The Hard Truth About Hardscapes

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Photo courtesy Chris Copley | Designer | Rondo Pools
Photo courtesy Chris Copley | Designer | Rondo Pools

People have been making use of hardscapes for a long time, and for good reason. These materials are unique, durable, largely maintenance-free and opportunities for customization continue to evolve. With 2020's surge in demand for backyard upgrades stretching into 2021, it may be time for builders to double down on the hardscapes game.

Photo courtesy Chris Copley | Designer | Rondo PoolsPhoto courtesy Chris Copley | Designer | Rondo Pools


A number of misconceptions tend to prevent pool builders β€” often more qualified and better-equipped than they realize β€” from entering the category.

"A lot of pool builders don't do hardscapes. They get to the pool coping, and then they move on to the next project," says Paul Golomski, hardscapes product manager at NPT. "Builders are uncertain about how to do them."

This uncertainty revolves around the installation process itself.

"What pool builders don't want to do is install pavers and have them look horrible six or eight months later, and have an upset homeowner," Golomski adds. "Word of mouth travels fast. I think some of their hesitancy to get into hardscapes is because they don't want to tarnish their name. They really know pools, and they don't want to be an A+ on a pool project but a C on pavers."

Golomski explains that many newer hardscape installers make the mistake of not accounting for extra material. This can snowball into extra time and labor, bringing up the cost of installation.

"It goes back to uncertainty and how to bid it. When it comes to pricing out a project, it's all about the square foot," he says. "Let's say a pool deck is 1,000 sq. ft. If a contractor orders 1,000 sq. ft. of pavers, they're going to be short material, because with cuts, not every pool area is a perfect square. There's always going to be breakage, from concrete pavers to travertine to marble β€” I don't care what kind of material it is."

Ultimately, when it comes to installation, some builders don't realize how capable they already are.

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"Pool builders already have a lot of the necessary equipment, so the barrier to entry is very low. They can get right into it," says Golomski. "They can build amazing pools, but might just not be known for hardscapes yet. That's where the resources come in."


With the low barrier to entry β€” and surge in demand β€” why aren't more builders adding these types of projects to their portfolios?

"The biggest hurdle is just the education," says Golomski.

Often, hardscape manufacturers are aware of this hurdle, providing support and resources to help builders transfer their skills.

"We have hardscape installation trainers available to talk to contractors," says Golomski. "Right now it's virtual, but before COVID, we'd go out to job sites and work with contractors on installing pavers. And there's no charge for that. We know that we're here to educate our customers, and help them grow their business."

That kind of builder support is also part of the model at Arriscraft of Canada, a quarrier of Adair limestone, according to George Winsor, regional sales manager. "Under non-COVID situations, on larger projects, we'd send out a masonry contractor to work with," he says. "If it's a new product the builder is not familiar with, we help get them off the ground, familiarize them with it and train their staff."

In addition, Arriscraft keeps two technologists on staff to review drawings and assist in the design and installation process.

"At the end of the day, it's all up to the installer, but we certainly want to help them design properly," says Winsor.

 Photo courtesy Chris Copley | Designer | Rondo PoolsPhoto courtesy Chris Copley | Designer | Rondo Pools


From granite and marble to travertine, limestone and porcelain, the sheer variety of hardscape materials on the market promises something to fit any homeowner's tastes.

"One of the major trends over the past several years has been homeowners selecting natural stone over what would be considered a traditional concrete paver," says Golomski. "With that, you can create and customize a look and feel that isn't replicated like you would have with traditional poured or stand concrete."

Right now, NPT's most popular selection for coping and pool decks is travertine.

"When someone chooses travertine, they can be assured that their neighbor who chooses the same color of product won't have the same look, because every layout is going to be very different," Golomski says. "Within travertine, there's a phrase called the 'movement.' It's the way that the stone and the veining moves, the way the material is cut. It makes a different kind of flow from paver to paver."

Beyond materials, colors and textures, some manufacturers can even customize shapes.

"Being a stone quarrier and fabricator, we have lots of different sawing equipment that can create all kinds of elaborate shapes and ornate looks," says Winsor. "So we can create some cool feature details for landscaping. We have the ability to do sizes up to 48-by-60 if need be, so customers can get a really large look."

And the hardscape aesthetic can continue throughout the yard, beyond the pool decking.

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"I've seen projects where they've done the pavers and everything around the pool in Adair limestone, the large slabs around the pool and stair treads, but then they'd build the actual poolhouse out of Adair limestone," says Winsor. "So not only do you have it going horizontally, but now you've got it going vertically."


The resilience of hardscape materials might seem like an obvious benefit, but it's a selling point that shouldn't be overlooked.

"Our stone itself is over 400 million years old β€” it's stood the test of time. Essentially, it's indestructible," says Winsor. "It's a product that's going to be a one-and-done scenario. There's always the expectation that there's going to be a gradual deterioration of color, fading or pitting...but you're not going to have that. It's going to look as good 20 years from now as the day it was installed."

Maintenance is minimal. This depends on the application, of course β€” different types of joint work have different recommendations β€” but generally, once a hardscape is in place, it doesn't need much else.

"For the most part, natural stone is maintenance-free. It's just your traditional blower or broom cleanup for sticks, leaves or anything else," says Golomski. "Occasionally, you would just take a hose and rinse off any kind of mud or dirt."


When considering the customer benefits of hardscape materials, it's hard to overestimate the impact of tactile aspects, Winsor says. "Imagine on a hot summer's day, you're getting out of the pool, or maybe you're relaxing on the patio. You put your feet down on the ground, and it's like stepping into a hot pan. That's the last thing you want, and there's a lot of products out there where you'd feel that."

Lighter-colored hardscape materials can prevent this problem, thanks to their high Solar Reflective Index (SRI).

"[Products with] a very high SRI actually reflect the sun's heat, rather than absorb it," says Winsor. "So when you go to put your feet down, it's a lot more bearable and comfortable."

"There are darker, deep blue or dark grays that are available, but a lot of people don't like them because they do get hot," says Golomski. "Builders can point homeowners in the direction of the lighter colors."

Photo courtesy Chris Copley | Designer | Rondo PoolsPhoto courtesy Chris Copley | Designer | Rondo Pools


This wide variety of customization opportunities might seem daunting. Luckily, there's technology to help customers and contractors visualize things in the backyard before they become permanent.

"Most people only build one pool in their lifetime. It's like building a house β€” you don't have all the answers," says Golomski. "So there's a lot of angst when it comes to thinking, 'Am I making the right decision? What's it really going to look like?'"

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With the NPT Backyard App, users can get a visual of their project using a virtual pool design studio. The company recently added more updates and capabilities to the app's hardscapes section to help homeowners bring their ideas to life.

"We're now adding different travertines, marbles, flagstones and porcelains to the decking," says Golomski. "Now, when you go into that app and after customizing your pool, you decide that you want to incorporate some type of hardscape β€” whether it's a concrete paver or a natural stone β€” it's all there at your fingertips. You get a pretty good visual representation of what it's all going to look like. And it's constantly evolving as we add more information and resources."


With homeowners looking to extend their living from the inside to the outside, the hardscape category is growing fast β€” and it's only going up from here.

"Obviously there was a bit of uncertainty at first with COVID and the slowdown, but it wasn't too long into May when things really started to pick up and people started making up for lost time," says Winsor.

"We've seen demand for hardscapes go through the roof. The requests have just gone up tenfold," says Golomski. "I would say hardscapes would be our largest building materials category within the next two to three years. It's a big category, and it's growing fast."

Winsor is equally optimistic. "It certainly looks as though all indications are that 2021 is going to be a very busy year."

This article first appeared in the April 2021 issue of AQUA Magazine β€” the top resource for retailers, builders and service pros in the pool and spa industry. Subscriptions to the print magazine are free to all industry professionals. Click here to subscribe.

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