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Mastering Hardscape Terminology

It is always a wise idea prior to meeting with your hardscape contractor to master a few key terms.  This will do two things: it will help you to understand what your visiting contractor is talking about, and help you to determine if your contractor even knows what they are talking about.  A sure-fire way to know if your contractor knows what he/she is doing is to find out if they even know the industry “lingo”.  Below we will cover some of the basic terminologies that may be discussed during your interview, or covered in your proposal.  We will discuss what they mean, and how they are important to the success of your project.

Hardscape – Hardscape refers to hard landscape materials in the built environment structures that are incorporated into a landscape. This can include paved areas, driveways, retaining walls, stairs, walkways, and any other landscaping made up of hard wearing materials such as wood, stone, concrete etc. as opposed to softscape, the horticultural elements of a landscape.

Geotextile – Geotextiles are permeable fabrics which, when used in association with soil, have the ability to separate, filter, reinforce, protect, or drain. There are many different types of geotextile fabrics used for different purposes.  The two that you will want to remember are non-woven fabrics for permeable pavements and woven for standard pavers and driveway installations. Please be aware that weed barrier is technically a geotextile, but NOT of any grade that should be used in hardscape installation.  See the differences below.

Woven geotextile

Woven grid used primarily for retaining wall and paver base systems

Non-Woven geotextile

Non-Woven geotextile used primarily for permeable pavements, retaining wall applications, and water features.

Geogrid –  A geogrid is geosynthetic material used typically to reinforce soils and gravel materials. Geogrids are commonly used to reinforce retaining walls, as well as subbases or subsoils below roads or structures. While we usually use geogrids in reinforced retaining wall systems, we sometimes are able to use these grid systems in paver base installations in order to increase strength and decrease the base amount and client cost. There are two types of grids – Uniaxial, and Biaxial.  Using a biaxial grid eliminates a lot of human error as it is effective being installed in both directions while uniaxial is only effective in one direction.


Biaxial Geogrid used for strengthening paver bases, and aiding in global stability of soils and gravels behind retaining walls.

Densely-Graded Base – Densely-Graded base is a base in which the gradation, or the relative sizes of particles within the base, are highly variable and when lubricated with water will compact into a tight base which will bear a load. The gradation of a paver base is specific to its paver and function and is classified by an ASTM Standard.

Densely-Graded Base

A compacted Densely-Graded base installed as a paver base for a residential driveway.


Open-Graded Base – Open-Graded base is a base in which the gradation, or the relative sizes of particles within the base, are similar to each other. When installed as a base, it will bear a load and offer drainage as there is air space within the base. The gradation of a paver base is specific to its paver and function and is classified as an ASTM Standard.

Open-Graded Base

Installation of an Open-Graded base and setting bed on a residential permeable paver driveway

Angle of Repose – The angle of repose of granular material is the steepest angle of descent or dip relative to the horizontal.  This is important when assessing forces weighing against a retaining wall.  The greater the forces on a wall, the more consideration must be given to the design of the geogrid reinforcement behind the wall.

Angle of Repose


ASTM Standards – ASTM stands for American Society for Testing and Materials and is an international standards organization that develops and publishes voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide range of materials, products, systems, and services.  This is important to you and your contractor as it establishes the exact grade of material that your paver or wall base is required to have.  Failure to install a base that is not within a certain ASTM standard for your application will ultimately lead to failure of your project.

ICPI – ICPI stands for Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute. This organization leads the way with the training of hardscape contractors to install concrete paver systems.  They also conduct studies on the performance of pavement systems and write guidelines as to the installation of such systems. You can learn more about ICPI here.  It is imperative when speaking to any hardscape contractor that you are interviewing for your paver project, that you verify that they are certified through ICPI.

NCMA – NCMA stands for National Concrete Masonry Masonry Association. This organization leads the way with the training of hardscape contractors to install segmental retaining wall systems.  They also conduct studies on the performance of wall systems and write guidelines as to the installation of such systems. You can learn more about NCMA here.  It is imperative when speaking to any hardscape contractor that you are interviewing for your wall project, that you verify that they are certified through NCMA.

Standard Proctor Density – Standard Proctor density is the determination of the density of a material.  The Proctor compaction test is a laboratory method of experimentally determining the optimal moisture content at which a given soil type will become most dense and achieve its maximum dry density. Certified contractors know that certain types of base materials need to achieve a specific proctor density in order to be considered sufficiently compacted before moving on to the next step of the process. Not achieving adequate compaction will result in a failure of your pavement or wall system.

Proctor Density Test

Elegant Estates measuring the base density on a densely-graded base material on a residential paver driveway.

Permeable Paver Vs. Standard Paver – A permeable paver is a paver which is designed to allow water to go through the surface of the paver joints, while a standard paver required water to run off of the surface of the pavement.  While the pavers are indeed different, the difference is not so much in the paver itself, rather the manner in which it is installed. Since the two applications handle water differently, their entire systems are installed differently with different materials.

Standard Paver Detail

Permeable Paver Detail

Edge Restraint – An edge restraint is any type of material used to reinforce the edge of a paver to prevent migration of the pavers.  Typically this is a spiked poly material or poured concrete, but can also be curbing of various materials and styles.  Wood should never be used to restrain an edge as it will eventually rot and lead to a failed system.

Poly Edge Restraint System

The use of poly and spike edge restraints


Concrete Curbing used as an edge restraint

Concrete curbing was used on this driveway to act as an edge restraint.


Poured Concrete Edge restraint

The use of poured concrete as an edge restraint.


Soldier Course – Soldier course is a popular paver border in which the same sized pavers are placed side by side up and down the edge of your pavement project.

Sailor Course – Sailor course is a popular paver border in which the same sized pavers are placed end to end up and down the edge of your pavement project.

Inlay – An inlay is a design made out of pavers that are laid inside of the main field of pavers.  This breaks up the look of larger fields of pavers.

Paver Inlay

A strategic inlay breaks up this paver nicely.


Polymeric Sand – Polymeric sand is used to fill the joints between pavers, including concrete pavers, brick pavers, and stone pavers.  Some polymeric pavers are specifically designed for large gapped joints. This product is fine sand combined polymers that when mixed with water bind together. When dry, the polymeric sand acts like a hard mortar, and when wet, remain flexible.  This allows the pavement to flex as designed. Using anything other than polymeric sand for standard paver joints is not advised.

Poly Haze – Poly haze is a white haze that is left on the surface of your pavers from an improper installation by your contractor.  While water is required to activate the polymeric sand, too much water will wash out additional polymers which when left on the surface of your pavement will dry into a hazy appearance.

Paver Joint – A paver joint is the “crack” or space between your pavers.  It functions as drainage and stabilization for the paver system.  The joint fill will be different for standard versus permeable pavements.  While permeable pavers require fine drainable gravel, standard pavers require polymeric sand. Your paver joint plays a critical role in the overall interlock of your pavers.

Subgrade – A subgrade is referred to in a paver proposal often as the soil grade that exists under your paver base. It is important that your contractor understands the soil subgrade type so that the proper precautions can be taken to compact the base properly in standard applications and drain properly in permeable applications.


This glossary of terms will get you well on your way in understanding the hardscape verbiage used by your professional hardscape contractor.  When speaking to your contractor, be advised that if you know this terminology, and your contractor doesn’t, you may need to seek someone more proficient in the industry!





Proper Paver Selection

Paver selection can be overwhelming, to say the least.  We will try to untangle to the web of questions you will need to ask yourself prior to signing any pavement contract.

When I meet with homeowners, nine times out of ten they have already selected a concrete paver that they would like to have us install.  Some contractors blindly agree and put a cost together for the project using this paver.  We, on the other hand, like to pause and walk the homeowner through some important considerations to factor in prior to settling on a paver choice. Typically we start from the bottom up as detailed below.

1. Does the site require a certain type of paver or base?

Each site is unique, and therefore should be addressed as such.  We NEVER quote any job on a square foot basis for this reason. First, we analyze the site to determine if there is a requirement for the use of permeable pavers.  An example of such a site would be an area of the project that is continually plagued with water issues or has a soil grade that would inhibit surface draining water when using a standard paver. This also helps us to determine whether we would use a densely graded base (traditionally used on standard pavers), or an open-graded base (used in our permeable systems). See this difference below.


2. Determining application

It is important to determine the overall function of the area.  Will this area be used for pedestrian traffic or vehicular traffic?  If it is subject to vehicular traffic, then what is the Gross Axle Weight Rating (GAWR), or weight, of the vehicles that will be running over the paver?  This is immensely important as it relates to the depth of the base that is required, as well as the size of the paver being used.  Elegant Estates can take this information and calculate what depth of base is required based on the type of base being used, as well as what geotextile is required for the subgrade.  Answering these questions also comes into play when choosing a paver size. Professionals in our industry refer to a paver’s aspect ratio when determining its usefulness.   What is aspect ratio?  Aspect ratio is the relationship of its overall strength relative to its length and height.  Essentially, the wider and longer a paver is made, the thicker they need to be in order to bear heavier loads. Keep in mind that you should factor in the worst case SAWR.  For example, if you are planning to have a paver driveway installed then you need to ask yourself questions like this – My home has a septic system, so I will need to have that tank emptied from time to time. How heavy are those trucks?  Not only that, you need to know that they will be a lot lighter when they show up, and tons heavier when leaving your driveway. When you, or your contractor, fail to factor these variables into the base equation it will lead to a failed base and overall rutting of your pavement.

Aspect ratio illustration:

Aspect Ratio

Image Courtesy of

3. Now to the fun part – paver selection!

Now that you have narrowed down the choices of paver based on the type of paver you need (permeable vs. standard paver), the type of base you will need (open vs. densely graded), and purpose of the pavement (in order to verify the proper size required), you can move on to identifying the “look” that you want.  There is still a multitude of choices left to wrestle though including, but not limited to shape, color, and texture, as well as design questions relating to the overall appearance of your project.  It is important to familiarize yourself with certain terminology when it comes to pavers and designs. This will be covered more in length in future posts.

Remember, if you are feeling overwhelmed with paver selection, and would like to have a professional handle the A-Z of the process for you, we are only a text, email or call away and would love to help you out!  To view or download any of our current vendor material catalogs, please visit our download page.

Always Start With The Hardscape – The Design Process

Tackling Size and Site –

We’ve all seen those HGTV shows on how to spruce up your backyard, and even better yet – how to do it with a few friends in a weekend or less!  While that may be the case for some of us, others more likely have more ambitious of plans or intend to do a little more than just mulch some existing beds. When it comes to a backyard landscape installation or renovation, there are many things to consider.  For the purposes of this article, we focus on why it is important to think about the hardscape design first.

Most backyard plans are designed because homeowners want to increase not only the beauty of the yard but wish to increase the functionality of it. They want to add elements like paver patios, walkways or garden paths, water features, dry creek beds, outdoor kitchens, fire pits or fireplaces, pergolas or pavilions, or seating areas. In our experience, purpose and functionality are the primary motivating factors for updating one’s back yard.  During the client interview with Elegant Estates, we explain that the hardscape is the backbone of the design.  It is there to serve a purpose.  Therefore, it is designed accordingly.   When that is reasoned out, everything else is worked around the hardscape and serves to enhance it.

Define the purpose and scope of the space –

You will want to take some time to consider how your space will be used in order to determine how large it will need to be.  Many times we get called for a project and we find that the homeowner wants to install a 15′ x 15′ patio and they want to install a patio table and chairs on it.  They mention that it is only going to be for our family of 5.  After discussing the scale of the project with them, they quickly realize that in order to accommodate the furniture, there is little to no space left to walk on the patio when the family is seated. Proper planning at this stage can save you thousands of dollars being misspent.

backyard patio area

This patio was designed with multiple levels serving many functions. One area for casual seating, and one for fire feature entertaining and dining. By designing landings, the surface grade was addressed and transitions from the door to the patios were comfortable.


Asking yourself the following questions will get you well on your way to a functional space –

  1. Who will be using our space? (Family, friends, or both?)
  2. How will we use this space? (Daily family gatherings, weekend block parties, occasional dinner parties?)
  3. How will our space be furnished? (The more furniture that you plan to use, the larger your space needs to be)
  4. Do we want to have a grill on the patio area?
  5. Do we want to have a fire pit or fire table?
  6. Do we want to have extra space for people to stand and mingle, or do they have to be seated to enjoy the space?
  7. Think about flow – Have I accounted for enough space for flow of foot traffic to and from, or through the patio?

Identifying water issues –

I am shocked by the number of clients who indicate that we are the first to ask about what the water is doing on their site.  Since water can be public enemy #1 to a successful paver installation, it is a valid question. It used to be that if there were water issues that could not be rectified, then a concrete paver installation would not be possible. Fortunately, now we have access to what is referred to as a permeable paver that allows water to run through it and not over it.  Essentially, you can create a large french drain with a paver as the surface.  See the installation diagram below from our Techo-Bloc product vendor which shows a cross section of how we install these systems.

permeable paver detail

For example, in the early days of permeable pavers, we had a client call to have a walkway replaced.  We found that the grade would not allow for a standard concrete paver to be installed since there is nowhere to run the surface water off of the walkway.  This would lead to premature failure of the paver system.  Rather than declining the job, we were able to offer a permeable paver option as the solution to the hardscape design.  Not only did it look great when we installed it, but we were also able to reduce the water infiltration that the client was getting through that side of the basement. We are discovering this more than ever as we get calls for paver restoration.  Simply put, the pavers were installed in an area where drainage was not feasible, or just not done at all.

courtyard design

Permeable pavement installed that handles 100% of the water between the two building structures – Water is then piped to a nearby stormwater drain

How do I know if I have water that should be addressed?

But how do you know if you should be concerned about water on your site?  We recommend asking yourself a few simple questions about your site below before attempting your hardscape design.  If you can answer “yes” to any of these questions, then you, or your contractor, need to deal with the water issue first through the design process.

  1. Do you have mold or moss in areas where you plan to pave?
  2. Do you have a damp or wet basement?
  3. Do you have gutters?
  4. If you do have gutters, where do they run to?
  5. Look at the slope of the land – does it look like water from the surface would run off towards your project area?

The bottom line is this – NO pavement project should be installed without first considering how water will impact the area.  Here are a few of our projects that we have installed where we show what is going on UNDER the ground versus what you see as a finished product.


Other hardscape design considerations –

While we briefly laid out a couple of starting points to consider when designing your hardscape area, there are many more things that will need to be factored in during the process. Other factors can include paver type, paver scale, borders, inlays, steps versus stoops, lighting the hardscape, utility piping, adding water features and landscaping. We will get more in detail regarding those in future posts.

To learn more about our hardscape design service, click here.


How NOT to get burned by your contractor’s hardscape bid!

We get called to design and submit a hardscape bid on plenty of projects each year, both large and small. In an effort to become a better company when we lose bids I always like to ask our leads where we fall in line with the competition cost-wise.  It never ceases to amaze me when I ask specific questions that directly impact the price, to hear what kind of answers I get.  It often goes something like this –

Me: How did we fall in line cost-wise with the other hardscape bids that you received?

Homeowner: You were 20% more than the one we ended up choosing.

Me: I would like to ask a few questions on what they bid for you.  Is that alright?

Homeowner: Sure.

Me: How much base material did they quote for you?

Homeowner: They didn’t say how much they would use.

Me: My notes show that you were interested in a curvilinear design.  That will lead to 5-10% extra stone waste.  Do you know if that is accounted for?

Homeowner: I don’t know.  I just got a total figure for the job.

Me: Okay, did they detail what was going to be done on the project?

Homeowner: No, the quote says they will be installing a walkway and patio with plantings.  Total cost – $25,000.

Me: Did they reference the design number?

Homeowner:  There wasn’t a design done.


Do you see where this is heading? THE. HOMEOWNER. GETTING. BURNED.  Well, not always, but why chance it?  I’m always floored to see how many people are willing to risk their hard earned money on a contractor’s hardscape bid scribbled on a napkin or college ruled stationary. When the costs of larger outdoor living spaces range in price which rivals that of a new car to as much as a modest size house, why not require more detail in the bidding process?

Take the car example; how many pieces of paper did you need to sign in order to drive that new Toyota Camry off the lot?  What about the last time you signed off on your mortgage.  Yeah, we all know how much fun those closings are!  The point being, it is okay to ask for project details to be specified in the contract.  Any pushback from the contractor on this request should raise large red warning flags.  A detailed contract serves to clearly communicate the intention of the contractor, and verify that it aligns with your wishes.  It protects both parties!

For the purposes of this article, I will take a paver installation project.  It should not be out of the ordinary to show the following information:


  • Insurance- Type of insurance and verification if necessary.  Do not hesitate to ask for a certificate of insurance and to contact their agent to verify that it is still an active policy.
  • Certifications-  Is the contractor certified in this field of work?  (ICPI for pavers or NCMA for walls)
  • Experience- Has the contractor done this type of work before, or are you the guinea pig?
  • Payment- How is the project going to be funded?  Is there a 50% down, 50% upon completion?  A down pay with progress payments? Regardless of the payment structure agreed to, it should be listed.
  • Timeline- When is the project going to be started and approximate date of completion?  It is not uncommon for contractors to over promise and under deliver in order to get a quick signature.  Furthermore, let’s be realistic – the weather is a huge variable so completion times should include some flexibility for weather delays and manufacturers issues.
  • Design– Was there a design done?  If so, it should be referenced if multiple revisions were submitted. If no design was done, how do you know you will be getting what you asked for?  Now, that being said, we do some installs at Elegant Estates without designs BUT we make it stated very specifically in the contract what we will be doing and how it will be installed before the homeowner signs off on it.  This is a process, and you should not feel rushed. Here is a typical design we do in-house for some medium-large projects that we install –

Paver Design as part of a hardscape bid


  • How deep will the excavation be?
  • Will underground utilities be marked out?
  • Will geotextile be installed?
  • How much base will be installed?  What type, and how will it be compacted?
  • What kind of setting bed will be installed?
  • How much over-excavation will there be for edge restraints?
  • What kind of pavers will be used?  Color? Laying pattern?  Borders?
  • What kind of edge restraints will be installed?
  • What will be used in the joints between the pavers?
  • Does the project include cleanup?
  • Will the grading be done after work is complete?
  • Will the grass be reseeded where damage/grading is done?

Whereas the lack of general contract information can lead to overall general problems for you on a contractor & liability level, the lack of job information can come back on you in a financial sense due to change orders mid-stream, and worse yet the failure of your project or delivery of a result that you never originally wanted!

So, the next time you seek a contractor to do anything at your home, ask for a detailed hardscape bid.  You’ll thank yourself later!


Why do they call it hardscaping?

I giggle occasionally when I think of myself first getting into the landscape business back in 1999.  I recall going out on design consultations and speaking to clients about their project.  I would talk about how their house lends itself to, say, a modular design.  I would talk about softscaping and which types and sizes of plants we would use, the color of mulch, etc.

Then I would then say “now let’s talk about the hardscaping”.  I would guess about 90% of the time I would be looked at as if I was from outer space.  I would then respond with some contractor humor “you know, its the hard part of the job”. Being sort-of a landscape industry insiders joke, some prospects got it while others not so much.  Being a proud father of 4 children (3 of them girls), I was reminded the other day of the “hard” nature of our daily work in this video and I could totally see my girls pulling this stunt…

Knowing that each one of those real pavers in that clip was approximately 15 pounds each, you can sympathize with the folks on the receiving end of this prank!

True, hardscaping is indeed hard work and deals with more than just boulders, pavers and retaining walls. It’s work that can be done by the above average DIY’er if they have the spare time, the right equipment, and choose to follow the proper steps along the way.  Having the right equipment certainly helps make the project less “hard”, but not everyone has thousands of dollars to rent machinery.

We plan to have future blog posts relating to what kinds of things to look for when either choosing a contractor for your landscape and/or hardscape project, learning how to speak hardscape jargon, as well as how you can avoid common mistakes when installing your hardscape projects.

Looking for a free estimate? Call us to set up an appointment at 607-533-3699.