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Problems with Paver Installations

So you’re looking for a contractor to install a paver patio or walkway for you, and you’re doing your due diligence. You’re interviewing contractors, looking at portfolios, and maybe even going out to look at a few jobs. Just in case you’re not totally sure what to look for, I’ve pulled together a few photos from my travels. These are all projects where I’ve been called out to do a a redesign because issues have popped up. Let’s get started:

1- Incorrect pattern/ layout

The full technical term for pavers is “interlocking concrete pavers.” This is because the way we make sure your patio stands the test of time is by laying the pavers so they interlock. Think of a brick wall. When you’re building with brick (or even Legos), overlapping joints are stronger than a seam extending all the way up a wall. Flip it horizontally, and it’s just as important for a paver patio. Look at this one:

photo illustrating poor joint layout on paver patio

This patio is fundamentally flawed, because there’s a weak joint running almost the whole length. There’s a similar long joint just to the left of it too. Why is this a problem? Pavers work as a system: you use a pattern with a strong interlock, use a polymeric sand in the joints, and it holds itself together. Even if you get movement from frost, the patio remains a strong unit. With enough movement, these long joints provide a place where you could get heaving and gaps. There’s no excuse, either. Pay attention, look behind you as you lay, and swap out your stones if you see you’re making a big joint like that. It’s Patios 101.

2- Improper Base

I can’t hammer this home enough. If your base is wrong, it doesn’t matter how pretty your patio is. It will not stand the test of time. Let’s look at an example:

patio failing due to improper compaction

This is the same job as the first photo. You can see that the contractor used a retaining wall to bring the outside edge of the patio up to deal with the grade change. Ignoring the issues with the wall, you can see that the patio has settled and dropped unevenly in a number of spots along the wall. There are two likely scenarios for why this happened. First, the contractor may have built up the raised area with untested soil and did not compact properly. Soil should not be used as fill unless an engineer has tested it and given compaction instructions. The other possibility is that the contractor built up with an aggregate base as he was supposed to, but did not compact it properly. Unfortunately there is not a quick fix. The only way to fix the patio would be to pull up all the paver in this section, redo the base, and re-lay everything. It probably wasn’t worth going with the lowest bidder after all.

3- Improper Grading

It’s standard practice to pitch your hardscapes away from the house, to minimize the likelihood of water intrusion. It’s a no-brainer. Unfortunately some people can’t grasp this simple concept.

4- Poor Design

You had to know this would come up! Some design issues are minor, like picking the wrong color paver and clashing with the house. For example, it can be hard to pair a paver with a brick house (I usually don’t try- stone is great). Other design issues are a bigger deal.

dangerous steps

Behold the steps of death! There’s no handrail- you should have a rail if you have more than two risers in a row- and thanks to a poor design by the builder, there’s no sensible place to put one. So you walk out the back door onto a skinny little landing and immediately have to negotiate steep, narrow steps. There’s also a pretty sizable step-down from the patio and nothing to reinforce where the edge is. I always design for that fourth glass of wine- no broken ankles on my patios, please. Here’s an even scarier set of steps:

Source unknown- please let me know if you know

I hate “wedding cake steps” with a passion. You have eight steps, which is probably around 4 feet in elevation change, with no handrail. There’s also no guardrail at the edge of the upper patio (code says over 20 inches high requires one), and look at how tiny that first step is! If you misjudge where that first step is, you’re going for a ride. Looking at the workmanship, the job looks very well put together- but the design is terrifying.

The other design issue that bugs me is poor space planning. I studied interior design for two years, and I loved space planning class. It was tough, though, because you learn how hard it is to move people from point A to point B efficiently, without wasting hundreds of square feet on “hallways”. I’ve seen some enormous patios that are only big because the person building it couldn’t figure out any other way to give the client the function he or she desired. Every square foot wasted is wasted money. Work with a good designer, and have money left over for plants, lighting, and a big patio-warming party.

I don’t want to end on a down note; there are also a lot of really talented, professional contractors out there. Let me leave you with a photo of a beautifully built patio that you could land a plane on:

Well built paver patio


    November 27, 2016 REPLY

    I have a contractor that just finished my paver patio. He’s coming tomorrow to finish some cosmetic work, but the issue is that the pavers are wobbly. We used 12″x12″ concrete pavers. The base is compacted with gravel and he used stone dust as leveling sand on top of the gravel. There are also edgers being used to keep everything in place. I told him I preferred leveling sand but he was adamant about using the stone dust. When I confronted him about the wobbly pavers he said its because he didn’t use pollysand to fill in the gaps. Which I was adamant about him using leveling sand to do so. Everywhere I read says its the base and I feel that the pollysand would have covered up the problem but not fix it. Please advise. Thank you!!!

      November 27, 2016 REPLY

      Hey Andrew, thanks for commenting. Hard to give a definitive answer to what’s going on and what the solution is, but what you fill the joints with is irrelevant as far as wobbly or unstable pavers. If the pavers are wobbling it’s because there’s a void to one side. That can be resolved with additional stone dust – it just would’ve been an easier install had the contractor used sand. Hopefully he can make it right. Good luck!

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