In the rapid home-flipping days of old, homeowners never seemed to stay in one place very long. The so-called "starter home" was quickly traded up as soon as income-to-debt ratios allowed. The next work promotion meant trading up again, or moving to another market. Phasing out a long-term outdoor living project would not have made sense during that time period. However, the economic downturn and real estate bust of 2008 created a whole new mindset.

Today's homeowners tend to opt for improving their current home, rather than relocating. The most figures reported by the National Homebuilder's Association (NAHB) show that homeowners now remain in their homes for an average of 13 years before moving on. Couple this data with the current trend of creating outdoor living areas that resemble indoor living areas, and the market is ripe for selling and creating multi-faceted outdoor living installations.

However, despite the fact that outdoor kitchens and living rooms add more value to the home for less cost than under-beam construction, many homeowners shy away from their dream scenario for fear of overextending the budget. Learning how to properly design and phase a modular outdoor living project can not only help landscape contractors capitalize on industry trends, but it can create long-term relationships that result in larger projects and increased business over the long run.

Step One: Bring Ideas to Life

before photoPhotos of this home were taken from various angles and submitted to the Belgard Design Studio to help create a realistic view of the future project.

Homeowners often have a hard time picturing how a finished project will look. Belgard Hardscapes, a national leader in concrete pavers and garden wall products, is paving the way for contractors to eliminate this obstacle with their 3-D Belgard Design Studio.

"The purpose of this program is to help contractors save time and sell more by allowing clients to get a real vision of how they will live in the space," said Ken O'Neill, Executive Vice President of Sales, Marketing, and Product Development for Belgard. "Two-dimensional drawings really only show specs; they are flat and lifeless. Three-dimensional renderings and animation allow the homeowner to visually walk through the space and account for traffic flow, outdoor furnishings, landscaping, lighting, colors, and more. Homeowners can also get a better idea of how to phase out their dream scenario, which creates a long-term relationship between the contractor and the homeowner."

project sketch The contractor used an existing blueprint of the home to sketch out the hardscape design.

Contractors have four levels of service available in the Design Studio. The free service offers a dozens of existing design plans that already include 3-D animated fly-throughs, 2-D photorealistsic screen shots, project dimensions, and Belgard product materials lists. For a small fee, contractors can submit an existing sketch and convert their designs into 3-D images with animation. The costs associated with this service start at $199 and vary depending on the project.

A recent study conducted by Belgard found that contractors who have used the Design Studio achieved average closure rates of 85% and higher. Jobs closed utilizing the Design Studio also boasted higher margins and fewer complications than other projects.

design rendering The Belgard Design Studio used the sketch and "before" images to create photo-realistic renderings and fly-through animation of the design, giving the homeowners the ability to visualize exactly how their outdoor living space would look, including furniture, appliances, and landscaping.

"I was in a competitive bid situation with another contractor, and the homeowners chose me because of the 3-D images," said Jim McCaskey, CLP, of McCaskey Landscape & Design in Chardon, Ohio. "The Design Studio scanned photos of the home and created a scenario for the client to see exactly what they were getting, down to the trim and color of their house and the view from their kitchen window."

Joseph Raboine, Director of Design Services for Belgard, believes that helping homeowners better visualize a planned design is the key to growing business for hardscape designers and installers, as well as the industry as a whole.

"It's an exciting time to be in the outdoor living industry," said Raboine. "Never before has it been possible to so clearly convey what a designer has in mind. Because of this, it removes all doubts of what the space, colors, textures, and features will look like when completed. The result is a much better overall experience for all invo
lved, but especially for the homeowner. This in turn has tremendous potential to grow our industry."

Step Two: Divide and Conquer

Once a design is finalized, an installer can develop a plan for phasing the project that takes into account both budget requirements and the existing landscape. A typical scenario would be to install the flat surfaces first, then build up, then embellish. For example, if a design includes a patio with an outdoor kitchen, a fireplace, and seat walls, the phase plan may look like this:
  • Phase I: Patio
  • Phase II: Kitchen
  • Phase III: Fireplace
  • Phase IV: Seat walls, lighting, and sound
The design team at Belgard offers advice for phasing out this type of scenario. "It's extremely important to know where each element will be placed so that you can account for pre-construction needs," said Raboine. "Also consider how the space will be used to leave adequate room for function."

future phases This multi-faceted design represents the perfect opportunity to plan a phased project. Phase I could include the patios, walkways, and fire pit. Phase II could include the outdoor kitchen's grill station and brick oven. Phase III could include the outdoor fireplace and bar. Phase IV could include embellishments like the arbor, seat wall, TV stand, pillars, and hardscape lighting. In order to phase this out properly, before installing the patios, all future utilities would need to be run, and placement of future heavy elements would need to be fortified with the proper footings.

In recent years, Belgard developed a line of patented modular outdoor living units, called the Belgard Elements Collection, that allow for seamless phasing of these types of scenarios. Modular Belgard Elements outdoor kitchen and living room pieces are built in a factory setting using Belgard Hardscapes pavers and wall products, offering a cohesive look to a design that can be phased out across a number of months or years. Belgard Elements are shipped in sections on palettes and can be quickly and easily installed onsite using a Bobcat.

"Once the patio areas are in place, future phases can be constructed relatively quickly," said Raboine. "Because most of the work is done in the factory, what would normally take weeks to build on site can install in a matter of hours, or even minutes, depending on site access."

These modular units are also available design elements in the Belgard Design Studio, taking the guesswork out of planning a phased project.

Step Three: An Ounce of Prevention

Before beginning construction, Raboine offers additional considerations in planning future needs of each phase of a modular construction project.

Setbacks, Permits and Clearance: Check with local municipalities on building codes regarding above-ground hardscapes. Setbacks from property lines will vary, and there may be other issues to consider. For example, wood-burning fireplaces typically must be ten feet away and two feet above any other structure. Gas-burning fireplaces, however, can often butt directly up to other construction. In addition, you may need permits to run the electrical, gas, or plumbing, but typically will not need permits to install the modular units. For future phase installations, remember to allow for six feet of access and 4,000 lb. load capacity for the Bobcat.

Drainage: Plan pitch away from the outdoor kitchen. Pitching towards the fireplace is acceptable and often necessary, since a wood-burning fireplace may require placement further away from the house. Foundation: Wherever a modular piece will be placed, install either a compacted gravel base, or a 4-6" concrete pad below the finished grade. Pavers can be placed over the pad to create usable patio space. When it's time to place the kitchen or fireplace, the pavers can be removed and the foundation will be ready. When planning a project over an existing concrete patio, keep in mind the age and thickness of the patio and account for future load issues. For example, a typical Belgard Elements fireplace consists of a base unit that weighs 3,700 lbs. and a chimney unit that weighs 2,600 lbs.

Plumbing, Gas, and Electrical: All lines can be stubbed into footings, capped, and paved over. Remember to mark utility lines. Normal-voltage and low-voltage lighting can be preplanned for installation into pillars, end caps, and the modular units themselves. Outdoor stereo speaker wires can also be run in pre-construction. Be sure to bury all of these elements 4" below grade.

concrete pad installationConcrete pads that are 4-6" in depth and include adequate footings and steel reinforcement should be installed during pre-construction to support the heavier elements of the design, even if those elements will not be added until months or years in the future. Doing so will increase the speed and efficiency of future installations and decrease the overall cost of the project in the long run.

To Phase or Not to Phase

The entire purpose of selling a phased scenario is to encourage homeowners to both increase the scope of their projects and, more importantly, begin now instead of waiting. Belgard also offers an additional program that encourages homeowners to build larger scale projects immediately, without phasing the construction out.

"Authorized Belgard contractors can offer same-as-cash financing through the Belgard Preferred Payment program, which allows homeowners to pay over time and roll in additional expenses like furniture and appliances," said Jackie Paulsen, Marketing Director of Belgard Hardscapes.

As an added incentive, for every hardscape project that starts in 2015 prior to Veterans Day on Nov. 11, Belgard will make a donation to the USO as part of their "Welcome Home" initiative to honor service men and women who are returning from deployment.

"Whether homeowners opt to build their dream outdoor living space now or phase it out over time, they can know that not only are they converting their house into a home, they are also helping provide a warmer homecoming for those who risk their lives in defense of our country," said Paulsen.