Failures… Let’s Give Them the Boot!

February 28, 2023

For those of you who do most of your work in the softscape end of our business, what does a failure on the job site mean? I’m not talking about not getting paid in full, but something like having 30% of the plant material die, or that picky customer not liking the color of the mulch, or the drip irrigation system not getting all the plant roots watered. Thankfully, these are things that can be fixed or replaced.

Now think of a failure in hardscaping. A 4′ retaining wall that falls over in the homeowners back yard can kill a child, pavers that sink along the edge of an install can cause a trip and fall hazard. These can be catastrophic failures – not only for the homeowner but for you as the installer.

Here is a wall that has settled. You can see that the level is indicating a 1-inch dip because of poor base preparation.

When I started installing block walls and pavers when they became available in the early 1980s it was like the wild west. Dealers had little knowledge how to install these products because for the most part they were used to dealing only with gray block. There were no NCMA or ICPI certification classes that dealt with installation procedures, specifications, or products. As installers we had to use our best judgement on how to install the new products.

I am the first to admit I had many failures in those early years. Not enough ¾” stone behind and below the block wall, not installing the base deep enough under my pavers, having jointing material wash out from between the pavers causing instability, using cut pieces that are too small to give stability to my install, and the list goes on. In 2001 I decided to learn the proper techniques and materials by becoming a certified ICPI contractor and flew to Florida where the class was being offered. I followed up a few years later with my NCMA certification. The main purpose of certification is to properly educate the contractor on the correct procedures and components of a hardscape project.

The certifications helped end the failures on our job sites. I find it very gratifying to see installations that we did 10, 15, 20 years ago that look the same today as the day they were installed. That is what we should all be aiming for. At the end of a hardscape job I used to joke with my customers telling them that I never wanted to see them again. At least, not until they moved into a new house and needed more hardscaping services.

No one benefits from a failure. Your reputation suffers, the homeowner is not happy and refuses to give you a good recommendation, or worse, someone is injured. Give failure the boot and consider getting certified. Being able to tell a potential client to do a drive by or call a past client who is willing to give you a good referral is what it is all about.

This spring NHLA, with support from the New England Concrete Manufacturers Association, will be offering a half-day program aimed at hardscape installers. It will be a short course on proper wall and paver installation. I have been asked to teach this seminar, and I will focus two hours on paver installation specifications and installation techniques, and two hours on retaining wall specifications and installation techniques. Watch for more information!

— Bill Gardocki is a past president of NHLA (1994 & 1995). He is now a hardscape educator.

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