By John Kmitta
“Composites,” “mold-making,” “polymers” — these are probably not terms that you typically associate with outdoor rooms, hardscapes or decks when designing or building your client’s dream landscape. However, manmade products and processes are challenging stone and wood as the materials of choice in landscape design/build projects.
“Composites have helped lighten the material,” said Steve Ross, president and co-founder of Outdoor Living Products (OLP), a Hawaiian Gardens, Calif. manufacturer of outdoor fireplaces and cabinets for outdoor kitchens. “This allows contractors to manage risk on the job site. We make outdoor kitchen cabinets out of glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC). This allows us to reduce the weight of an outdoor kitchen by 70 percent.”
According to Ross, using cabinets and fireplaces made of GFRC allows the contractor to improve revenue without increasing staff. Also, since the composite materials are lighter in weight, there is no need for concrete footings beneath the outdoor kitchen. Manufactured cabinets also make it easier for electricians and plumbers to run wire or pipe, because there is a bulkhead between each cabinet.
“Also, there is a scratch coat already integrated into the product,” said Ross. “This creates a keystone effect when applying the veneer. This saves the contractor from having to apply a scratch coat, which saves time. The result is time saved on the job and a stronger bond; you would have to break the stone to get it off.”
According to Ross, innovative products benefit everyone from small owner/operators up to large design/build contractors. Ross speaks not only of his own products but the myriad of manmade composite materials being created for the landscape market, such as manufactured landscape boulders that can be moved by three crewmembers instead of a crane. Ross also points out the vast array of manufactured stone that is changing the way we look at hardscapes.
Using manufactured stone in landscape design offers many benefits, said Brent Spann, VP of marketing for Eldorado Stone, a San Marcos, Calif. manufacturer of architectural stone veneer. The variety of stone profiles and color blends from which to choose provides a sophisticated level of options for a designer, all with a keen sense of its beauty, authenticity and realism.
“Artisans in a manufacturing environment painstakingly work to create individual stones that, when blended together with the ideal grout technique, create a natural-looking, textural stone space,” said Spann.
According to Spann, the advantages of working with a manufactured stone also include its affordability, availability and ease of installation. At half the price and weight of natural stone, it’s easier to ship and install.
“Homeowners are becoming more familiar with the use and versatility of manufactured stone and like its affordability, which influences the contractor, so we see a combination of reasons why landscape contractors continue to choose manufactured stone,” Spann added.
Manufactured stone can also be integrated with natural stone and accessory pieces such as wall caps and column caps, hearthstones, etc. for a beautiful, authentic finished look.
Also, unlike quarried stone that is regional and has limited supplies, manufactured stone is available nationwide and specific profiles will be available for years to come.
Landscape contractors are also benefiting from the use of manmade products for decking and walkway applications. For example, Axion International Inc., Basking Ridge, N.J., creates a polymer product that can be used for practically any project that would typically call for wood — bridges, walkways, steps, decks, piers, borders or framing for gardens or other features, and bulkheading.
According to James Kerstein, CEO of Axion, the technology is an upgrade in the strength category to materials like wood, steel and concrete, but much more adaptable in terms of shape, texture and color because of the manufacturing process.
“We can work with the contractor to design and produce a highly specialized product for their specific needs,” said Kerstein. “Fabrication allows the designs to be engineered with performance benefits, as well as quick assembly systems; material, equipment and labor reductions; and immediate project savings.”
Also, unlike wood, the price-per-linear-foot does not rise as a piece gets longer. For a given project, the price-per-foot on the polymer product is uniform regardless of length.
In an era where everyone is going “green,” these manmade products are being showcased as sustainable solutions to meet client demands for environmentally friendly landscapes.
“We recognize the importance of offering more sustainable solutions for our customers” said Spann. “Depending on the manufacturing plant and mix design specified, our stone can incorporate both pre-consumer and post-consumer recycled content that helps architects and designers earn LEED points for their projects.”
For example, at Eldorado’s Greencastle, Pa. manufacturing plant, every single profile created at this location uses approximately 25 percent fly ash, a byproduct of coal burning, in its makeup. Fly ash is a pre-consumer recycled aggregate that replaces cement and improves the performance characteristics of concrete. The use of Fly Ash helps divert some of the 80 percent of fly ash that currently ends up in landfills.
For Axion’s polymer products the company developed a series of material, product, and processing patents working with Rutgers University. This has allowed them to utilize recycled materials such as milk and detergent bottles, Styrofoam coffee cups and car bumpers to create more durable and more flexible building materials.
“Over the long haul, Axion products don’t rust, splinter, leach toxins, require painting or staining, reducing, if not eliminating, maintenance costs,” said Kerstein. “And we’re 100-percent sustainable, allowing builders to keep pace with growing demand for green construction.
“Fortunately, it’s becoming easier and easier to convince people that green is the way to go. The consumer has become very well educated about the benefits of ecologically sound products, as well as the dangers posed by non-green products. More and more people are making purchase decisions based on a company’s environmental policies, so green is good for business. There are environmental laws and guidelines to consider, as well as the need to appease homeowners associations. Environmentally, our technology uses no trees and doesn’t leach harmful chemicals into the soil or water, plus we utilize waste that would otherwise go into landfills.”
According to Ross, sustainability is being driven by manufacturers to municipalities, and the requirements municipalities put on projects have a trickle-down effect.
“Plus the pure coverage of sustainability is driving it. More and more people want these products and contractors will benefit from learning how to sell them to their clients,” Ross added.
Conquering contractor concerns
According to Ross, contractors are increasingly using smart products in their businesses. But despite the benefits, not all contractors have been quick to jump on the composite-materials bandwagon.
“Contractors typically aren’t using composites until they see the immediate benefit from a dollars and cents standpoint,” said Ross. “Once we get them hooked and sell them on the positive aspects of composites they keep coming back. To be a financially sound company, you need to mitigate risks. It’s all about remaining viable.”
According to Spann, using products that make sense both aesthetically and financially creates a win-win for a landscape contractor and his or her client. Manufactured stone has become more sophisticated in recent years and, because of its high level of believability and quality, it has become a more popular choice for specifying professionals who desire the look and feel of stone.
Being able to achieve the textured, stone facade you desire at a more affordable price combined with excellent customer service and ease of installation tend to be the main reasons why the use of manufactured stone has grown in such popularity over the last few years, Spann added.
“Are you nimble enough to keep some net income in place?” said Ross. “With these products, margins are fixed and predictable; you get more business, manage labor, and are able to do more jobs. You can manage the labor expectation and create viable good-paying jobs.”
With most of these manmade products, training is minimal, and, in many cases the use of these materials is the same process as installing natural stone or wood products; in many cases the use of the products is easier than installing natural products. The user can pull the product off the pallet and be ready to go.
“We’re allowing them to create predictable projects,” said Ross. And as the market shakes out, they will be building with composites.”