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Inside Out Podcast #18: Revolutionizing Commercial Hardscaping Solutions

March 8, 2024
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In Episode #18Joe Raboine chats with Kevin Earley, Director of Commercial Hardscapes at Oldcastle APG. The two discuss technical aspects of permeable pavers, the benefits of green infrastructure and traffic calming, the resources and expertise available within Belgard to support contractors and municipalities, and much more. For more information, visit Belgard.com/InsideOut.

Products Mentioned: Permeable Pavers, Belgard Commercial

Joe Raboine: Welcome back to another edition of Inside Out with Belgard. Today, we’d like to welcome Kevin Early. Kevin is the Director of Commercial Hardscapes for Belgard. Kevin, welcome to the show.

Kevin Earley: Thanks for having me.

Joe Raboine: This is the first episode where we are talking about the commercial side of the business for Belgard. I appreciate you being here today. I’d love for you to help the listeners understand that side of the business. Many of our contractors are residentially based and unsure about commercial work. They may not even be aware that we have a commercial division. If you wouldn’t mind, maybe start with some background about yourself and how you got into the industry. What are your current roles and responsibilities?

Kevin Earley: I’ve been with Oldcastle for the last eight years, providing technical support regarding our hardscaping products for commercial applications. Before joining Oldcastle, I worked for Nickolock Paving Stones for about seven years and was a director of Commercial Sales for EP Henry for nearly eight years.

I’ve been involved with the concrete hardscaping industry for about 23 years. I focus on the technical issues related to using unit concrete for hardscaping applications. You’re probably familiar with the NCMA and the ICPI. Those two organizations merged last year into a new industry organization called Concrete Masonry and Hardscapes Association. 

Joe Raboine: What led to that? There have been a lot of discussions, and there might be some people who are unsure about why that happened. 

Kevin Earley: The NCMA, the National Concrete Masonry Association, has been around for a long time. It goes back to 1918 when masonry products and CMUs were used for building purposes, segmental retaining walls and manufactured stone veneers. So, they focus on the vertical. 

The ICPI was formed much later. The first North American paving machines were made in Ontario in the 70s and didn’t get going until probably the early 1990s. That’s when the ICPI was officially formed. They focused on the horizontal applications of our unit concrete products like pavers and slabs. Both associations are non-profit trade organizations that represent our industry, which is made up of producers like Oldcastle. It includes contractors and associates that sell related products and even our dealers. They promote the use of products for the hardscape industry. 

A big part of what they do is establish guidelines and standards for manufacturing the products and provide guidelines for designing and installing them. Education is a big part and what they’ve done by merging is combine their resources. So, it made sense to consolidate education, workforce development and government advocacy into one industry. 

Joe Raboine: It mirrors what has happened in the outdoor living business. You said one was mainstream, one was more SRW, one was pavers, and obviously, for most projects today, you have all of those pieces in those projects. It was a welcomed change to have them come together and help the industry focus on where we’re headed in the next few decades.

I know permeable pavers are near and dear to your heart. It’s interesting on the commercial side. I think there’s a general awareness and understanding about permeable pavers. However, there still seems to be a lot of discussion about what is proper or not when it’s applicable or not on the residential side. I’ve run into many contractors who, by ordinance, are now being asked to do a completely different installation. There’s a lot you need to learn before you can just start doing permeable pavement.

Kevin Earley: That’s right. Many contractors in the audience are probably familiar with the standard paving assembly, which is our base dense-graded aggregate. This is the same road-based material under asphalt pavements. The product is controlled at a quarry and has a nice distribution of aggregate particle sizes, which makes it strong and optimizes it for compaction. There’s not too much fine particle size and not too many large gravel pieces.

The variable for standard pavers is, what will this base’s thickness be? If the subgrade soils are weak, you might need a thicker base. If the traffic on the top of the surface is frequent, like a vehicular roadway, as opposed to somebody’s backyard, you would need a thicker base. In a traditional pavement system, we see anywhere from four to 12 inches of base material.

We have industry and design guidelines for this. Once we get the base in, we have our traditional one-inch thick layer of concrete sand, which is our bedding layer. Then, a variety of pavers, shapes, and sizes are put on top. We rely on a joint between the products, a mortarless system. These joints, which are about an eighth of an inch, are often filled with polymeric jointing sand or masonry sand. When put together, we call it an assembly. It’s a flexible pavement and operates like an asphalt pavement system. 

What’s different about permeable assemblies? We changed the aggregate materials, so instead of a dense graded road base, we switched it to a well-graded road base with an open-graded material. The material doesn’t have a wide range of particle sizes but a single particle size. Typically, it’s 57 stone for residential projects that’s an inch and a half of material and has a lot of void space, which gives us this advantage to move water through and detain it.

These aggregates in a permeable payment system have about 40% void space. One thing that’s important for contractors to realize is that these aggregates are different, and they’re larger-sized aggregates that require more energy to compact. Often, we’ll run into contractors who ask if the aggregate even needs to be compacted, and it does. Open-graded aggregate and drainage aggregate in our permeable pavement systems must be compacted properly. They’re angular aggregates that will rearrange themselves, so it’s an important part of the design. 

Joe Raboine: That’s a good call out. I feel like some of that might come from recommendations for doing SRWs. Where you’re typically not compacting that open-graded material behind the wall, right?

Kevin Earley: They’re often just placing it there. They’re supposed to compact that, too, but it’s consolidated between materials and has nowhere to go. Still, in the horizontal, the open-graded aggregate stones can move in a large surface. The other difference is that as we come up, we’re not going to use sand in the bed setting. We use ASTM number eight stone, three-eighths inch chip gravel over that 57 stone. We use about two inches of that, and it chokes into the material. There’s no geotextile or separation fabric. 

The pavers themselves are impervious, but what makes it different is the spacer bars are larger. Instead of a nominal eighth of an inch or sometimes sixteenth of an inch space, we typically have a quarter to a half an inch that creates about 10% surface opening. There’s plenty of opening when you have filter aggregate in those joints to move rainwater through the system and into the void. A common question we get is, is it 10% pervious? And the answer is it’s 100% pervious. It’s 10% surface opening, but the system doesn’t generate runoff. So, as a system, we are 100% pervious.

Joe Raboine: The idea behind that is so the surface water passes through that pavement, replenishes the local aquifer, and does not go out in the rivers and streams, right? When you think about it, it reduces the non-point pollution.

Kevin Earley: Non-point source pollution is rainwater. The government has done a great job of regulating point source pollution. The Clean Water Act and the regulatory environment around what comes out of a pipe called point source. Today, the big focus from a regulatory point of view is non-point source pollution or rainwater. If we can infiltrate rainwater rather than let it run off, there’s a lot of environmental benefits. 

One of the things we like to say is it’s a five-in-one benefit of a permeable pavement system. It’s a term we use a lot. The first benefit is that it’s a driving surface. We’re making pavers to an ASTM standard that requires a minimum compressive strength of 8,000 PSI and is H20, HS20 loading rated based on full-scale load testing. We’ve done research for a lot of traffic carrying capability. 

Secondly, it’s a collection system, meaning the joints are the inlets. The joints can infiltrate at very high rates, often exceeding 500 inches per hour. We don’t have a stormwater inlet. The joints between the pavers are an inlet that provides the water treatment to capture the sediment in the joining material. The jointing material acts like a filter material. The three-one-eighth-inch chip must be a very specific size to fit in the joint but also capture total sediment materials. That material is a pollutant of concern for many regulatory people because they know that sediment carries all kinds of pollutants. In many cases, like New Jersey, we get 80% TSS removal credit just by having a permeable pavement system. The water treatment is an important third benefit. 

A fourth benefit is that it acts as a conveyance system. We have so much void space underneath the pavement we don’t need drain pipes to move water since we move it across the reservoir on the bottom. Finally, it’s a storage and detention system. When you think of the detention basin, perhaps at the bottom of a neighborhood, it’s acting in that capacity. It’s holding water until it can be released back into the environment. You can think of it as a detention basin with pavers on top of it with multiple benefits, and those are just the primary stormwater benefits.

Joe Raboine: It looks better, too. The aesthetic value is huge. You mentioned that kind of retention piece. If someone is just starting and wants to add it as a service on the residential side, I would assume you need to understand soil types, local regulations and the depth of that base, which I’m considering changes based on sand or silty soil. Is there a standard calculation or something you would involve our engineering team with? What would the process look like?

Kevin Earley: In a commercial application, the civil engineer first looks at the soil type and discovers if it’s suitable for infiltration. Gradual soils are easy to infiltrate, and the clay or the cohesive soils are more challenging, but we might have to incorporate an underdrain. Once we know the soil characteristics, engineers look at design charts to examine soil types under the traffic loading applications to determine the base thickness. 

On the residential side, if contractors need help, of course, our national support team can provide a lot of support.

Joe Raboine: When you look at this trend, it’s almost becoming somewhat of a standard as we continue to build out some of these more urban environments. Now that it’s starting to transition, it seems like it’s following a move towards sustainability and a greater green awareness.

I’ve talked to many residential contractors who are interested and believe that there’s an opportunity there. So. aside from the non-point part, what do you think is driving that overall in some of these markets? For instance, let’s say around Chesapeake Bay or certain lake communities with strict guidelines on pervious surface, is there more to deal with around pollution of the lake? I’m curious about what you think is driving it and how prevalent it will become in the next decade. 

Kevin Earley: This a good time to talk about green infrastructure. Green infrastructure is popular now because it uses nature-mimicking solutions to reintroduce rainwater into the environment and recharge the aquifers to prevent flooding and excessive erosion.

When you think of green infrastructure, you think of green roofs, bioswales, bioretention basins, reconstructed wetlands, so green open areas. People should remember that permeable pavements are considered green infrastructure because they mimic how the water goes into the ground, making it a distributive system. 

When water is collected in an inlet, it’s concentrated and piped in a management system called gray infrastructure. You often see these on your roadways when water collects in a drain outlet, and manage the water that way. What we’re doing is putting it in through the surface and all kinds of surface voids across a larger area. If water can’t get in because there’s some sedimentation in one spot, it goes to the next or works its way into the ground.

Permeable pavement is a green infrastructure solution. Local, county and state municipalities recognize that and are encouraging it more by regulation. 

Joe Raboine: You have a full team that is experienced and well-versed. If someone is thinking about expanding their business, what are some of the resources that Belgard has internally that could help them?

Kevin Earley: When people want to tap into that source, it’s good to understand that we’ve got some of the leading experts in the industry. For contractors that want to tap into those Belgard resources, I would start with getting to know your local sales rep and asking for input on commercial projects, particularly large ones. Each local team knows how to tap into the national team and help contract.

It can be a great resource. It’s free input, particularly when it comes to interpreting project specifications that are often inaccurate or complex. You could also get product recommendations from the Belgard team for the suitability, application and availability of the product. 

Joe Raboine: I’ve been involved personally in a lot of projects on the residential and commercial side. I know that team very well, and it’s an incredible group of experts. I’ve heard examples where municipalities may be interested in this, but they don’t understand it. I know you guys often get involved and direct them down the right path. Is that accurate?

Kevin Earley: Yes, we do. Besides helping the contractors and the specifiers, municipal officials are a target audience for us in a lot of our webinars. We also seek out meetings with code officials and travel with the local reps to explain how these systems work because they are not institutionalized. In many places, asphalt and concrete are the pavement standards that the director of public works would recognize. When you present them with a pavement solution that’s not one of the traditional materials they’ve used in the past, they need to understand it better. We have a lot of resources that we make available. Our website is also a starting place for gathering details, specifications and guidelines. 

Another thing we do is support commercial projects in the bid process by helping contractors with plan reviews and offering design input. We get involved with takeoffs or material quantity estimates and can even provide stamped and sealed retaining wall drawings. We do support the idea of using local engineers in the market, so we have network engineers that we can put contractors in contact with. 

Joe Raboine: You mentioned something earlier about this expansion of green infrastructure. I’ve heard a couple of terms like traffic calming, complete streets and living streets, could you explain those? Is that all lumped into the same idea? Is that what you would call a macro trend?

Kevin Earley: We talked about the primary benefits of permeable pavement systems, but we didn’t discuss some of the other benefits. The other benefits are the advantages that we offer that a port-in-place pavement wouldn’t. For one, we have the ability to put shapes and colors in our product. I can create patterns and use colors to create a direction of traffic flow or delineate stalls. If I use light-colored pavers like white cement, we’re going to get heat island mitigation benefits due to solar reflectance. When we use light-colored pavers, they produce less energy to illuminate and reduce energy costs because I don’t have to use as much energy to light surfaces.

We talked about the aesthetic advantages of creating an old European cobble style. These things directly benefit property values, including more business and commercial applications. One example I can think of is the streets of Atlanta. There are over four miles of permeable pavers in the city of Atlanta. Somebody had looked at the Zillow pricing of the roadways with permeable pavers versus the traditional asphalt and found that for homes of similar age and footprint, the houses on paver streets fetched a higher market value. 

In Panama City, Florida, on Harrison Street, Belgard has blocks of pavers in the roadways. It increased the aesthetic value of the high-end shopping district and provided traffic-calming benefits. I’ve been interested in traffic calming benefits for a lot of reasons. Suppose we can communicate the advantage of traffic calming and associate that with our pavers; it’s another reason to use our products in these municipal settings, particularly along roadways. 

We know that when speeding vehicles, particularly above posted limits, encounter a pedestrian nearly 80% of the time, it’s fatal. There’s a lot of science statistics from the Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration that realize speed kills. If we can reduce pedestrian collision encounters, we’re going to save lives, and that’s a real tangible safety benefit. We all recognize when we drive on our pavers and feel that vibration causes us to slow down. I’ve been interested in quantifying that benefit.

In Amsterdam, where pavers are everywhere, they found that in the urban area, using pavers in the streets kept most of the speeds under 20 miles per hour. More recently, a Philadelphia study found a sizable speed reduction compared to asphalt streets. They called it self-enforcing, and they attributed it to three things. 

Number one is the visual cue. I see I’m going from asphalt to these fancy Belgard pavers. Second, the noise change. I hear the noise because I’m going over it, and it’s a different vibration. Finally, the physical vibration where there are cues that cause people to slow down. 

The bottom line is that for every mile per hour, we can reduce speed and statistically lower the likelihood of pedestrian death by about 18%. Traffic calming is important and a consideration that we’re really hoping the industry gets behind. That’s another reason why we want to require pavers in the roadways.

Joe Raboine: You start thinking about all the combinations of all these things. You’ve got the aesthetic benefits and permeable benefits. The options are limitless. 

Kevin Earley: So right now, in the US, there’s a thing called complete streets, where we’re trying to create lanes for the cars, bikes and pedestrians. It’s an idea dedicated to separate lanes so that the streets are “complete” and everybody can use it.

The concept sounds good but has safety issues. Drivers assume no one is going into their lane, so they don’t slow down. The walkers have their sidewalks, and even the bikers have this sense that if there’s a bike lane, they don’t need to pay attention to cars. 

Now, what we’re seeing in the design community is living streets. It’s kind of a European concept. There’s a concept called the Voonerf design. It’s a Dutch term from the 60s, where the pedestrians share the use of the road. So now there’s no raised curb, and sometimes the roadway is narrower. They call that a street diet. 

You’ve seen in urban environments where they’ll use new amenities in what used to be maybe a turning lane to incorporate vegetation and trees to force drivers to slow down in the urban areas. It’s counterintuitive to us in many ways because we’re putting people with cars. 

In the UK, they call it home zones. These are urban areas with strict, low-speed requirements, but they build in features that encourage shared use. In Portland, Oregon, there is zoning called shared courts or partial streets, where they’ll place plants and amenities and limit the parking.

In all of these scenarios, interlocking concrete pavers add aesthetic charm and traffic-calming benefits that fit the designer’s vision of living streets, where you incorporate your landscape with sitting areas and equipment so the space becomes enjoyable. It becomes good for business and recreation while incorporating biophilic design concepts. There’s been a big trend towards getting plant life into the design using permeable pavers and green infrastructure advantages.

Joe Raboine: I’ve followed different publications, and I love the examples where they’ll show a before and after of a street. There may have been three lanes both ways, but now they’ve incorporated those principles where they’ve carved out more planting space, bike lanes and pedestrian areas. 

Those are areas that people are flocking to, like the area around our office here in Atlanta and other places like Alpharetta or Roswell. There’s this hunger and desire for social connection and beauty. I think the initial reaction from everybody is that it’s going to screw up traffic, but it seems like the reality is that people still pass through there. They are just going a little bit slower, but the way that it improves that community is exponentially better. 

Kevin Earley: The quality of life is improved when you adopt those concepts into the roadways. I do see a trend of that, which will make the pressure to institutionalize pavers in the roadways even more likely. When we reach a point where people and communities expect pavers in their roadways, right-of-ways and parking lots, the opportunities will be for hundreds of millions of square feet across the country.

Joe Raboine: It’s definitely exciting. The longevity of it, the beauty, the permeability, slowing traffic, it’s huge. Hopefully, we’ve got some of our residential and commercial listeners excited about these opportunities. We heavily focus on outdoor living, but this is much larger than that overall. If this starts to become adopted on a national level, we have nowhere near enough capacity or people to install it. 

If someone’s listening or thinking they’d like to get more involved and learn more about this, what recommendations could you share as a starting point?

Kevin Earley: Based on a lot of industry surveys, we know our business is about 80% residential market focus. It might even have grown during COVID as people returned to their backyards. The potential growth opportunities for both our industry here at Oldcastle and for contractors are in this non-residential business, which is commercial and government work. Hardscaping is established in the residential world but hasn’t gotten that momentum yet in all the other sectors. And when we get that momentum going, it’s going create a big opportunity. 

The per capita consumption of pavers in the US compared to Europe is significantly lower. We could all agree that when it comes to commercial, roadway and government jobs, there’s a significant upside yet to be seen. 

So, how does a contractor transition if their focus has been residential? Number one, you need the right, bigger equipment because you’re doing larger projects and looking at the potential for machine installation. You need expertise and training for larger compaction and earthwork equipment, which we can help with. It’s very important to have a relationship with a paver wall manufacturer supplier, which is usually handled through the local sales representative. We have Oldcastle local sales experts in each market who focus on commercial projects. So, I would suggest they reach out to them.

Finally, as a hardscape subcontractor, you need to have a relationship with site contractors. Those entities are winning the contracts for exterior improvements, such as earth retaining systems, permeable pavements and stormwater systems.

Joe Raboine: It’s just like if you’re on the residential side, getting a group of subcontractors that you work with is the same thing, just on a larger scale, looking for people who are excavators, the developers and all the different facets of what you’re going to be involved in, and then also understanding it. 

Many of these large developers are looking for people they can partner with and rely on. If they can find a partner they can count on, the odds of getting that work, I suspect, are pretty good if you’re involved on the front end.

Kevin Earley: If you start small and they have a nice mix of commercial books and business, you develop some project references and offer both commercial and residential. I think many of the big commercial installers started residentially and mixed their business model. The other differences are payment terms, payment retention and bonding. These are all factors to consider when you get into that commercial world. It’s a different world.

Also, industry developments are changing all the time as far as understanding what best practices are. One thing they could do is attend industry events like HNA or events that we sponsor, like Belgard University, to stay on top of the latest trends and best practices in the industry.

Joe Raboine: That’s great advice. We did a little bit of commercial back in the day. It’s a totally different animal for residential. You’ve got to understand every aspect thoroughly. You could make a great living out of it, but it’s a different set of rules. So, tap into the experts. In trade organizations within our company or talk to competitors even in your market. We don’t collaborate enough in our industry.

If someone’s interested, talk to your local representative, and if you don’t know who your local rep is, go to belgardcommercial.com. I don’t think people know there’s a separate website from belgard.com.

Kevin Earley: From belgard.com, you can click and get right to it. Find your local rep and start there. They know how to access the national team. One of the bigger strengths of the Belgard brand is having the resources to support our contractors and dealers with technical information. We encourage everybody to ask for help. It doesn’t hurt to have another set of eyes on a set of plans to ensure you understand what it is and the best solution.

Joe Raboine: We have a ton of resources that people aren’t aware of, so please ask us. We will try to figure out a way to help you. No matter what project or skill you’re trying to acquire, we can hopefully connect you with somebody and help you on your journey.

Well, I appreciate you joining us today, Kevin. What is the most fulfilling part of your job, and what gets you out of bed in the morning?

Kevin Earley: I’m a technical junkie, so I like the technical aspects of our business. What gets me excited is helping our sales teams work on commercial projects. Every day, there’s a specification or a detail that requires some interpretation. Often, on these large projects, the specifications are not always accurate, and it’s easy to see oddities.

I find it satisfying to provide that assistance for the project and work with not only our sales reps but also government officials, contractors and specifiers interested in using our products. We do a lot of lunch and learns and education events that are fun and important. Still, engaging with somebody to discuss how concrete products can solve a particular problem is probably the most satisfying. 

Joe Raboine: I could tell from the level of excitement and your background and involvement in the trade organizations that you absolutely love that technical piece. I also know on a personal level that you love being outside. 

Kevin Earley: I’m a weekend warrior. I get on my mountain bike and ride on Saturday.

Joe Raboine:  Well, thanks again, Kevin. It’s always a pleasure. You and your team are a wealth of knowledge. Hopefully, those who are listening or considering getting more involved will reach out to you and start their journey towards maybe being on the commercial side of the business.

Kevin Earley: And thank you for having me, Joe.

Joe Raboine: I appreciate it.

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