The fashion on the ground

Designers pick surfacing materials for suitability, but media-led trends influence what clients want.

Major paving supplier Marshalls reported a relatively disappointing year in 2005. According to company figures, pre-tax profits fell by 5.6 per cent to £38m.
However, closer analysis reveals a more complex picture. While commercial contracts with developers and local authorities remained relatively buoyant, there was a marked fall in the domestic or home-improvement market.
Analysts believe the drop is due to a lack of confidence among home-owners.  For many years, rising house prices meant home-owners saw their home improvements as a cast-iron investment. But stagnant prices, fears of a crash and worries about high bills, taxes and unemployment have prompted many people to rein in their expenditure.
This doesn’t apply to the commercial side of the business, however. According to the Construction Products Association (CPA), private house maintenance and improvement fell by five per cent last year. But the CPA estimates that the commercial sector will grow by two per cent over the next year.
Government expenditure will ensure the market will continue to grow. In 2005, for example, the Government spent £3.1bn on regeneration projects — all of which involved a substantial amount of landscaping. It has also targeted a further 65,000ha of brownfield land for regeneration.
For the landscaping industry, and particularly for the firms supplying the various types of surfacing material, the future looks relatively secure.
Surfacing is big business. Landscapers are using an increasingly wide array of materials. As well as traditional materials, such as paving stones, there
are bound aggregates, glass and, for
the ecologically concerned, a large number of recycled and environmentally friendly options.
Many designers deny there is an element of fashion when it comes to the use of surfacing materials. Landscape designer Tom La Dell says: “It’s not about fashion. It’s job-led. We have to use the best materials for the job.”
However, television and other media have led to the emergence of clear trends over the past few years and these inevitably influence what clients want.
One of the largest sectors of the surfacing industry is the supply of the various types of paving. Marshalls estimates that the domestic market for paving is worth around £150m a year, while the commercial market is worth £250m.
Perhaps the most notable development in recent years has been the supply of cheap Indian sandstone. This has been imported in huge quantities and can be supplied in a wide variety of shades. “It’s amazing how many names the suppliers can find for the various colours,” explains Association of Professional Landscapers chairman Jason Lock. “You can buy it in such colours as Raj Green, Kotah Blue and Fossil Mint.” Some enterprising firms even sell shades of Indian sandstone with English-sounding names to appeal to more conservative home-owners.
Indian sandstone is relatively cheap — as little as £25 per square metre — which means the laid price (cost of materials and labour for laying) is only around £125 per square metre. This makes it far cheaper than comparable English stones, which have a laid cost of around £200 per square metre.
However, there has recently been a backlash. Designers suggest Indian sandstone looks a bit bland and doesn’t always fit in well with the traditional English look of most gardens. “It can be very dull,” says Society of Garden Designers chairman Andrew Fisher Tomlin. He is also concerned about the environmental impact of quarrying stone in huge quantities and freighting it across the world.
Paradoxically, there is also a trend towards very expensive materials — particularly stone. Hillier Landscapes managing director Richard Barnard points out that the firm is getting far larger domestic contracts — sometimes for as much as £500,000. “We get a lot of City people with big bonuses and retired people with large second homes. They have got surplus cash and want to spend it on their gardens.”
These customers will often pay for Purbeck stone, used as walling or in natural boulders, Portland Stone or Cotswold Stone, as well as various grades of slate used in naturalistic settings.
To cater to this style-conscious market, Marshalls is also promoting ranges of “architecturally strong paving” designed by Diarmuid Gavin, with patterns etched into the surface.
However, despite the displays at recent RHS Chelsea flower shows, the public has little appetite for hi-tech or minimalist designs.
Fisher Tomlin says layers of concrete and dazzling blocks of fine slate are simply not being taken up by the public.
“It’s all right for show gardens, but most customers are not interested.”
Of course, cost is a major factor. Fisher Tomlin says small tiles of Welsh slate are popular and cost around £150 per square metre (laid price). Old brickwork, which involves a lot of labour, is popular but costs around £250. Old York stone (recycled paving stones) and newly quarried York stone cost around £200 (the stones cost around £50 per square metre and the rest is labour). By comparison, the block paving prepared by Marshalls costs around £100 (laid price).
Frosts Landscape Construction commercial director Aidan Lane says gravel remains popular as a surfacing material. Traditional types, such as the attractive yellow/white Breedon gravel are used because they look expensive — the sort of thing you might find at a stately home.
Lane says the gravel costs around £45 per tonne, which will cover around 10sq m. It has to be soaked and then rolled in the ground. The result is a high-quality path or open space.
Loose gravel areas are still laid, often with gravel-stabilisation meshes. These thick plastic nets, supplied by firms such as Nidaplast, allow loose gravel to be laid on slopes without it migrating to the lowest point.
Resin-bonded gravel, which has fallen in price recently, is becoming more popular, mainly for commercial premises. Uses include car parks and tree pits.
One material that has declined in popularity is slate chippings used as a mulch. Until two years ago, these were seen as rather trendy and neat. But now they have suffered the curse of many items used on the Ground Force television series and are seen as passé.
In the commercial market, says Marshalls marketing director Chris Harrap, most major regeneration schemes are done in “concentric circles”. The inner circle consists of the most prestigious areas, which are created using expensive materials. Beyond that, the materials used are cheaper: “In the centre, you might have natural York stone and granite. Beyond that, you might have reconstituted granite, and beyond that you might have pigmented concrete.”
Another increasingly popular product is fibre-reinforced paving. If the block is broken, embedded fibres hold the pieces together. This helps to prevent trip hazards, which local authorities are anxious to avoid. Indian sandstone is not sufficiently hard-wearing to be used on commercial areas, where paving material is likely to take a serious battering.
As with any area of design, there are always novelties. One of the latest developments is crushed glass. Most crushed glass — brown, green or clear — can be bought relatively cheaply because the product is made from recycled bottles. But other colours have to be produced to order — blue glass can cost around £600 a tonne, while red glass can be anything up to £15,000 a tonne.
Lane explains: “It’s more popular with commercial developers, who want to make an impression.”
A few years ago, wood products were very much in fashion. Following the example of Ground Force, home designers were covering large areas of garden with wooden decking and strewing around masses of bark mulch and wood chippings to give ramshackle gardens an instant makeover. However, softwood decking has now largely fallen out of favour. Customers have realised it’s not easy to maintain and it is no longer seen as upmarket.
By contrast, more expensive types
of hardwood decking are still popular. However, with laid prices reaching around £180 per square metre, they are a luxury item for wealthier buyers.
Fisher Tomlin says buyers are likely to use decking sparingly — for example, as a pier overlooking a small pond or for a small suntrap in a larger garden.
Bark mulch is still in demand. Melcourt Industries sales and marketing director Andy Chalmers says the market for bark in the UK is currently around 700,000cu m a year, or in cash terms, around £12m.
But Chalmers doesn’t predict any great growth in the business in the next few years. “It’s a mature market,” he explains. Bark is expected to remain popular because it works well as a mulch, composts down eventually and, unlike stone mulches, does not compress the soil. It also helps to keep the soil moist — an increasingly important factor when hosepipe bans are becoming the norm.
In commercial schemes, bark mulch is used mainly in woodland areas for paths and picnic areas. “It is consistent, natural-looking and the choice of many specifiers,” says Chalmers. Because it is a by-product of the timber industry, it is relatively cheap — between £12 and £30 per cubic metre.
The Government’s Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) has been trying to promote the virtues of recycled woodchip, but it has yet to catch on as a surfacing material as it can blend in poorly with the surrounding area.
Various grass systems are also being used for surfaces, mostly for paths or small areas that are likely to see large amounts of wear. Many of these systems involve plastic mats in which grass can be grown. Others are more sophisticated. Lindum, for example, offers a product called Lokturf, in which synthetic fibres are incorporated in the turf itself. This creates a strong product that looks more like natural turf.
Advances in grass technology have allowed landscape architects to be more creative with landform. Lindum produces Grassfelt, a felted material into which grass has been planted. Grassfelt can be laid to follow the contours of the land. It can even be planted on vertical surfaces as long as it is watered properly.
With more people becoming interested in ecology and, particularly, with more clients anxious to show their green credentials, there is a growing market for recycled and ecologically sustainable landscaping surfaces.
Garden designer Mark Smith, who specialises in finding environmentally friendly solutions, believes environmental concerns will become an integral part of garden design. “More clients want to use recycled materials. We use crushed oyster shells, a by-product of the seafood industry, and crushed cocoa shells from the chocolate industry.”
Smith is keen to source recycled materials. “In one project, I covered the floor with rusty washers that came from a disused steelyard. I use wood from skips and deal with a lot of architectural salvage yards. I have to design things to use up local resources.”
However, as with all surfacing materials, the major stumbling block is the client. “You have to get the client to think creatively,” says Smith. “You don’t want him just to ask for something that he has seen next door. If you want to do anything interesting, you have to win his trust.”

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