Landscaping is no longer the traditional focus on plantings, turf, and irrigation. Clients are now demanding sophisticated hardscapes that encompass many factions of the concrete industry. This can range from water features constructed with either shotcrete or concrete, concrete pavers, cast cement-based structural stone, and stamped concrete flatwork. Other uses include the dramatic rise in concrete countertops on barbecues to structural concrete used in outdoor fireplaces, fire pits, raised planters, arbors, and under layment for natural rock paving. Also high-end clients typically have had homes all over the world and no longer want to travel but have their own utopia in their backyard.

Working on estate-sized residential projects is like assembling huge jigsaw puzzles in which all sorts of disparate pieces must ultimately fit together. Although many of the individual parts have their own character and entail particular design and construction challenges, it's the big picture that you need to hold firmly in mind through every part of the design and build phases.

The project shown here features a 6000-sq.-ft. dry-shotcrete pool and a rock patterned stamped concrete deck with integral colored concrete and dry-shake color hardener accents. The pool cabana is in the background.
GCS The project shown here features a 6000-sq.-ft. dry-shotcrete pool and a rock patterned stamped concrete deck with integral colored concrete and dry-shake color hardener accents. The pool cabana is in the background.

GCS is a design/build landscaping firm in Woodbridge, Calif., that specializes in large private estates. A typical GCS project encompasses five to 80 acres, lasts from two to four years, and with the estates costing $5 million to $25 million. All of GCS's landscape designs include hardscapes, often highlighting concrete features. Concrete is so predominant that a portable concrete batch plant is maintained onsite. All the work, other than electrical and pool plaster, is performed by in-house crews. Crews are trained and promoted from within the organization and training is viewed as the most important investment the company can make.

With all projects, big and small, it is important for the design/build firm to be involved in the selection of the exterior finishes on the house to make sure there is a smooth transition from the structures on the property to the landscape. High-end clients typically spend more on the landscape than they do on the residence so it makes it even more important that all designs match and views from all of the structural components work together. Clients also frequently love water and the inclusion of multiple water features was paramount on a recently completed GCS project.

The 4.2-acre private estate located in Northern California, started as a flat, blank canvas with no structures or vegetation. The design of the house began in conjunction with the design of the landscape. View angles, destination points, transition, and overall flow in the landscape were the primary design criteria around the water features and other hardscapes. The client also wanted to be able to entertain 250 people comfortably and elegantly on the estate. This presented a design challenge because the homeowners also should be able to entertain a very small group comfortably. These goals were accomplished with hardscape design, elevation change, and isolation of areas with proper planting design.

The rockwork shown here is natural but the structure underneath is concrete. Waterproofing is a huge concern for waterfall work and GCS uses a belt and suspenders approach with 6-in.-thick structurally reinforced concrete with a waterproofing admixture plus a 45- to 65-mil sheet membrane underneath. Workers place the concrete using a pump, placing the desired shapes with a hand trowel. The concrete is stamped and chemically stained afterward to provide a natural backdrop for the rock.
The rockwork shown here is natural but the structure underneath is concrete. Waterproofing is a huge concern for waterfall work and GCS uses a belt and suspenders approach with 6-in.-thick structurally reinforced concrete with a waterproofing admixture plus a 45- to 65-mil sheet membrane underneath. Workers place the concrete using a pump, placing the desired shapes with a hand trowel. The concrete is stamped and chemically stained afterward to provide a natural backdrop for the rock.

To give you an idea of the scope of the project and the use of concrete related products, here are the project specifications.

  • Three fountains constructed of concrete formed vessels with European-type cast stone applied to the outer skin.
  • A 6000-square-foot swimming pool with a 125-foot-long waterfall. The pool is gunited and the waterfall base is poured concrete. The gunite job required 90 tons of cement and 320 tons of sand.
  • More than 3500 pieces of European-type cast stone were used in the landscape alone. GCS manufactured more than half of these.
  • 11,000 square feet of concrete pavers in the driveway.
  • 9000 square feet of decorative stamped concrete.
  • 8500 square feet of concrete slab that was then installed with rock paving.
  • More than 200 cubic yards of additional miscellaneous concrete poured around the landscape, such as wall footings, grouting, and vaults.

The landscaping required a crew of eight and 33 months to complete. GCS started with a bare piece of land and brought in 655 truckloads of soil, more than 16,000 tons of which were used to sculpture and texture the landscaping. The hardscape features are the focal points of the project. Proper execution of a project of this size and complexity requires meticulous planning and finite scheduling.

On its current project, a 44-acre private estate located in Northern California, features include a vineyard, a 1400-square-foot gunite pool, large waterfall, fire pits, fireplaces, BBQ area, and thousands of square feet of concrete paving and natural rock on concrete paving.

The projects listed in this article demonstrate that hardscapes have experienced a dramatic growth in the last few years and will continue to grow even in a challenging economy. Rather than building new homes, clients will look to improve their existing property.

— Bill Goddard is the principal and founder of GCS. He writes articles in a variety of landscape and water feature based publications and gives seminars across the country on both subjects.