them, manipulate them to meet whatever design concept we've come up with or whatever design concept the landscape architect has come up with."

But after spending a considerable amount on a pool, not everyone can make the commitment to spend an additional $75,000 on 1,000 square feet of GFRC castings. Cue pre-cast concrete kits.

Already Made

"When I've got a company that wants the Cadillac package, but has the Honda budget, I kind of steer them in that direction," says Lowe, "because they are still going to get a nice product." The standard pre-cast concrete rocks created by companies like Rico Rock in Orlando, Fla., and St. Louisbased Replications Unlimited are priced anywhere between $1,000 and $4,500 for an entire project. And if homeowners feel brave, certain kits are designed for simple installation.

"Our pre-molded features ship complete," says Jeff Jarboe, vice president of Replications Unlimited. "All the person has to do with that particular product line is literally just sit on the side of the pool and plumb it. And they're done. It's really nice for a homeowner who has a medium-to-lower price budget." RicoRock offers clients two main product lines: a modular kit, which can be put together by a handy homeowner; or a custom structural kit, which requires the assistance of a contractor or pool professional to backfill the rock pieces with a concrete mix, much like what's used to build pools.

One of the benefits in choosing a pre-cast kit is the variety of options available.

"We've got a very big range of waterfall styles and rocks to choose from," says Bruce Riley, managing director of RicoRock. "Most of the companies sell just the rock boulder or just the rock panels. And we've worked the last six years to create standard design kits. "It's a package that allows them to build a design. The pool companies tell us the reason they like the product is because it's predictable. They say, 'Here's a three-foot waterfall; here's what it looks like. And it'll look like this at your pool.' And there are no questions."

Replications Unlimited also offers its clients custom rock and waterfall features. "Those are basically anything that anybody wants," says Jarboe. "We either create the entire result ourselves, or somebody gives us a picture of something they like and we match [that] with all the different rock structures we have."

Those custom jobs run anywhere between $8,000 and $25,000. But there's something to be said about hand-sculpted, individualized rock designed specifically for the client's own tastes.

Hand Designed

"Everything we do is actually handsculpted," says Leslie Jackson, the chief designer of Natural Design in Auburn, Calif. "We don't use molds or stamps or prints."

According to Jackson, custom, hand-sculpted work can be more expensive than the stamps, prints and molds, but it allows homeowners to individualize the rockwork to their specifications. Natural Design has crafted hand-holds and foot-holds into their projects, as well as flat rocks for sitting under or out of the water.

"We do half-million dollar projects and we do $30,000 projects," says Jackson. But don't let the numbers fool you. Natural Design also offers a pre-designed line of hand-carved projects to those with a strict budget, while maintaining the integrity of the free-form work.

"It's the same kind of thing, it's just a scaled-down version, keeping the technical installation and the carving and sculpting as simple as possible," says Jackson. "Basically it's the size, the smaller size for the smaller yard and the smaller budget which we are aiming at with this line of pre-designed pools."

Naturally designed rock is created with shotcrete, but the application of the material is a little different. "When the actual pool is made, we then go on to the peripheral and pour the concrete in through the same three-inch tube [as was used to create the pool], without the pressure, without the nozzle, so it comes out a bit like toothpaste out of the big tube," says Jackson.

Then the sculptors do their thing with trowels; all the while the client plays an integral role in the creative process.

"With the free-form artistry of rock sculpting, we give [clients] a concept design and then invite them to participate," says Jackson.

Outdoor living remains trendy. And this trend costs money. But no matter what kind of artificial rock your client can afford, with a little research, it's attainable.

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