There are two elements that make up an award-winning project: good design and well-executed work. Projects often are submitted for awards based on how good it looks from a design point of view, even when the project is submitted by a contractor who wants to win an award for its workmanship. Without a well thought out creative design, the best executed work gets little notice. The reverse is also true. Award-winning projects are the result of designers and installers working together as a team.

There is a tremendous range of possibility today in terms of the materials and finishes available for horizontal and vertical decorative concrete work. The choices include both unit precast and cast-in-place concrete. They involve finishes that are performed by contractors who know how to place and finish concrete, as well as those who are trained in other industries and involve themselves in surface finishes only.

The people who do the design work can be landscape architects, certified landscape designers, artists, designers without formal training, decorative concrete contractors working directly with clients, and owners of projects themselves. Work tends to fall into three categories: public bodies, commercial, and residential. Landscape architects tend to be more involved in publicly funded projects, land planning studies, and commercial work. Monique Papazian Allen, president of The Garden Continuum, Medfield, Mass., says that certified landscape designers usually focus on horticulture and hardscape design in their curriculum and their work is found more in commercial and residential applications.

Artists design in all venues. Carolyn Braaksma, owner of Braaksma Design, Denver, was an art major in college and does most of her work in the publicly funded realm. She looks for projects that have money set aside for art. “Project specifications will call for 0.5% to 1.5% of the total budget dedicated to artistic work,” she says, with most public art projects currently supported by state funds. Artists submit their creative ideas and budgets, and are selected based on how decision makers or a panel of judges like their ideas.

Decorative concrete contractors typically market their companies in a number of different ways, including directly to owners. So they often help owners with ideas and bid directly to them.

What's important to the design process?

The design process starts with being sensitive to the client—what they want and what intrigues them. Owners usually have some ideas, though they often have trouble expressing it. Allen says that when she has first meetings with residential customers she asks them to show her at least three pictures from books or magazines of what they like. It's hard for people to communicate aesthetics, she adds, and visual images help.

Bill Hemesath, a landscape architect working with Archadeck, Grayslake, Ill., says that in his first meeting with clients he also receives magazine cutouts showing him what they have in mind. He also gets a sense, in this first meeting, for those who really want a good piece of design work. Ray Brooks, owner of Brooks Construction, Souix Falls, S.D., says that when they deal directly with a client, they bring photo books, samples, color charts, and references to other work because owners often don't know what they want. It's helpful to see the possibilities. For residential work his team frequently uses a garden hose to lay out shapes for patios and walks to help clients visualize the design.

The next step is gathering important information about the site. Studio Insite, Denver, is an urban design firm that does master planning, campus designs, work for cities, and projects that have special needs for creativity. Chris Sutterfield, a senior associate and landscape architect at the company, says they start by surveying what exists and regularly spend time on a site to experience more about the spirit of the place, the social aspects, and the environment around it. Other factors include site plans, topography, drainage, building shape and finishes, existing landscape, and tree locations. Hemesath says the most interesting properties from a design point of view already have interesting topography. “This adds character and designs tend to be more interesting and natural. If a property is flat then my designs are more based on the building design,” he notes.

After listening to clients and developing a sense of what a site is like, Erik Helland, president of Landscape Garden Centers, Souix Falls, S.D., says that he is most concerned about plotting the elevations of a project. The first hardscape decision has to do with elevation issues, which can introduce the need for retaining walls and steps. Plans for drainage are established at this time as well.

Hardscape and softscape

Hardscape includes such things as drive areas, walks, plazas and patios, decks, retaining walls, and stairs. Materials include concrete, wood and imitation wood products, stone, and brick. Softscape includes plants, trees, shrubs, and grass—all living flora. Additional site considerations include irrigation, drainage, lighting and electrical, and more exotic features such as ponds.

There are no hard and fast rules about how hardscape and softscape should relate to each other; it all depends on the application. Helland thinks that hardscape on residential projects typically consumes about 30% of the total landscape area. Hemesath says that hardscape runs between 60% to 70% of the cost compared to softscape. Some urban projects might only involve hardscape features but designers usually plan for both and there is a sensitive relationship between the two.

Designing hardscape usually precedes softscape. But Allen says that it makes no sense to build walkways with wiggles and curves (something that frequently happens) when there are no landscape features to warrant them. If a walkway curves around an ornamental tree, a focal plant collection or piece of well chosen art, the appearance of the walkway looks more natural and the tree softens the appearance of the hardscape. She adds that good hardscape designs should move people softly toward natural landscape features. It also should make the outside of a building more interesting. This can happen, for instance, at front entrances to a building by flaring out walkways and constructing more interesting stairs.

Design/build or design/bid

Design firms tend to do one or the other, but not both. Design/build firms usually have long-standing relationships with subcontractors and regularly use them on projects. They become trusted members of a “family.” These firms don't get involved writing specifications for jobs. They accept the products that their contractors use and trust their experience.

Design/bid firms don't get involved in the contracting business. They design projects for an owner and include specifications with their plans that go out to bid. Specifications can be influenced by contractors that they trust, but are written often based on manufacturer specs. However, many specs contain “or equal” clauses that make it possible for installing contractors to change products to those which they are more familiar with before construction starts. Design/bid firms do have special relationships with contractors that they trust and often involve them in decisions that are made during the design process.

Involving contractors

For Braaksma, designs begin by knowing what other elements are being created using concrete on the site. “If they are doing something with concrete I ask myself if I can do something additional,” she says. So discussions begin with contractors already on the project or contractors that she has a relationship with to explore the possibilities.

Allen, who does design/build work only, met Kevin Percy who owns Percy Concrete Design, Wrentham, Mass., three years ago when they were both involved on a project for ABC's “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” television show. “He was energetic, passionate about his work, and very knowledgeable about concrete. I like working with people like this,” she says and they have worked on projects together since that time. Percy involves himself at the starting point of a project when site analysis is in progress. His expertise sometimes becomes part of early discussions with clients to help solve problems. When he is involved in this way, he provides estimates to Allen and knows what to expect by the time he gets the contract. So if she gets the job, he gets the job.

Helland, as a designer, says that he works with Brooks as the contractor on projects. Brooks supplies him with colors and samples and sometimes makes suggestions that he wouldn't otherwise consider. An example of this was a recent collaboration on a chemically stained restaurant floor and the results were very good. Helland adds that they also sometimes meet together with clients to change expectations that are too high.

Sutterfield's company is a design/bid company. As such they develop plans and specs for projects and don't get very involved with contractors on the jobsite. But they also depend on their relationships with contractors to keep them up to date on decorative finishes and to supply them with what's needed as they design. Colorado Hardscapes, Denver, is one that they have come to trust and depend on over time. Jay Fangman, the business development director, says they get involved at the concept stage of projects by providing samples of different paving materials. He discusses issues such as constructability, colors and textures, prebid cost estimates, and durability and maintenance. He stresses that relationships with companies such as Studio Insite are important to their business so they follow through on everything that you say you will do, observing the deadlines that design firms have. “Don't break the chain at any time, even though some of these projects can take a year or more to come out for bid,” he adds. For their part Sutterfield says that they depend on Colorado Hardscapes to keep them up to date on the latest trends in paving and they often pass on concept drawings to Fangman that they think are OK but don't know about the constructability issues.

Jeff and Jerry Kruger do it all. They are the brothers who own Kruger and Kruger, Prairie Village, Kan., a 25-year-old company that designs and installs. However, they don't install concrete work. They are proud of the fact that two of their very first clients are still with them. Jerry has a college degree in landscape architecture and Jeff in natural resource management. They both design together and install together. Their work includes both commercial and residential and they get involved in patios, ponds, retaining walls, and landscaping work. So they experience first hand the relationship between design and construction.

Decorative concrete work

For a number of years, decorative concrete has been the fastest-growing segment in the concrete industry. New techniques and looks come about continuously, making it hard for both contractors and designers to keep up with the changes. Creative expression inspires all of it. Designers need to know what the possibilities are so they can provide more creative work. Contractors help them to keep up to date on the latest developments and provide valuable information about constructability and durability. When these relationships are right, good work results.