Precast concrete pavers make outdoor living a stylish trend.
By Daina Manning
It seems like only yesterday when “outdoor living” meant throwing a couple of hot dogs on a creaky round grill while the kids played in the sprinkler. Landscaping consisted of mowing the lawn and weeding the flower bed. And except for the occasional unfortunate incident with too much lighter fluid on the charcoal, few people had an outdoor fireplace.
Today, homes feature full exterior kitchens complete with a luxury grill that costs more than most indoor ovens and a beverage center that includes a beer tap, wine cooler and an undercounter refrigerator. Some companies even offer stainless steel or high-density plastic cabinetry that can withstand rain and snow during winter months. And we haven’t even started talking about the outdoor spa concept, with such amenities as a hot tub and outdoor sauna in addition to the requisite pool.
All of this is good news for precast concrete manufacturers, whose products make for a perfect complement to the new, more opulent approach to outdoor living. “People are staying closer to home now,” says Bob Kelly, owner of Baxter Precast in Fairfield, Ohio. “They want to make their homes more of a showplace than they have in the past.”
“The wealth is more extensive now,” adds John B. Ward III, owner of Lite Stone Concrete in San Diego. “There are many more millionaires in a much younger age group.” And it seems those people are spending some of that money on palatial hardscapes, outdoor fireplaces, concrete countertops and other precast products.
A move away from wood
The high-end outdoor market is also moving away from wood decks for several very good reasons. “Wood decks are out,” declares Ward, adding that people are still installing highly durable wood/plastic composite products in addition to concrete hardscape. But today’s consumers are growing weary of the nearly annual maintenance that a real wood deck entails.
“With a wooden deck, you have to paint or re-stain that thing every couple of years,” says Ward. “Concrete has integral colors already in it. Once it’s installed you never have to mess with it.” A lot of people are replacing their wooden structures because they’re not lasting as long as they say they’re supposed to,” adds Peter Froehlich, branch manager of Brooklin Concrete Products Inc., Brooklin, Ontario, Canada. Typically, exterior concrete is sealed once, which preserves its color; Froehlich says the sealers need to be reapplied every two or three years – if you want to maintain a bright hue.
Dave Kaiser, who oversees production, installation and sales for PremierCrete in Dallas, points out that concrete is dyed all the way through, which greatly adds to the color’s longevity. Dye technology has also improved in recent years, so today’s dyes fade far less than their predecessors. But many homeowners prefer to skip the resealing and let concrete weather naturally. This approach ultimately gives precast a somewhat lighter shade in the same tones as the original color. “In my opinion, it looks better the longer it’s weathered,” says Kelly.
But durability isn’t concrete’s only advantage. Concrete products are a more environmentally responsible choice these days. The wood decking industry recently took a blow when the government outlawed CCA pressure treated wood after finding the toxic chemicals in the wood were leaching into soil surrounding decks, among other problems. More controversy is arising with recent imports of exotic woods from countries which are clear-cutting rainforests in a very environmentally damaging way. The advantage of concrete over stone is, of course, the price. “Lead times are (also) much better,” says Ward, adding that the consumer is getting the same look for about one-third the cost.
A variety of products and styles
Precast concrete has a wide variety of applications in residential outdoor settings. Popular choices for residential hardscape include pavers with varying edge treatments, explains Mike McKay, vice president and general manager of Americast Concrete Products, Woodstock, Ill. He also cites exposed aggregate patio blocks that have the look of terrazzo as a frequently requested item.
“Tumbled stone is one of our most popular products,” reports Froehlich. “People are using it for garden walls and patios and for around their pools and driveways. They’re extending their living area from inside to out and using that space more wisely.” Froehlich explains that tumbled stones are put in a turning drum that causes them to bounce off each other. “It rounds the corners off, scuffs them up a little bit so it gives them more of an antique look,” he notes, adding that the effect is similar to cobblestones one would see in centuries-old cities in Europe.
Overall, Froehlich believes people are getting away from the clean lines. “They like a beat-up rustic look.” But Kelly says he gets requests for a variety of design styles, both antique and contemporary. “And again, that’s the advantage of using concrete,” he says. “You can do a variety of different things.” Kelly adds that his company gets requests for both stock patterns and custom work. “We did a pool coping not too long ago. A lady came into the office and said, ‘I want it to look like this,’ brought a magazine in, and we actually matched it.” Again, durability is a big selling point. “I have concrete fences that have been up for 15 years,” says Kaiser. “They have vines and ivy growing on them – if you do that with a wood fence, (the vines are) going to eat it up.” But encroaching greenery won’t damage a concrete fence.
A stacked stone look is the most popular fence style, Kaiser notes. “It looks like a stone wall, and it has the same pattern on both sides.” He says a lot of people with residential properties share costs with their neighbors, “and each person gets a gorgeous fence.” As an added bonus, a concrete fence is thick enough to serve as an effective sound barrier. Another hot outdoor living look is concrete pavers placed on dirt, spaced with 2- to 4-inch gaps, with grass planted so it grows through the cracks – a great-looking and highly practical solution which offers the look of greenery with far less maintenance than a lawn. The pavers also can be installed with tighter spacing and grout. Around the pool area, a poured slab can be surrounded by beautifully detailed pavers. “You don’t need to seal them – they’re putting an antique finish on them so they’re non-skid, no slip,” says Ward. “And there’s no maintenance.”
An outdoor kitchen project usually calls for a concrete slab under the large grill, other major appliances and exterior cabinetry for maximum stability. A concrete countertop with a sandblasted or honed finish, which is treated with a permanent sealer, is another popular addition, says Ward. Along with the outdoor kitchen, outdoor fireplaces are also an up-and-comer. “It’s pretty much the same (as an interior fireplace),” says Ward. “We don’t build the actual fireplace boxes. We decorate the faces. Rustic is the most popular thing right now,” he says, referring to designs that look like they came from a castle in Europe. “We’re doing the face surrounds, the hearth, the legs, the mantle.” McKay says he gets frequent requests for fire pits: “They’re individual stones that fit together around a steel collar with grills attached to the collar,” he explains. “It’s very simple to build.”
Techniques for fabricating residential exterior precast products vary. “Our machines all come from Germany, it’s a fully automated plant,” says Froehlich. “Our paving stone machine will manufacture up to 20,000 square feet in a shift.” He adds that his company doesn’t do any installations, just fabrication. Ward favors rigid fiberglass molds for a smooth surface on his products. “That way, we can get any texture that we want,” he says. “They’re a little more expensive than plastic or steel, but they last longer and we have more options. I can get a smooth surface, a sandblasted surface or an antique surface – all out of the same molds.” A fiberglass mold also enables a fabricator to cast decorative accents and ornamentation on, say, the sides of planters, says Kelly. “The end pieces of railings can be any color and design – caps, balls, pineapples. All those things that are involved with the look of a country garden can be incorporated in the railing system itself.”
Kaiser likes rubber molds for his company’s concrete fences, currently a hot seller. Fence construction starts with 5-foot-by-1-foot panels. “They slide down the H post,” he elaborates. All the designs have a textured finish. “I have one that looks like wood grain, one that looks like brick, one that looks like stone.” Adam Manthei, managing director of Redi-Rock International, Charlevoix, Mich., also uses rubber molds for his company’s rock-like precast product. “It’s less costly than real rock, and you don’t have to replace it in your lifetime.” Redi-Rock also fabricates column products, pavers and free-standing walls, he adds. In addition to tumbled stones, Brooklin also manufactures hydraulically pressed pavers in different textures, including ledge rock, which incorporates a field stone finish and a shot blasting process that results in a sandblasted look. This process gives granite aggregate more of a sparkle, notes Froehlich. The pavers make for a beautiful, durable ground cover in back yards, and even in big-city applications such as roof terraces in condominiums.
Ward says that exterior fireplace surrounds most likely take their color cues from the stucco colors of the house – though sometimes it’s the other way around. “The precast is what’s dictating the color of the house, because the precast is (installed) before they’ve chosen the stucco color,” he explains. ]
Planters, balusters, railing systems and picnic or round decorative tables are other precast concrete objects that work well in a residential setting, notes Kelly. “We get a lot of requests for exposed aggregate looks and color,” he adds. “We made some black planters a while ago. They looked just like cast iron – they were beautiful.” Generally, natural tones are predominant for residential exterior precast. “The limestone look is a classic that’s been around for a long time,” says Kelly. Others cite neutrals and earth tones, such as buff, grey, tan, beige and terra cotta shades as the usual requests. Ward sees a call for off-white tones that work well with limestone or travertine. Blended, marbled looks are also a striking choice. “Most people choose to go with indigenous rock,” adds Manthei. “Here in Michigan, we go with a lot of two-tone grey. Tan is a really popular color in the west.” Manufacturers also periodically get more adventurous requests. “Areas like Florida and California, you see more of the brighter colors,” notes Froehlich. And Kaiser recalls the reddish-mauve fence his company built to match the stucco of a house. “When it was at the yard and we were manufacturing it, it was like, ‘Who the heck wants this color?’” he quips. “But it ended up looking really good. The architect knew exactly what she wanted.”
Similarly, Manthei recounts a purple project. “You get guys who are very creative, who want a certain look that’s unique – and we can do it!”