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In search of a cure for the cabin fever caused by the COVID pandemic, homeowners are looking for new ways to improve and expand their outdoor living spaces – adding to the huge demand for patio and sidewalk projects as contractors scramble to cope with the hustle and bustle Keep up.

“People spend more time at home thinking about outdoor features that can enhance their time there,” said Stewart Bell, owner of Tree and Stone Landscape Construction, a small, installation-focused company in southern Maine.

While the increasing demand for outdoor living presents certain challenges for landscapers, there are plenty of options for businesses equipped to take the hardscape leap. How contractors navigate patio projects during the pandemic.

Looking for more than just a terrace.

As people spend more time at home, they expect more from their living space. If you are looking for an escape when you open the door, a plain old terrace is simply not enough. Because of this, contractors across the country are reporting increasing demands for additional functionality beyond a simple hardscape.

“Fireplaces have always been a very popular additional request. When people build a patio, they want at least a price for a fire pit, ”says Bell, noting that at least half of his installation projects involve some sort of fire function. “We are also getting more and more inquiries about outdoor kitchens, seat walls, raised beds and other functions that focus on people’s activities outdoors.”

From coast to coast, customers in all climates are looking for ways to extend their patio season with additional patio functions such as lighting and heat sources. “You can see people spending more money and wanting something other than the patio – a fire pit, a water feature, something to make the space more usable,” says Michael Galli, owner of Metamorphosis Landscaping outside of San Francisco.

Terrace trend spotting

As new products keep coming out, the options for decking and walkway design include an endless variety of materials, styles, and color combinations. Hardscape contractors across the country are watching these trends:

Natural pallets: “You can see a clear movement towards earth tones – beautiful caramel and mocha tones,” says Galli, whose customers in the high-end landscape sector prefer natural stone. “We use a stone called Cherokee; It contains fossils and customers are just going crazy. ”

Simple, straight lines: Although three-piece cobblestone patterns have been popular in the past, Paré tends to see new home construction tend to have a leaner, more uniform look. “Larger 12 by 12 inch pavers are much more popular (than cobblestones) in modern homes,” he says. “Straight lines go better with modern houses, so the terraces are more square.”

Strong contrast: From contrasting edges to inlaid stone details to artfully patterned stained concrete, customers want their patios to pop. “One new thing I’m trying to get into is stenciling (painted patterns on) stained concrete,” says Galli. “Basically you end up with a Persian carpet made of concrete. It could be a game changer. ”

High quality: Customers are willing to pay more for quality products, even if it means a longer wait. Years ago, Paré said, “Many would choose the cheaper option,” even if it only added 50 cents per square foot. “Now,” he says, “everyone is converting to the more expensive quality product.”

To capitalize on this trend, Bell emphasizes the importance of understanding each customer’s vision for the outdoors. Instead of promoting certain features, he focuses on functionality first.

“We ask our customers to think carefully about what they are going to use the space for so that we can design it according to their location and their lifestyle,” he says. “We try to highlight functionality by thinking about comfortable running patterns and layouts that will increase the ease of use for customers so that they get the maximum value and make the most of the space.”

A few well-placed features can turn an unused space into a natural meeting place. For example, Bell is integrating seating areas along the front walkways to add new spaces off the beaten path. “One of my favorite projects was a front walkway that we added a couple of granite benches that made a nice place to watch the kids play basketball in the driveway,” he says. “Every time we create spaces that encourage people to spend time outdoors, it’s super rewarding.”

Presentation of terrace options.

Even before COVID, Wesley Paré noticed that more customers were looking for pavers online instead of coming into the Lakes Area Landscaping retail showroom, which also supplies bulk mulch and other materials. Although the pandemic has accelerated this preference for contactless ordering, it is still encouraging contractors to put product samples in the hands of customers to help them make informed decisions.

Getting customers out to show them the different options they might have helps them better envision their future decks, Galli says. If you only search online, you will not be so invested in the project.

Photo courtesy Tree and Stone Landscape Construction

“Don’t just use the Internet or pick things from catalogs,” says Paré, owner of the Minnesota-based company. “Get some cobblestones and show them in person.”

While getting products to the customer can be helpful, bringing customers into the showroom can be even more beneficial. Galli loves taking customers “behind the scenes” to sift through his salespeople – just as his customers love to see all of their options and make their own decisions.

“If you just say, ‘Customer, you can have this or that,’ you are not emotionally invested,” says Galli. “We’ll bring you to the Steinhof and involve you in the election, because if it’s your idea, you’ll be happy to spend the money.”

Mastering COVID challenges.

The rising demand for outdoor living space is putting pressure on landscapers juggling labor shortages and delays in the supply chain due to the pandemic.

“Everyone has a hard time finding employees,” says Paré, who employs 30 people in the high season. “We’ve had ads on Indeed, Craigslist, and newspapers for three months, and we only had one applicant. There is simply no workforce out there. ”

To complement his team, Paré joined the H-2B program for the first time this year. Lakes Area Landscaping hired nine workers on six-month work visas from Mexico, and some of them even had previous hardscaping experience.

“They have been great so far,” says Paré, who intends to continue using the H-2B program for the foreseeable future. “As busy as we are, we almost have to [because] The additional manpower that we need in the summer is very difficult to find. ”

“Every time we create spaces that encourage people to spend time outdoors, it’s super rewarding.” Michael Galli, Owner, Metamorphosis Landscaping

As bad as the labor shortage is, “the shortage of materials is even worse,” says Galli, who ordered a construction site to be completed in June 2020, which only arrived in November – and postpone the project to summer 2021. I have 5,000 plants and lamps worth $ 50,000 in arrears, ”he says. “I have to do what I can’t do because I don’t have a product.”

In order to avoid back orders and delays, Galli mixes orders according to product availability. “We push back our big jobs and do our smaller ones first because it’s easier for us to get smaller amounts of material,” he says.

There is a silver lining to the landscaping supply shortage, however, Bell says. “The nice thing is that it is paired with high demand. If these lead times get longer, we will continue planning when we are fully booked. It’s all about sticking to the schedule so that we can plan ahead and order material well in advance. ”

Communication through change.

With project waiting times stretching over several months, Bell says it is crucial to keep customers informed. “Especially when they have made a deposit, they don’t want to feel like they are groping in the dark,” he says.

In fact, the long wait can add to the customer’s anticipation if you effectively communicate the exclusive value they are receiving. For example, Galli sends its clients photos of their custom-made fire pits, which are hand-milled in India to make the six-month wait feel a little more special.

“If you do something basic, they just go to the next guy. But if you do something really extraordinary and tell a customer that you have been booked for six months, they want you even more, ”says Galli, who looks after high-end customers with six-figure landscape budgets. “Right now we’ve been booked for over a year and they just stand in line and wait.”

Regardless of the future impact of COVID, contractors don’t expect the demand for hardscape to wane anytime soon as people continue to invest in outdoor living.

“I’m sure this pandemic surge in the home improvement industry won’t last forever, and of course I hope these materials lead times don’t last forever, but I think the past year has made people rethink their priorities.” “Says Bell. “I think we will see the continued investment in outdoor spaces as a reflection of changing preferences for spending time at home.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.

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