Travertine Paver Patio Installers in Virginia – What to Know

When I was designing landscapes in Arizona, one option we had available to us was travertine marble tile. These were actual tiles – typically 12″x12″ and less than a half inch think – so they had to be laid in a mortar bed on a concrete slab. Shortly after landing in Virginia in 2005, I started seeing travertine pavers make an appearance.

These are really cool because they’re an inch thick and are laid just like a concrete paver. You build up with a base layer of compacted gravel (21A or crusher run), then use a one inch layer of sand as your bedding layer. Once the pavers are in place they’re compacted and polymeric sand is swept into the joints. That’s it. It’s a beautiful finished product that has the ability to flex and move like a traditional concrete paver patio in Virginia. From the test data I’ve seen online, travertine pavers have a compressive strength similar to concrete pavers and can even be used for driveways!

The biggest challenge I’ve found with designing travertine paver patios in Virginia is making the materials make sense. Travertine in California or Arizona doesn’t look out of place. It can look a little foreign here, though. I recently designed a fireplace, seat wall, and travertine paver patio as part of a winery landscape design project. I used a plum-colored flagstone to tie in with the warm tones of the travertine and the rich reddish colors in the fireplace stone, and I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. All those color theory classes have finally paid off.

I’m starting my next travertine paver patio project this week, and I may have one more in the pipeline as part of a swimming pool project. The travertine pavers are a great product that (unlike concrete pavers and flagstone) aren’t in every other backyard. Making it work requires someone who can integrate this new material in the landscape design while blending all the colors harmoniously. In other words, you need a landscape designer. Contact me to set up a consultation if you’re looking to build a travertine paver patio in Virginia, Maryland, or DC and I’ll be happy to talk with you about it!

Understanding Flagstone: Sawcut, Thermaled, and Chiseled Edges

You’ve decided to use flagstone in the landscape. Good call! You may not be done making decisions, however. If the stone will be used in an application where you see the edge of the piece (step treads, wall caps, etc) you’ll have to think about the finished look.

Thickness

The first thing to consider is the thickness of the stone. The typical stone we use for a wet-lay patio can vary in thickness, from a hair under an inch to over two inches. When building steps or a cap, you want to see a consistent thickness of stone all the way across.

Something else to consider is that often a thicker stone will look better. That 1″ thick flagstone can look wimpy. A 2″ piece has a lot more heft to it. In some cases you may want to go even thicker, but just be aware that now you’re looking at significant additional costs.

The Edge – Sawcut Flagstone

The most common edge “treatment” isn’t really even a treatment. The rectangular slabs of flagstone are cut with a giant saw, and you can often see the marks from the blade on the stone. It’s fine, but it’s certainly not an aesthetically exciting finish.

The Edge – Thermaled Flagstone

One of the most common edge treatments (and one that I think looks great) is thermal-treated. This is accomplished by taking a piece of sawcut flagstone, wetting down the edge, and heating it with a torch. Done correctly the water turns to steam and pops off small pieces of the stone, resulting in a smoothly textured and very consistent surface. Done incorrectly, the piece overheats and splits. This is why most stone yards offer to provide thermaled stone.

The Edge – Chiseled Flagstone

Another way of treating the edges of flagstone is to give them a chiseled appearance. It’s another technique that’s simple to describe and more difficult to do: the mason uses a chisel to remove small, evenly sized pieces of material from the edge of the stone until it has a very cool, consistent rock-faced look across the edge. Some companies do this on site, but most get the stone from the stoneyard like this.

When designing with stone there are so many variables to consider. While it seems inconsequential at first, the right edge treatment can make the difference between a good result and a great result. If you’re looking for help achieving that great result, contact me for a design consultation!

 

Virginia Deck Design Explained, Part 1: Footers and Ledger Attachment

My name is Dave Marciniak, landscape designer and owner of Revolutionary Gardens, and I use jargon.

I’m deeply sorry.

However, the fact is that when it comes to building everything has a name. It’s easier to use the technical term than a long-winded explanation. A great example is the French phrase “l’esprit de l’escalier.” It’s literally translated as spirit of the stairs, but the meaning is “thinking of the right comeback in an argument after it’s too late (and you’re walking down the stairs).” So in the interest of making myself easier to understand, I’m going to do a multi-part guide to understanding the key parts of deck construction, starting with the first step of construction: the footers and ledger. If these parts of the deck aren’t right, your deck could fail pretty spectacularly.

source: fairfaxcounty.gov

Before we get started, a disclaimer is in order. This is not intended to be a how-to guide for designing or building a deck, just an explanation of terms. I recommend working with professionals to design and install your deck, and at a minimum you should ALWAYS pull permits and have your plans and construction reviewed by the municipality in which you live. Got it? Good.

Footers

Unless you’re cantilevering your deck (which is another post), you need posts. Those posts need to be anchored firmly in the ground, and your county probably sets out the minimum requirements in a Typical Deck Details packet. The current standard is to use a 6″x 6″¬† pressure-treated post. The size of your footers is dictated by the framing they’re supporting, but minimum requirement is 16″x16″ square, up to 24″x24″ square. As for the depth, you need to dig down to the locally accepted frost depth. In most of Northern Virginia, that is 24″ down. If you live farther north, you may be digging down three or four feet. All of your footers need to be anchored in concrete.

Ledger

In most counties you’ll need to have the ledger board in place when you call for a footer inspection. The ledger board is the framing lumber (usually a 2X? piece of lumber) that is attached to the structure of the house when building an attached deck. I prefer building a deck this way, because it means I don’t have posts right up next to the house.

The ledger attachment is critical to the success of your deck project. After all, if you do it wrong your deck can fall off. Therefore, there are detailed specifications on how to install the ledger. If you’re attached to the home’s band board (it’s the board along the perimeter of the home that’s in line with that level’s floor joists) you’ll need to remove the siding, install flashing, and attach directly to the board. Sandwiching the siding between the house and the ledger is bad.If your home has a brick veneer over the wood, the county may require you to remove that brick. I don’t recall ever being allowed to simply drill through the brick if it’s not structural.

If you’re attaching to masonry (poured concrete walls or block walls), you’ll use either expansion anchors or epoxy anchors to hold the ledger board in place. The great thing about working with approved details is that they even tell you exactly how many anchors to use and how to space them out. You don’t need to be a master baker to make brownies, you just have to follow the directions on the box. Just be sure you get good directions. Hiring a landscape designer who designs decks for homeowners in Virginia, Maryland, and DC could be a good place to start. Click my contact page and we’ll talk.

Alternately if you’re just looking for an off-the-shelf solution, to check out my friend Joe’s deck plan packages Click Here!

Next week we’ll talk framing: beams, joists, and how they connect to the ledger and the posts. The ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone, and all that good stuff!

Endless Pool and Landscape Design in Alexandria, VA

Last year I was contacted by some folks in Alexandria, Virginia, with an intriguing project: they have a small backyard, and wanted to install an Endless Pool without giving up the entire yard or making the pool an overwhelming, ugly, dominant feature. I did some research, and the design issues surrounding an Endless Pool are the same as those surrounding an acrylic spa – namely, that without finding a way to tuck it into the surrounding landscape, you have a 3-4′ tall box sitting on a slab. Here’s what the backyard looked like:

Adding to the complexity of the project was the fact that they had recently had a new brick patio installed and weren’t in love with the idea of ripping it out and starting over. And, the yard was actually rather nice, if in need of an update.

Clearly, the best way to deal with the pool was to partially sink it in the ground. Part of the design process involved a lot of phone calls with the smart people division of Endless Pools, along with emailing back and forth lots of CAD drawings to get the technical details right (note: your random landscapers offering “free designs and estimates” don’t do this level of service). I ended up with a concept that played off the existing shapes, enlarged the patio, and kept the pool tucked down a bit.

As I often do when designing structure, I also did a quick (but accurate) 3D model:

The homeowners loved the concept and moved forward. I wasn’t directly involved with the install on this one, as the pool builder wanted to handle it himself, but I checked in periodically and came in at the end to discuss some hardscaping details and take care of the plantings and sod. It’s still new and not quite ready for prime time, but here are some finished pictures:

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All in all this was a really fun project to design, and I like that it’s a very simple design that is still very attractive and functional. It’s a fun challenge packing loads of function into the landscape design of a small space.

 

Elements of Design: Texture

Texture deals with how smooth or rough a surface is. When talking about elements of structures, smooth surfaces can often seem more modern and contemporary, while rough surfaces seem more rustic. Think of the difference between a rammed earth or concrete wall (favorites in modern design) versus a stone or splitface block wall.

Rammed Earth Wall. credit: ASNZ website (click to visit)

Texture has an additional role in landscape design, however. A pleasing planting design includes plants of different textures used in the landscape. Soft and spiky, narrow and broad, whatever the mix you choose the idea is to create some contrast to keep things interesting. This photo shows a really basic pairing of soft and spiky – something that’s actually quite common in container plantings:

An old trick I learned a long time ago was that if you want to be able to evaluate whether you have successfully blended textures in your planting design, take a black and white photo of the plantings. With the color removed, the textures become obvious. Brilliant. You don’t even need Photoshop anymore, just a vintage camera app for your phone. How cool is that? Yay, technology!

Texture is really effective, and it’s one of those tools that, when used properly, isn’t even readily apparent. It just “looks right.” The key to achieving interesting textures and relationships is knowing your options – which is where a good landscape designer can be a great asset.

Elements of Design: Mass in Landscape Design

There was a guy at one of the gyms at which I worked out who had a T-shirt that said “don’t be passive, be massive.” He was definitely the latter; you kind of have to be to pull off such a shirt.

Mass in the landscape is the same way – it has to be right if you’re going to pull it off. Mass is very closely related to shape and form. Actual density occurs when the shape is filled in. Optical density is when the piece in question is not completely solid. In terms of interior pieces (a common reference point), think of a couch that has a skirt all the way to the floor versus a couch of the same size with no skirt and tapered legs. The skirted couch appears to have more mass, even though it’s not solid all the way through.

How the heck does this relate to landscape design? It’s important to consider the effect that mass has on the pverall feel of a space. Obviously the bigger the space, the more mass it can handle. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that a heavy mass can “stop” the eye and make the space feel smaller.

This pergola is a good example of playing with mass. It’s a big site, and the large house is just out of frame – this needed to be a beefy structure. At the same time, the openings provide a little transparency and lighten things up a bit. You know it’s a focal point, but you can still see through it to the vineyard view beyond.

Plants can play a role in this as well. If we keep the plants behind the structure pruned even with the top of the fence, we’ve preserved the view to the vines and maintained a lighter mass. If we allow the plants to fill the space between the columns, it’ll have the same effect as if we had built a solid wood screen panel between them.

Because plants grow, you have to think about the effects of mass throughout the life of the landscape. It’s one more reason why working with a landscape designer can make a big difference in the overall look of your landscape.

Amazing Old Stonework

My mother-in-law was in town this past week. The way I was raised, when you have company from out of town staying with you the right thing to do is run them all over the state (or even other states) until they either go home or fall over. Last weekend we decided to head up to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia.

If you like natural beauty, it’s a great town and National Park to visit. If you like old buildings and funky shops it rocks too. What really had me giddy like a schoolgirl was all the old stonework. When you build your town where the mountains and the river come together, you build with what you have… and what you have is stone.

Even the steps to the church at the top of the hill are carved from the very rock it sits on, which is really cool. It’s also something I plan to point out to my masons the next time they grumble that my designs are too complex.

There are some huge stone retaining walls holding up vast chunks of this town. Any time I go to an old town I’m humbled by the reminder that even with all of our fancy technological tools and calculations, there’s no substitute for expert craftsmanship.

10 Myths About Hiring a Landscape Contractor

The other day, one of the industry blogs I follow highlighted a hit piece that someone did about hiring a contractor. I started to write him an email rebutting all his flawed points when I realized what a great blog post it would make! So here you are- ten myths about hiring a landscape contractor, and the truth behind each:

Myth #1- Your contractor’s price is just a first offer based on boom-time rates, with plenty of room to negotiate. Ok, have you been watching the news? How about going by the gas station near landscape yards in the morning? If anyone has a realistic picture of the economy it’s your local contractor. Because I work with a number of contractors, I can tell you that the smart ones have done an amazing job reducing their overhead so they can make their prices as competitive as possible. Never has it been more true that the price you see is the absolute best price they can give. Let’s be honest, you WANT your contractor to at least make a profit on your job. A profitable business will be around next year if you have a warranty issue, if you want additional work done, or even to answer your question of “wait, what’s that blue flower you planted by the shed?” Not to mention, a profitable business will have the trained staff and equipment to do the job right the first time. But hey, if you enjoy trying to track down the mope who brought your pavers to your house in the trunk of his ’84 Datsun 20 at a time, have at it.

Myth #2- You shouldn’t have to pay a deposit to start a job- that’s unethical/ unprofessional! One of the hardest parts of any business is maintaining cash flow. On most projects, the materials make up a good chunk of the cost of the project. Your contractor is not a bank- it is not his responsibility to finance the costs of your project. If you feel that the amount requested is too high, you can ask to have it broken down into smaller draws, based on progression of work. Just be aware that if the agreement is X% upon completion of the framing and you’re slow with the next draw, work will stop until payment is made.

Still not convinced? Look at it this way: there are laws in place to protect consumers from unscrupulous or fraudulent contractors. Even better, if you only hire licensed contractors, you have the full weight of your state contractor licensing board to help solve your problem. On the flip side, contractors don’t have many remedies available to them if a client stiffs them on a job. If it drags out in court, well- see Myth #1. If they’re operating on a thin profit margin, getting stiffed on a big job can put someone out of business. A deposit made along with a detailed contract is just good business. If the issue is that you don’t feel comfortable giving Contractor Bob the money because you don’t trust him, maybe Contractor Bob isn’t the right guy for you and you should find someone else.

Myth #3- You can save money by not pulling a permit, or if you (the homeowner) pull the permit in your own name– Not every project requires a permit. If your contractor tells you a permit isn’t needed and you’re unsure, one call to the local building office- “Hi, I live on Mockingbird Lane and I want to build a rocket launch pad, does that require a permit?”- will answer your question. If a permit is required, you need to have your contractor pull the permit. Period. If she pulls the permit, her name is on that permit, which gives you one more level of documentation should things go awry. It’s also the best way to do it. If you pull the permit and the fellow at the permit store looks at the drawings and misunderstands something that isn’t clear, he could mandate a change that is unnecessary, expensive, and not in your contract- which will cost you more money. As a designer, I’ll sometimes pull permits for my clients, but I still prefer to let whomever’s building the job get the permit.

Myth #4- My co-worker used him, so there are no worries– I’m a huge proponent of referral and word-of-mouth marketing; it’s key to my business. However, some folks have this skewed idea that because someone is a landscape contractor, they can do anything for the outside of the house. No word of a lie, I went in to fix a horrible patio job one time. I asked the homeowners why they ever hired this guy, and they said “he did a great job cutting my neighbor’s lawn so we figured he was a really good landscaper.” I looked at the neighbor’s lawn and the guy really could cut grass like no one’s business. However, he failed to disclose that this was his first patio ever.

When you’re hiring someone for a project, one question you should always ask is “have you done one of these before?” If the answer is yes, ask to see pictures. If you really want to do your homework, ask for references, or even see if you can stop by and look at a job the contractor did. Just because someone loved the job some guy did hanging a ceiling fan doesn’t mean the same guy is qualified to build your new home. A referral is a great place to start, but unless you’re looking to get the same service your friend did, you still need to vet the contractor.

Myth #5- If the address on his cards is a P.O. Box, he’s a scam artist– Sorry, it’s not this easy. Up until I leased my first office¬† last year the only address I gave out was a P.O. Box. First of all, a post office box is way more secure than a residential mailbox. Who wants to get checks or contracts stolen? Second, when you start a business and register with the state, the volume of junk mail you get goes through the roof. And if you register to do business with the federal government? Sorry, trees. We live in an older neighborhood where the letter carriers still deliver on foot. I don’t want to give the poor guy a hernia with all the junk mail.

Third, some people just don’t understand or respect boundaries. I have friends who have had clients stop by the house, uninvited, on a Sunday morning to talk about plant selection! I’ve also had people assume that because I’m a designer I run a nursery, and they’ve dropped by my Manassas Park office thinking they’d be able to look at plants. I love meeting new people, but I prefer to know it’s going to happen.

Bottom line is all a post office box means is that the person in question wants to separate their business correspondence from their personal correspondence. If you’re uncomfortable with that, mention it to your contractor. They’d probably prefer one person mailing checks to their home address to not getting the job.

Myth #6- You can tell everything you need to know by looking at what they contractor is driving– Nope. Sorry. Again, there are few shortcuts this easy. Until it got totaled last week, I drove a fifteen year old Ford Ranger. I bought it cash, it got great mileage, and it was cheap to repair, so it helped me keep my overhead down- which kept my fees down. Driving an old vehicle doesn’t mean you’re less successful, and driving a new one doesn’t mean you’re overpriced. It’s just a way of carrying stuff from point A to point B.

Myth #7- The lowest bid is the best value– Not necessarily. This is where working with a designer can be helpful. If the contractors are bidding a detailed set of plans and specifications, you can be reasonably certain that you’re getting an apples-to-apples comparison, especially if you have your designer review the proposals. Sometimes someone will try to sneak one by. I put a large custom pergola out to bid to three manufacturers. The first two bids were within $300 of each other. The third bid was $4,000 less than the next lowest. At first, I was excited! Then I looked closely and realized that where I specified 2×12 and 2×10 lumber, they had substituted 2×6 and 2×4 lumber. The finished pergola would look nothing like what I had drawn, and would in fact look downright stupid. I didn’t even ask them to submit a new bid, just tossed their bid in the recycling bin and crossed their name off my bid list.

If you’re getting bids but you don’t have a plan and specification list for them to bid- good luck figuring out the best value, because odds are every company is bidding something different.

Myth #8- The highest bid is the best contractor– Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Again, this is where having a plan and a list of specifications can be really helpful. It’s possible that the highest bidder has the best understanding of the specifications and is bidding exactly what’s asked, with no corners cut, which is why their price is higher. It’s also possible that they’re bidding the same specs as the next highest bidder, but they have a higher overhead or just a higher pricing structure. There’s still no one easy answer. It takes research and determining what your comfort level is.

Myth #9- Throw out the high and low bids and take the middle– The points I mentioned in myths # 7 and 8 come into play here. Are they all bidding the same thing? Are they all comparable companies? After all, if I want a flawless stacked stone wall and I got three bids, the bids may have been from three very different companies. Company A could be a skilled dry-fit stoneworker who has trained at the Dry Stone Conservancy, Company B could be a middle of the road landscape company, and Company C could be a lawn guy who reckons he can stack rocks. Landscape work is not a commodity. You’re not a purchasing agent seeing who has the best price on nuts and bolts, you’re looking for skilled craftspeople to create something where nothing existed. I wish I could tell you there was an easy answer, but if you want the best result you’ll have to do some homework.

Myth # 10- All contractors are out to “get” me– Let’s be honest, there are some bad apples out there who make the industry look bad. Because these are the stories full of intrigue and salacious details, these are who we see on the news. Guess what? The majority of contractors are people just like you who have families, coach soccer, and just want to get paid for the work they do. The contractors I work with do it because they love the work and they love seeing homeowners excited by what they do. What you have to remember is that when you’re looking to get something done, you’re unlikely to get something for nothing. If a price sounds too good to be true it probably is. Do your homework to learn what goes into your project, research the company you contact, and ask questions. If you’re still uncertain, a great place to start is to hire a landscape designer to create a detailed plan. This way you’ll know that the proposals you receive are for the work you want done and you can make a more informed choice.

Just try to remember that the end goal is to create a space that makes you happy and gives you years of enjoyment. Like everything else in life it’s a journey, so make sure you’re working with people who can do the job and with whom you’re comfortable. most importantly, have fun!

P.S.- Still unsure about the best way to proceed with your landscape project? Contact me to set up a consultation and learn how working with a landscape designer can make the process a whole lot easier!

Is Stamped Concrete Any Good?

It’s funny- for the longest time, I would have said no. Emphatically, in fact. After all, there have always been several flaws with stamped concrete, many of which are still a negative:

  • Difficult to change- once a slab is poured, that’s what you have. To reduce it for any reason, you would need to saw cut and remove a portion. To add on to it you can pour a new pad, but good luck getting the colors to match. Pavers, brick, and stone are a little easier to change out depending on how they were installed.
  • Life span- Concrete doesn’t last forever. If you get a section that chips, cracks, spalls, or stains, you have the same problem previously mentioned that it’s difficult to patch unobtrusively.
  • Cracking- this is a big one. Concrete WILL crack; anyone who tells you otherwise is full of it. The reason is that concrete is strong in compression, but not tension. What does that mean? Imagine that a piece of styrofoam is a concrete slab. If we load it so that the forces are pushing down on the slab evenly, it handles it. Now, let’s put the styrofoam on the edge of the table and put a weight on the end hanging out into space. It fails, because it is weak in tensile strength- just like concrete. This is why we put steel reinforcing rods (rebar) in concrete. We’re taking a product (steel) that has high tensile strength and giving some of that to the concrete. However, even reinforced concrete will still exhibit surface cracking.
  • Expansion joints- this is my pet peeve. I’ve seen too many artfully done stamped concrete slabs where the contractor does a pretty convincing job of an irregular stone pattern, then strikes a joint right through the middle of it, ruining the illusion. To avoid this you need to find a good contractor AND let him know you don’t want to see this.
  • Surface finish- too many slabs are sealed with a glossy, fake-looking sealer. Also, sealed concrete can get slippery underfoot. There are sealers out there that have less of a sheen to them, and there are also additives that will make them less slippery (“up the coefficient of friction” if you want to geek out)

So Dave, you say, why on Earth would you let anyone use stamped concrete? Don’t get me wrong, I will almost always design with the idea of using brick or stone first. It comes down to a budget issue. In northern Virginia, the cost of stamped concrete is usually right around $15 per square foot, essentially half the cost of wet-laid stone or brick. That’s pretty huge. If it’s a pattern that translates well to stamped concrete I would rather see the project move forward than have the client take the plans, roll them up, and put them in the closet for a decade. Where’s the fun in that?

This project actually worked remarkably well with stamped concrete. It was designed to be 2’x2′ flagstone squares, laid in a grid pattern on concrete. Instead, we used a stamp pattern that makes the slab look like one big piece of stone and used a masonry saw to cut grid lines in the concrete. Even with natural stone used for the wall and firepit, the concrete still looks good. Apologies for the picture of an unfinished site, but we’re still working on this one.

So to answer the original question of the post, is stamped concrete any good? It certainly can be, with the right design and the right contractor. Make sure you have both of those in place and you can get a great finished landscape.

UPDATE: Here’s a pretty cool little set of steps one of our stamped concrete contractors did in northern Virginia.