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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!





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!


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