Hardscaping a $4 billion business

Tough stuff

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March 31, 2014 | 9:24 pm

Think of it this way: Landscaping includes grass, flowers, trees the green stuff.

But as landscaping businesses have looked for new lines of business, many have embraced what's known as hardscaping the use of stone block and pavers for retaining walls, patios and sidewalks.

It's become a popular trend with $4 billion in annual sales.

"You don't have to start with a large patio to use man-made stone for banding and quilting to achieve a really distinctive look," said Ryan Novak, residential landscape designer with Culver's Garden Center & Greenhouse on Highway 151 in Marion. "Outdoor fireplaces and fire pits are increasingly part of what we're creating for our customers."

Culver's recently installed an outdoor living area to show customers what can be done with stone, sea walls, fire pits, fireplaces and other features.

"Samples and photographs only show so much," Novak said. "This space allows us to walk through patios, demonstrating the features and quality of various products and how we can personalize a design.

"We recently completed a project in Guttenberg that involved a 300-foot walkway from a home to a gazebo on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. We created a patio with a removable fire pit before you get to the gazebo that cannot be seen from the house.

"The family held a wedding in the gazebo several weeks ago. Our field team worked on that project for seven weeks."

If you have driven into Iowa River Landing in Coralville recently, you have used a road constructed of pavers installed by Culver's. Pavers are being installed by Hardscape Solutions of Marion to create streets leading from the main drive south to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics's new outpatient clinic and other Iowa River Landing tenants.

Curt Richey, co-owner of Hardscape Solutions, said the use of environmentally friendly permeable paving and concrete is becoming more widespread.

"Permeable paving allows for the movement of water through to the soil, reducing the amount of runoff, soil contamination, stream erosion and siltration as well as protecting urban tree growth," Richey said. "We're using products that have been developed in recent years that are very different from what was on the market not that many years ago."

Novak said communities are encouraging the use of permeable asphalt, concrete and pavers as stormwater runoff becomes a serious concern.

"We are seeing cities on the East Coast that are assessing fees for the amount of runoff that a property generates," he said.

Richey said pavers and retaining walls are showing up in new commercial developments as well as redevelopment projects. He said Hardscape Solutions, which he and Nate Andrews formed in 2006, works in about a five-state area in and around Iowa.

"We have kept very busy this year as the level of construction in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City Corridor is higher than I've seen in many years," Richey said. "We were able to retain the right people through the tough times, and that has helped us prepare for the future.

"All the signs we are seeing point to infrastructure construction work continuing over the next few years."

Culver's and Hardscape Solutions use King's Material of Cedar Rapids as a primary source of the raw materials they need for hard landscaping.

"The materials we have now and their price point are 300-fold different from what was available 10 or 15 years ago," Novak said. "As a design-builder, we feel we need to keep a step ahead of the big-box stores because they're trying to develop their own niche with do-it-yourselfers.

"Right now, the weathered or tumbled stone look is very popular. I think you're going to continue to see more products develop that are lighter, more durable and easier to install."

Charles Rohde, president of King's Material, agreed that landscaping materials have evolved dramatically in recent decades.

"So much of it is very close in appearance and durability to the natural stone products it is mimicking," Rohde said. "However, the tolerance controls on them make construction so much easier."

While the majority of King's Material's sales are to professional landscaping contractors, Rohde said the do-it-yourself homeowner continues to be a sizable portion of the 130-year-old company's customer base.

"We have a lot of people who visit our retail location on Sixth Street SW in Cedar Rapids," he said. "Fifteen years ago, if you took all of our cash sales of concrete blocks, the general public was probably our 25th largest customer," he said. "For the last eight years, the public has been our second-largest customer in terms of retail sales."

Rohde said some customers quickly realize that the pavers and other materials are heavier than they realized.

"Many of them leave our shop with a list of two or three contractors that can realistically do what they originally thought they could do themselves," he said.

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