Hardscape installers skills - natural stone vs concrete pavers

dc_pilgrimFebruary 3, 2010

I have been planning my landscape for a while, and have spoken with a few different landscapers and a recently hired a landscape architect.

The LA made a pleasing design. He said the choice of materials is flexible, but generally envisioned a bluestone patio, and a semi dry laid fieldstone retaining wall.

Obviously there is a higher install cost on these products vs using pavers or block retaining wall systems.

My question is, if we use natural stone should we be more inclined to use a mason for that portion? Does a landscaper used to doing these systems have a skills deficit if the manufactured products are used?

There are significant plantings, regrading and other improvements in the plan, so I'd rather be able to combine jobs and not have to carve up the job to a bunch of different subs, but not at the cost of quality given the likely expense.

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Some landscapers are among the best masons around for outdoor stone work, while others are terrible. A lot more landscapers are very capable with the manufactured wall products because there has been a lot of training available to them by the manufacturers.

Masons, on the other hand, have been very busy with more profitable natural stone and wet laid block and brick to have wanted to learn or work with segmental retaining wall products until recently.

You should be fine using a good landscaper who has documented experience with the materials that you select and a portfolio to back it up as well.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2010 at 12:57PM
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Fair enough. Its hard to generalize. We will definitely scrutinize their paste work and references. You just worry about people with experience in part of the trade looking to earn more and bite off more than they can chew, and its always scary when its your money on the line.

I appreciate the input.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2010 at 1:39PM
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I've just gone through the same process. It sounds to late, but I wish I had driven around-found some stone work I admired - then knocked on the door and asked for the guy's number. My wall came out a fair to poor looking. I think the guy was over his head, but I did hold back a third of the cost.
For a third less in price and some plants against the wal I can live with it.
Good Luck
p.s. ask for material receits ( tell him it's for tax's)before you shell more money

    Bookmark   February 3, 2010 at 1:49PM
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I have had two landscapers out who were pitching block stuff. One did nice work for my next door neighbor, but has been lousy on follow through. My wife in particular is done with him. The other is one who seems capable was referred by friends of friends. He was a little pricey, but now that we have better plans we will have him bid again. We had a third out, from craigslist, who seemed to be more of an excavator though his business card says he did more. I am not sure if he is right to bid on the masonry work.

I have done a bit of reading at a trade website ( http://www.groundtradesxchange.com/forums/ ), and their you see a discussion of folks in the biz, and you can't help but notice a range of skills and specialties. Its easier to not have to find a bunch of contractors for each of the specialties, but I wonder if that is the best way.

I see a lot of nice block work in my neighborhood, but have thought about driving into the rich people's neighborhoods where I see more natural materials to look around to see if there is stuff I like there. Might have to do that. My wife knows a couple of folks who live in those neighborhoods through the stay at home mom's club that she is in.

    Bookmark   February 3, 2010 at 3:11PM
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There's no broad generalization that can be made with regard to experience and knowledge. I work with some contractors who can do it all, and some who I wouldn't let near natural stone. Laag has the best advice- look for a portfolio of work showing the materials you want used, and if you're at all uncertain ask for a reference or a site visit to see for yourself.

I'd disregard the advice to ask for materials receipts though- I don't see what that's supposed to do for you.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2010 at 8:23AM
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I agree with marcinde and laag. Piling concrete units one on top of another or laying them end to end on the ground is simple work, the quality of the work is in the foundation the blocks being the facade. The level of skill can be seen in how bends and corners are done and this is where you should look when visiting sites, tiny shards of block to make up an ill planned bend is a marker.

Working with natural stone is a different kettle of fish and you may need to to look hard and long at done work, you also don't say where you are and frost will effect the durability of natural work differently than blocks.

If you really want to annoy the contractor in advance ask to see the receipts for materials

    Bookmark   February 4, 2010 at 10:30AM
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I am in South PA, so the ground does freeze.

Thanks for the input. If we go with natural stone, it looks like experience with the material is going to have to be a pre-requisite.

I don't know about asking for receipts for materials. Do people typically get lien releases from subs and suppliers? I know that this was a big issue in Massachusetts where home improvement contractors were using credit at the supply house, half performed the job then went bankrupt. The end consumer then got liened by the supply house for all the lumber that went into the project that the contractor didn't pay for. It was grossly unfair. I do need to educate myself on the rules since I am sure a lot of landscapers are struggling these days.

    Bookmark   February 4, 2010 at 11:12AM
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I personaly would go with the LA. The bluestone patio with flagstone retaining wall is very durable and functional. Chances are the LA has a experienced install crew and will over see the project to your satisfaction. I have worked with a installer that made my head hang in shame. The next one that I will always recommend to my clients is the one who does an excellent job. It was like light and day the results were stunning! As far as the plantigs go; if the plan is straight forward and you work closely with the nursery of your choice/recommended everything should fall into place. Have you checked out the materials your LA has suggested? And your wife knows these people in the area of witch she works. Would they be willing to let you see thier landscape? Could they recommend thier designer/installers?

    Bookmark   February 5, 2010 at 1:10AM
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Will the LA do contract administration (you pay x% and (s)he takes full responsibility and hires all of the subs)?

After a while you start to realize that administrating the contract on your own is not as easy as just saving money. You have to work hard to find subs, you start with no experience in doing it, you have no network of trusted subs, and none of the subs is going to be thinking "this guy is a potential source for lots of repeat business" and the response and pricing will reflect that, you have to coordinate the subs, you have to be in charge of quality control, you are presumably going to go to work everyday while these guys are working (while you are managing them?), and finally you are the person taking the responsibilty for the outcome so there is no single person to legally hold accountable if something goes wrong.

If your neighbor was willing to give you that amount of money that you are saving to do the same for him would you take it?

If you hire one contractor to do all of it or take on the responsibility of hiring and managing the subs, you have put the responsibility on one person to be held accountable and he is not you.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2010 at 7:08AM
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To repeat what has been said above, construction management is not a trivial task. It takes management and leadership ability, knowledge to know that proper techniques are being used and to quality control check the work and materials recieved, and to perform the scheduling in a time and cost efficient manner.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2010 at 8:53AM
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Thanks for all the comments.

The LA is DC based. I am near Harrisburg, outside of his normal service area (CL ad ran in Baltimore and was picked up as a "nearby" area to us). He has a guy who is Baltimore based who might be interested in the work, but his interest will be higher if we do more of the project at once rather than phased since that would be a ride for him too. That doesn't perfectly match my fund from cash reserves approach, but the HELOC rate is real low and my employment is stable.

The LA would help administer the project, but I believe only if we contract him to do the construction documents vs the concept doc's. Which is a % for the construction docs, plus hourly for the administration (where he might not be local to supervise easily).

We re-did the basement in the old house and we juggled contractors which wasn't a ton of fun. I guess I did it for cost savings, but it was certainly work. We (my wife in particular) are organized and capable, but there is always the knowledge gap to deal with. I don't think we'd do it for a neighbor though. The cash benefit is nice, but we'd need the future dividends of the work done right and the improvements being ours, at least for our period of ownership.

I prefer the materials LA is proposing. A part of me wonders if it over improves the property to the neighborhood, if the neighbors are all using pavers or blocks. We hope to be in the house ten more years, but it won't be our last place. I expect to take a financial loss on these improvements. But I do expect the improvements to make our place sell faster.

The people my wife knows in the expensive neighborhood would definitely let us see their yards. I just don't if the people she knows have done anything. I can find out.

I'll ask the LA if he cares if I post the design concept on the net if anyone wants to see what we are working towards.

    Bookmark   February 5, 2010 at 1:40PM
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A good plan is important, but has nothing to do with craftsmanship.

    Bookmark   February 10, 2010 at 1:04PM
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Getting back to the original question, should a mason or landscaper do the stone installation? A good set of plans containing construction details and some guidance of the landscape architect would enable a quality contractor from either trade to perform the work. A good landscape firm could do the entire project and eliminate the stress of having the homeowner project manage.

    Bookmark   February 10, 2010 at 3:59PM
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We'll have to think more about engaging the LA to do plans.

Here is the high level conceptual plans. The patio, stairs, front walk plantings and retaining wall are new. Basically just the grass and house pre-exist. The hardscape improvements are placed within the 10 foot buffer to avoid any issues with encroachment or easements.

    Bookmark   February 11, 2010 at 11:44AM
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We drove through some neighborhoods today looking at what others did. I think for the retaining wall we are now pretty firmly in the natural stone camp as opposed to a block system. We also engaged the LA for detailed drawings to facilitate the next steps.

In terms of the plans above, we are thinking we might alter the planting beds so the transplanted dogwood in the back yard (the T) is in a bed, vs in the grass. Just to facilitate mowing.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2010 at 2:56PM
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"To repeat what has been said above, construction management is not a trivial task. It takes management and leadership ability, knowledge to know that proper techniques are being used and to quality control check the work and materials received, and to perform the scheduling in a time and cost efficient manner."
I agree with this wholeheartedly.
No matter who builds the wall or how good it is going to look when finished there is another factor which is equally or even more important. That is how the wall is build structurally. I have seen many contractors built beautiful walls but structurally are not sound. Walls need good foundations and drainage. These structural items must be specified and included in the bids taken. Given that, you need a plan. After the bid is let you need to either be able to scrutinize the work yourself or must hire someone to do it for you in your behalf.
As far as receipts are concerned I don't feel you are entitled to see them but you are entitled to know that all his material has been paid for so as not to have a lien placed on your property for non payment. An "All bills paid affidavit" is usually part of the contract. You can also ask for a list of his suppliers just to make sure they have been paid.
Money is the only controlling factor you have in making the contractor do the job properly. Once you have paid the subcontractor or contractor then you have lost control. A law suit is usually cost prohibitive and can take many years to even get to court.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2011 at 5:17AM
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