Hardscaping Opportunities Await Mason Contractors
By Brett Martin
When it comes to hardscaping, most consumers don't typically turn to the masonry industry for their projects, but that could soon change. Masons have constructed dramatic, award-winning projects involving pavers, patios, water elements, retaining walls and more that are beyond the ability of most landscaping companies.
"The landscaping field is an unusual area for traditional brick masons; there are not very many brick masons who do landscaping work that I know," said Buddie Barnes, president and CEO of Dee Brown Inc., a Garland, Texas-based firm. "We cannot compete with the typical landscapers, who do the dry-stack walls, but where there's a lot of sculpture and detail work required, we can compete with anyone."
Landscaping companies generally rely on less-experienced labor, so they can usually underbid masons. Big jobs that involve hardscaping and anchoring walls, however, require a mason's expertise.
"I think we're better equipped than landscapers because we're used to setting stone," said Richard (Dick) Felice, president and CEO of Forrest & Associate Inc. in Des Moines, Iowa.
Breaking the Myth
A popular belief in the masonry industry is that large mason contractors are too big to do landscaping work.However, that myth has been shattered by several well-established masonry companies that have found landscaping to be both enjoyable and lucrative.
"I would disagree that landscaping isn't worth your time," said Barnes, whose company ranges from 200 to 500 employees nationwide."The projects we have been involved with have been profitable for our company."
In addition to completing hardscaping projects, Dee Brown has five crews that specialize in small projects ranging from $500 to $5,000, such as remodeling jobs, repair work and small tenant finish-outs. The small projects division nets roughly $1 million annually for the company.
Mackie Bounds, owner of Brazos Masonry Inc. in Waco, Texas, said larger companies are actually better equipped to venture into landscaping.His company grosses about $20 million annually, with 25 to 30 percent of its business coming from hardscaping.
"It's difficult for companies running 30 to 40 masons who are trained for one thing to get into this," Bounds said."I believe it's easier for bigger companies to do this or for new companies who do nothing but this."
Hardscaping is a natural fit for masons, he said. "It's so closely related to the rest of the masonry industry," Bounds pointed out."Ninety-nine percent of the materials are the same as in masonry."
Barnes and Bounds would like to see this area of their businesses grow, and they foresee a lot of potential. Currently, less than 10 percent of Dee Brown's business comes from landscaping projects.
"The market is there; we just need to pursue it with more diligence," he said."Because of the environmental requirements placed on the owner today, I feel that there is a greater need for the landscape and hardscape work to complete their projects." Hardscaping holds "tremendous opportunities" for masons, Bounds said.
"I believe it will be as big a part of our work, [much like] flashing and waterproofing. It will become more of an integral part of our work," he said. "You can increase value without making a big investment. If I were going to expand my business with the resources we have, it's a no-brainer."
Glenn Gosnell, a consultant for Las Vegas-based Paver Search Inc., a paver website portal, also sees great growth potential for masons in paving."If the economy stays constant, there's still about a 3,000 percent growth left," he said. "The business is growing - it's growing very rapidly."
Gosnell, who also happens to be an accomplished mason, said dry flat work can offer less liability than working on buildings, and masons can often quickly cover a lot of ground.
"It's as fast as you can put it down," Gosnell said. "With 15 guys, I could do up to 10,000 square feet a day - and I was slow!"
One of the reasons masons enjoy hardscaping is the creative outlet."It's kind of an artwork," said Felice, whose company completes $10 to $20 million in annual business.
Some jobs require improvising during the masonry process, expert modification of materials as the projects are constructed and envisioning the final project without the benefit of architectural drawings.
"Many of these projects work from very detailed shop drawings, and then other projects will be done with not much more than freehand sketches,"Barnes said."You must have the ability to visualize what these projects are going to look like, because there are times that you will not have many drawings to work with.
"This allows our company to be more creative than you will find in the traditional building project."
Dee Brown's Executive Vice President Rob Barnes said he also enjoys hardscaping work.
"Personally, I like it because it's not the typical, everyday project," he said."When you get into it, you have to stretch your mind on how you can physically do the work."
Brad Goldberg, the designer and artist who worked with Dee Brown on the Allen Civic Plaza project, said it's important for him to work with masons who take the same pride in the project as he does.
"For twenty-some odd years, I fabricated and built all my own work, and I wouldn't let anyone else touch it," Goldberg said.As the projects started getting larger, he realized he could no longer do it all, so he started working with Dee Brown. "They're the only ones I'll let touch my work."
Goldberg said it's crucial to work with an experienced mason contractor, since he doesn't want to solicit bids for his jobs, such as the Allen Civic Plaza project. "If you put this project out to bid, it would frighten away most subcontractors and they would triple or quadruple the price, so you couldn't afford to do it," Goldberg said. "There are a lot of people who don't have the capability to do these types of projects."
Rob Barnes said his company has worked closely with Goldberg on several projects over the last five years, which has developed into a strong rapport and a sense of partnership.
While the projects have their own set of rewards, they also have unique challenges, ranging from transporting gigantic rocks to fitting tight joints to blending colored stones. But probably no mason contractor has faced a more solemn challenge than Brazos Masonry's Bounds, who built the Aggie Bonfire Memorial at Texas A&M University on the site where 12 students died while preparing logs for an annual bonfire celebration.
"It was emotional. The entire thing was emotional, from building, through managing, to completion," Bounds said. "Most of the job sites you go on, there's a lot of talking, a lot of construction talk. When you walked on this site, there was complete silence."
To meet the challenge, Bounds and others made an extra effort to perform their very best work.
"When you look at the workmanship of the project, you see they took very, very special care to make sure the memorial is top-notch," Bounds said. "It was a sobering job, but a job you can take a lot of pride in."
He also faced more traditional hardscaping dilemmas, such as moving large rocks - in this case,weighing 30,000 lbs. - with cranes into exact locations.
"When the crane dropped those pieces into place, they had to fit like a puzzle. You had to have a precise fit. You had to make sure each piece was set to perfection," Bounds explained, noting that the massive rocks had to be placed on the specific spots where bodies were found after the accident. "When you put stone on the face of a building, you're allowed certain tolerances. There were no tolerances allowed on this job. You couldn't say, 'I'll just move it a little this way.'"
Bounds and his hardscaping peers have found that unlike typical masonry jobs, in which they strive to set as much brick or stone as possible in a short amount of time, hardscaping requires a different mindset.
Rob Barnes agrees whole-heartedly with this statement. "You have to be patient.With these projects, you're not production oriented,"Rob Barnes said."The guys have to not have the mentality of production.You focus is on quality. There's no production with this type of work."
A well-experienced, five- to six-person crew worked four months on the Allen Civic Plaza project, spending a lot of time working the edges of the stone. Barnes said the segmented quarry block seat wall stone had to be cut with a chainsaw and butted together.
For Felice's Jordan Creek Mall landscaping project, the challenge was making sure the stones' colors blended naturally to give the impression that water had worn and aged the stones over time.
"The architect was a stickler for color, so to meet the expectations of the architect, as far as color blend,we had to make it as natural as possible," Felice said. "When we built it, the pond wasn't even in existence yet."
Although it took time for the masons to get a handle on blending colors and placing the mostly uncut stones in a logical arrangement, once they grasped it the project moved quickly, he said.
Getting the stone he wanted from the quarry also proved tricky. "You're really at the mercy of the quarry as to what you're going to get," Felice said. "You tell them the size and color, and hope they get close."
After seeing the mason contractors' impressive projects, it's easy to understand why they won MCAA International Excellence in Masonry Awards for their hardscaping work.
"I was elated,"Buddie Barnes said after receiving the award in March for the Allen Civic Plaza project. "I thought the project was unusual, and the outcome of this project was out-standing, but you just never know what the judges will be looking for. There are the judges who look for the clean and very basic in design, and there are the judges who tend to look for the unusual and very creative designs."
In their discussion of the Allen Civic Plaza, the judges noted the masons' achievements, calling the project, "A plaza worthy of highest award recognition.Huge stones, wandering paths and spacious grass areas are thoughtfully arranged with beautiful geometry. The heavy stones are beautifully hewn and carefully fit - a tribute to the masons."
Goldberg, the artist and sculptor, said he designed the plaza to look like it was rising out of the limestone strata. Rob Barnes said he also had another objective. "One of Mr. Goldberg's design goals was, when it was done, that it look like it should have always been there."
Another 2006 award winner, Forrest & Associate's Felice, was recognized for the natural look of his project. "The combination of cut stone, rough uncut stone, and water create a very tranquil destination," the judges said. "The stones look as if Mother Nature carefully placed them."
Like his colleagues, Felice took pride in his work and was thrilled to be recognized by his peers."We were proud of the project and honored that we won," Felice said. "We're very grateful to the judges."
Although Bounds, who won an award in 2005, is equally proud of the Aggie Bonfire Memorial, it's not a project he boasts about.He said the memorial should honor the victims, not the contractors.
Standing at the memorial, Bounds once overheard a young boy ask his mother how the massive stones were put in place.He was tempted to explain, but didn't.That was the closest he ever came to taking credit for the project. While respecting the humbling nature of this project, the judges noted his masonry accomplishments.
"The Aggie Bonfire Memorial displays the creative works of both the designer and contractor on this carefully planned memorial," they said. "The impressive portals - some stones weighing up to 30,000 pounds each - were a feat of masonry skill to erect and reflect the spirit and dedication of the victims."
About the Author
Brett Martin is a freelance writer located in Shakopee, Minn. with several years of construction and writing experience.