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Choosing Wisely

201012BZ0By Bruce Zaretsky

One of the most common themes repeated in this magazine is that selecting materials for projects can make the difference between truly artistic designs and those that are either inappropriate or just plain boring.  It’s a point worth pressing:  Materials truly matter, and the importance of knowing your options and keeping pace with changes in the marketplace can never be overestimated.  

Through the past few months, for example, I’ve been working with a couple who live in a home that’s an architectural gem – a century-old farmhouse in the Georgian Revival style, beautiful in every detail.  And it has to stay that way, as it is located in the town’s preservation district.  This means that every detail built inside or added onto the house itself must be reviewed by the preservation board.

In working on the landscape, however, we aren’t constrained by the review board’s idiosyncrasies, nor are we bound to build everything in accordance with the style of the home.  But that certainly does not mean we’re going wild and will do anything out of its character.  Indeed, everything is fully in keeping with the home and the personalities of our clients.

Happily, the clients know their stuff and have a long-standing love affair with the garden styles of New Orleans and Charleston – two great cities filled with homes similar to theirs.  On my own, I’ve spent a fair amount of time as well studying gardens of a similar nature and am aware of both their subtleties and their numerous stylistic flourishes.

PERFECT SURFACES

Along the way, I’ve found a common thread in the paving materials:  Just about every one of these walled courtyards is paved with tile or oversized brick in simple but beautiful geometric patterns – essentially multi-textured carpets in brick.  It’s a beautiful, timeless look that goes great with plants and lends character to intimate spaces.

In working for these clients, I aimed at emulating this look and knew exactly where to go for the bricks.  Interestingly, the material I chose was a new introduction – but from a well established and familiar supplier.  It’s called Crestline and is made by Belden Brick Co. of Canton, Ohio, and when I first saw it on their website, I was so excited that I called my local distributor and told him that I was in love with this brick and that it would be a perfect fit for this particular project.

I won’t go into any more detail about the project itself here, basically because the experience with the brick set me to thinking about paving materials and how I use them in my work.  For starters, I’m not and never have been a cookie-cutter designer.  I don’t use the same products on every job, nor am any one supplier’s “certified installer.”  Instead, I hone in on materials that suit the site, architecturally and practically.

I also focus on keeping up with what’s available in the marketplace.  It’s a somewhat daunting task, given the proliferation of products that emerge from year to year.  But I do my best to stay current, firm in my resolution that I won’t use a product just for the sake of using it or because it’s easier to obtain or work with than any other one.  Helpfully, I’ve also found a few suppliers who seem to “get” what it takes to make their products compatible with some of the older houses we’ve been working on lately.  

As we take our paving cues from the architecture, we’ll often lean toward natural stone materials, including lots of geometric Pennsylvania bluestone and broken flagstone (also called “standup” because of the way it’s stacked on pallets).  These products are quarried in a swath extending from the Catskill region of New York down well into eastern Pennsylvania.  

There are countless quarries in this area, and we can acquire stone in just about any size, from small squares up to single slabs that make up an entire truckload on their own.  Given where we work, we generally opt for stones with a maximum thickness of one-and-a-half inches, although it’s easy to get them up to three inches thick.  If we change directions and head into the Adirondacks, we find the same range of paver configurations in granite, a beautiful and indestructible material.   

BRANCHING OUT

Bluestone and granite are, of course, time-tested materials for outdoor applications, but in my quest to keep current, I’ve also run across more exotic materials including a Travertine that is rapidly becoming one of my favorites.

This stone has been used extensively for millennia – as a durable indoor paving material in northern climes and as a reliable indoor/outdoor option in less frost-bound regions.  It comes in a wide variety of forms and looks and fits neatly across a range of styles – a wondrously beautiful material.   

As I’ve mentioned before in this space, I’ve been delighted by the fact that, in recent years, we’ve had a Travertine available to us here in the north that stands up to outdoor use – a development with huge implications for exterior designs.  I was dubious when one of my regional suppliers approached me with the news, but I spent several months researching and even testing these pavers in my freezer and I’m now using them when the opportunity arises.

My biggest concern, of course, is water absorption and the effects it can have on Travertine in freezing conditions.  I was surprised when it passed my tests, but since then I’ve seen that it really does withstand upstate New York’s brutal winters.  

2My point here is, basic assumptions about what materials can be used where are subject to constant updating.  In keeping up with options, it pays to have an open mind.  (Skepticism is a healthy initial response, of course, so long as it doesn’t unduly cut things out of consideration.)  

While my personal preferences lead me to favor natural stone where it’s appropriate, I also run into projects and clients for which other options represent better choices.  Some settings simply cry out for bricks, for example, and in these cases I face a number of possibilities in evaluating natural clay products.  

Clay bricks are made in a various ways, with most of them being either individually formed or wire-cut.  All of these products are great as pavers because they have high coefficients of friction and do not get slippery when wet, but sand-molded bricks have a classic, rugged look, where wire-cut versions have smoother surfaces and can look almost like fields of tile when they’re installed – especially if you get them with chamfered edges.    

I’ve used the four-by-eight inch versions of these bricks for decades:  They’re beautiful, tough and (this is the best part) look to be a hundred years old the day they’re installed.  But again, this is a product category in which fresh variations pop up periodically.  As designers, we need to keep up with the variations that emerge, no matter how humble or common the material might seem.

PAVING THE WAY

That restless inquisitiveness most clearly needs to be applied when it comes to concrete pavers.  These were introduced more than 30 years ago as an alternative to solid paving materials in cold climates like Canada and quickly caught on south of the border.

The first incarnations were called “interlocking” pavers, and they came in I and key shapes.  The interlocking designs made them suitable for passage of vehicular traffic, but it wasn’t long before new products emerged that were suited to pedestrian use for sidewalks, patios and the like.  Such pavers soon became available as simulations of bricks, cobbles and squares.

These products have improved dramatically through the years in both quality and appearance, and I swear it seems as though something new is announced every other day.  Some of my favorite recent models are those that have been tumbled to soften the edges and create a rougher appearance.  

3While most people will never mistake concrete pavers for the real thing, they at least give the impression of old stone or cobble paving and are much easier to install than the real thing – the key to their growing popularity.  Most of these products come with uniform thicknesses, interlock in some way and require minimal cutting other than at edges.  Many suppliers are now kicking things up a couple levels, offering concrete pavers that emulate larger paving stones including Bluestone, flagstone and granite.  

The possibilities here are limitless and these pavers are now coming close to being viable alternatives to natural stone in many settings.  

In evaluating any paving material, I rely on our experience and some information that comes from our suppliers.  Specifically, I want to know three things:  The material’s compressive strength (the higher the better); it’s coefficient of water absorption (the lower the better); and the coefficient of friction (the higher the better).

With compressive strength, we know that poured concrete usually falls in a range from 3,000 to 5,000 psi.  Concrete pavers hit close to 8,000 psi while clay bricks are at 8,000 to 11,000 psi and travertine gets all the way up to 17,000 psi.).  We also know that some products (including the Travertine we’re now using) actually are less slippery when wet – a nice selling point around watershapes, for instance.

In looking over this text, my general conclusion is that anyone who thinks the quest for great materials is easy needs some counseling.  Just keeping up with paving choices is a respectable job, and as designers we also have to do the same sort of homework in dozens of other categories, from retaining walls and lighting fixtures to plants and earth-working equipment.   

Truth is, I love every minute of the process and can spend days talking about the features and idiosyncrasies of my favorite products.  I really get into catalogs, and I see the new-product sections the way a child sees a toy store.  True, I have a stable of tried-and-true materials, but I know that these products evolve and that it’s my job to keep up.

As I see it, this is just fine:  The more viable options I have at hand, the better able I am to make the best choices for my clients and their properties.

 

Bruce Zaretsky is president of Zaretsky and Associates, a landscape design/construction/consultation company in Rochester, N.Y.  Nationally recognized for creative and inspiring residential landscapes, he also works with healthcare facilities, nursing homes and local municipalities in conceiving and installing healing and meditation gardens.  You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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