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  • Writer's pictureEric McQuiston, PLA

Designing Hardscapes:

Updated: Nov 9, 2023

Considerations for Landscape Contractors and Designers

A well designed hardscape can make or break a beautiful home.

Please Note: This Article is offered as advice and is NOT Intended as a Comprehensive Design Instruction or a 'how-to'.

 

Introduction:


In the world of landscape construction, the art of designing and building hardscapes stands as a vital facet in creating captivating outdoor spaces. As a professional landscape architect and contractor with more than a few years experience, I offer the following personal and professional insight into the multifaceted process of hardscape design for my fellow contractors and designers that you may achieve greater financial success and customer satisfaction.


 

Defining Hardscapes:


First let's define what a hardscape is and is-not. In my opinion hardscapes encompass the man-made, functional, and aesthetic elements within a landscape or garden. These elements might include walkways, patios, walls, decks, structures, and more. Plant trellises, fences, visual screens, sculpture, garden art, water features and even well placed boulders could also be considered hardscape elements. It is essential to note that hardscape design, in this context, excludes considerations related to drainage, irrigation, lighting, audio/video systems, and other similar elements.


With that said, let's dig into some things that I feel should be considered when developing hardscape designs.

Considerations for Hardscape Design:


Budget:

The client's budget plays a pivotal role in shaping the project's parameters. Understanding this financial aspect is essential, as it can be a significant limiting factor on the solution. Collaborate closely with your client to establish a realistic budget that aligns with their expectations. Put budget discussions at the forefront of the design process. Explain that it serves no purpose to design a solution without a realistic budget. You must be straightforward and honest in these negotiations. Oftentimes the client will wish for a solution that is not realistic with what they are comfortable in spending. You must act as their councilor and advocate in achieving a satisfactory outcome.


Your Clients desires should take priority
Your Clients desires should take priority

Function:

Determining the intended function of hardscape elements is a fundamental step. Consider how these features will be used, whether it's for outdoor living, cooking, dining, recreation, hobbies, or other specific purposes. Is a hard paving required or could the desired effect be achieved with gravel, turf or lawn? Question whether these elements will be functional like paving, walls or structures; or aesthetic in nature like decorative screens,

trellises or sculpture. The artistic elements or aesthetics of a design are often equally important as the functionality of the hardscape and both directly impact the design, character and layout of the space. Your client may not effectively communicate these desires. It is your job to figure them out.


Client Preferences and Desires:

Spend time to delve into your client's preferences and desires to create a design that resonates with their vision. Understand whether they seek a simple, practical space that supports their lifestyle or an extravagant stage to showcase their uniquely pretentious character. You might consider whether the client envisions a private sanctuary for solitude and reflection or a large, inviting area for entertaining. There are many examples but the bottom line is that it is up to you to understand what your client is looking for. It is very important as a designer to understand your client. You must 'read between the lines' and translate their thoughts, spoken, hinted at and implied, into reality. Often you may find that your client is describing their desires incorrectly. Like when I had a very nice lady describe that she wanted a landscape with the feel of 'Tuscany'; when what she meant was 'French Provincial'. It took me several preliminary designs to figure that out!


Here a Bocce Ball Court provides much of the form of the hardscape.
Here a Bocce Ball Court provides much of the form of the hardscape.

Existing Site Conditions:

The existing site serves as the canvas upon which your hardscape design will be realized. Take into account site-specific elements such as topography, soil structures, drainage patterns, existing architecture, structures and the presence of mature trees and other plant materials. These conditions present both opportunities and constraints for your design solution. In the ideal world of design we have a nice, flat and well drained site to work with. This seldom happens! So look for opportunities in the constraints. A sloped site might offer an opportunity for terraced patios and gardens with water features spilling through. A heavily wooded site might provide a perfect environment for a natural path through shade loving plant material that leads to a secluded private garden tucked into a deconstructed, rustic hardscape. Prompt your clients imagination.


Existing Architectural Style:

The architectural style and materials of the client's home are integral to the design process. It is crucial to carefully consider how the hardscape elements will harmonize with the existing architecture. Merging disparate styles, such as blending a homey, cottage-style home with a modern, contemporary landscape, can be difficult but, when successfully accomplished, can be a rewarding outcome for you and your client. Help your clients to envision their ideal landscape and garden in the context of their home. And pull your design solution away from the home and into the landscape. Few things isolate a home and create disparity as a landscape that is smacked right up next to the architecture. Allow your clients to walk out into and experience the psychological change that occurs when they move from one environment to another.

Your design should be responsive to both the client and the architecture
Your design should be responsive to both the client and the architecture

Design Style:

Selecting a design style that complements the existing architecture and aligns with your client's desires is paramount. If necessary, educate your client on various design styles to help them make informed decisions. We are all different in our personalities and character. Some of us enjoy a traditional approach to our lives while others are more progressive. Throughout history architectural styles have reflected this. Colonial, Greek Revival, Craftsman, Modern and many other styles have reflected the aesthetics of the people who lived in those times and are reflected in architecture. Blending your clients desires with their existing home and neighborhood will, in most cases, achieve a harmonious and timeless solution. While it may be personally tempting to showcase your company's skill and craftsmanship by creating intricate shapes and patterns using different materials, colors and styles, that may not be appropriate for the project. Remember that the best, and most memorable, designs will stand the test of time.


A Craftsman Styled Home
A Craftsman Styled Home

Material Choices:

The choice of materials is central to hardscape design. Strive to integrate the existing architectural materials, textures, and colors into your hardscape choices to achieve a cohesive and complimentary environment. Refer to the existing architecture and landscape to help determine your material pallet. Are natural materials like stone or crafted wood prominent or does the existing architecture feature brick, metals or stucco cladding? Consider the colors used in the architecture as well as the local neighborhood. Use these colors and finishes in your solution. And consider the labor costs when making selections: A natural stacked stone wall will have much higher labor costs than a segmental concrete wall.


Maintenance Requirements:

Effective hardscape design includes accounting for both short-term and long-term maintenance needs. Educate your client about the upkeep required to preserve the design's integrity and appeal. Maintenance is a very important financial consideration. A well maintained landscape can return a significant return on the initial investment, while a poorly designed and maintained landscape can depreciate the value of a property significantly. Transparent and realistic communication about maintenance is essential for ensuring long-term client satisfaction.


Garden art and/or sculpture can add dramatic interest to the garden
Garden art and/or sculpture can add dramatic interest to the garden
 

Conclusion:

I hope that this brief summary of some key considerations for the design of hardscapes has prompted you to consider some things that you may not have. Hardscape design is a complex blend of art, functionality, and practicality. Putting some thought to the factors mentioned above may prove invaluable for crafting outdoor spaces that not only captivate but also stand the test of time. By partnering with your client to address budget constraints, functional requirements, style preferences, site conditions, architectural harmony, material choices, and maintenance expectations, you can ensure that the hardscape design that you create provides an attractive, effective, and enduring outdoor environment. Your role as a professional landscape contractor or designer is to create spaces that your clients will cherish for years to come while accommodating and enhancing the long term value of the property.


The successful design and construction of an outdoor space is dependent upon your understanding and satisfaction of your client's desires and a sensitivity to the site's constraints and opportunities. It can be a difficult process at times. If you need help or advice, please feel free to contact me. Best wishes for a great outcome!


~ Eric


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