Inside the 2019 HNA Installer Championship

Hardscape contractors from across the country competed regionally throughout the year to win travel packages to Hardscape North America in Louisville, KY to battle against the best of the best. Competing for over $15,000 in prizes, regional winners were pitted against one another — along with walk-on hopefuls — to race against the clock in a test of craftsmanship at the seventh annual HNA Installer Championship held on Oct. 17-18.

Highlight reel from the regional and national HNA Installer Championship series.

When the masonry dust settled, the Belgard Master Craftsman team from Segmental Systems Inc. of Spokane, WA emerged victorious for the second consecutive year. The team received a prize package valued at approximately $11,600. The package included a cash prize of $2,550, an iQMS362 16.5″ Masonry Saw with a diamond blade, a Weber MT CF3 forward plate compactor, their name engraved on the HNA Installer Championship Cup, and a return trip to HNA 2020 to defend their title yet again.

“I’m thrilled,” said Dan Hughes, owner of Segmental Systems and member of the winning three-man team. “It solidifies that we excel in our craft. No one has ever won two years in a row. No one thought we could do it. Now, no one has won it three years in a row. Let’s what happens.”

Josh Brownlee, Dan Hughes and Jason Mucciaccio receive their first place award, presented by ICPI Director of Engineering, Robert Bowers.
The Segmental Systems Inc. three-man team of Josh Brownlee, Dan Hughes and Jason Mucciaccio receive their first place award, presented by ICPI Director of Engineering, Robert Bowers.

The two-time national champion team of Hughes, Josh Brownlee and Jason Mucciaccio have been competing together in the HNA Installer Championship program for several years, winning the Northwest Region title every year since 2016. That title came with travel expenses and free entry into the national competition, where they competed strongly each year.

“The first year, we missed the championship round by one point. The second year, we missed it by three points. The third year (2018), we won with an exclamation point, setting a record high score in the preliminary round and beating the competition by more than 50 points,” Hughes said.

ICPI judges score an installation during one of the preliminary rounds on Oct. 17.
ICPI judges score an installation during one of the preliminary rounds on Oct. 17. Teams were all given the same design and were scored on speed, safety, quality and craftsmanship.

For the preliminary round of each competition, teams are all given the same design, which they don’t see until the day of the competition. However, teams have creative control in the final round, which is where Segmental Systems shines due to strategy that begins months before the actual competition.

“Josh is a really good artist, so he creates the design,” Hughes said. “While we’re at work all day long together, we talk about what will set us apart. He understands pavers and can draw in CAD and freehand. He knows how many cuts we can get done in the amount of time we have. In his design, he makes sure we’re using the other half of that cut somewhere. Our paver scraps won’t fill up a one-gallon bucket. He plans so well, there’s very little waste.”

The team is a well-oiled machine, having worked together on a near daily basis for the last eight years. Collectively, they have about 60 years of installation experience, with Hughes having been in the industry for 30 years, Mucciaccio for 18 and Brownlee for 12.

Jason Mucciaccio of Segmental Systems makes paver cuts during the preliminary round.
Jason Mucciaccio of Segmental Systems makes paver cuts during the preliminary round.

“Cumulatively, we’re the oldest team there,” Hughes said. “We have a lot of experience doing what we do and know how to work smoothly as a team. Before they say go, we have a good game plan.”

Each member of the Segmental Systems team has a specific role. Hughes handles much of the heavy lifting while Mucciaccio focuses on making cuts and Brownlee focuses on safety, design and managing the team.

“Josh is our eyes and the voice of our team, like a director,” said Hughes, who believes that strategy is a large factor in their success. “A lot of people don’t utilize their third man like they should.”

Segmental Systems Inc.’s winning hardscape design from the final round featured a large fleur-de-lis, the symbol of King Louis XVI of France, the namesake for Louisville, KY.

The final round was held on Oct. 18. In a nod to the hosting city, Segmental Systems’ winning design included a large inlaid fleur-de-lis in the paver field, with a seat wall flanked by two spiral columns. Although the team did not practice installing the inlay, they did do a practice run on the columns before heading to HNA to determine which degree of twist to use at each level.

“Fleur-de-lis are everywhere in Louisville — street signs, cops badges — it’s a symbol of Kentucky that’s very recognizable. Plus, it photos well,” Hughes said about the team’s inspiration for the design. “No one else has come close to doing anything like this. We figured, if we could pull it off, we stood a great chance of winning: go big or go home.”

Brownlee, who Hughes notes is passionate about art in many forms, has already begun formulating ideas for next year’s competition.

“Josh was sketching ideas on the plane ride home. He started the fleur-de-lis on the ride home last year,” Hughes said.

It remains to be seen whether any of this year’s finalists will return for a rematch with Segmental Systems in 2020. However, event organizers did note that this year’s competition was the closest scoring in HNA Installer Championship history. Although Segmental Systems had a healthy 15-point buffer with a score of 423, the race between second, third and fourth was extremely tight. General Pavers AOJ finished in second place with a score of 408, garnering a cash prize of $1,300 and an iQ 360XR 14″ masonry saw with fully-integrated dust collection plus accessories. General Pavers took third place with 405 and was awarded a cash prize of $650. First-time competitors, fellow Belgard Master Craftsman WaterQuest of Albuquerque, NM placed fourth with a score of 403.

CONTRACTOR’S CORNER: Hardscape Installation Labor Saving Ideas

Across the nation, labor shortages are affecting the hardscape contractor industry, making it more important than ever to make efficient use of crew time. Even if the labor shortage isn’t impacting your market, crew efficiencies are a crucial part of profitability. These tips can help contractors turn jobs faster, reduce the length of disruption for homeowners and maximize business potential.

Take advantage of wall construction innovations.

Often, extensive cutting is involved when building a freestanding wall, especially when needing to create curves or include channels for utilities. By using a wall product that offers a back-to-back installation platform, like Belair Wall® 2.0 or Diamond® 9D 2.0, significant time can be saved on installation. Belgard also offers the innovative U Start Base Block, which allows the base course to be installed 63% faster than with standard wall construction techniques.

2.0 wall installation compared side-by-side with a traditional wall system.
Get a head start on wall construction with U Start Base Blocks.

Invest in paver-placing tools.

Hardscape Paver Installation Labor Saving Ideas
AIRLIFT® tool by PaveTech®

Clamps, vacs, cups and other lifting equipment options have exploded in recent years. Not only will they save labor, they will also increase efficiency and reduce the chance for injury or fatigue. With larger format pavers continuing to grow in popularity, these tools will become essential to every hardscape crew. Companies like Probst®, Mquip® and PaveTech® offer a variety of paver placing equipment that can save valuable hours on the jobsite. For a special Belgard discount offer on paver-placing tools, click here.

Install modular outdoor living units instead of custom builds.

The Belgard Elements™ line includes three different series of modular outdoor living units that are not only beautiful, but engineered in a controlled setting, have a warranty, are shipped in pre-built sections and can be installed on a gravel base or slab within hours versus days or weeks. Typically, when an Elements product is sold, they are part of a larger outdoor living installation. Elements are a great way to add incremental value, increase the size of your projects and flip projects much more quickly.

Install a fireplace with 8 man-hours versus 80.

Save installation time on fire features by using prepackaged kits.

Hardscape Paver Installation Tips
Weston Stone® Linear Fire Pit Kit

Unlike the Elements products, fire pit and fireplace kits are completely constructed on the jobsite. The benefit is that they come prepackaged with all the blocks and hardware needed for the installation. This simplifies ordering, minimizes waste and cuts, and speeds installation by eliminating the guesswork. Kits that can be installed within hours include the Belgard Weston Stone® line of fireplaces and fire pits and the Eagle Bay® Dublin™ Traditional Fireplace Kit. Belgard also offers smaller hardscape fire pit kits through Lowe’s, like the Ashland Fire Pit Kit.

Consider machine-laid pavers for larger jobs.

Hardscape Paver Installation Tips Ideas
Lay multiple pavers at a time.

Machine-laid pavers have typically been reserved for commercial projects. However, with the labor shortage, they are something that should be considering for medium and large-scale residential projects as well. It doesn’t take long to recoup the cost of a paver-laying machine when you consider the average costs of a laborer, complete with Workman’s Comp, health insurance, vacation time, gear and other costs.

Use larger format and modular pavers.

Hardscape Paver Installation
Lafitt® Rustic Slab

Modular design and the use of large-format pavers are two outdoor living design trends that continue to grow in popularity. Due to fewer cuts and easier laying patterns, both trends present an opportunity to install large outdoor living spaces with a fraction of the labor that a classic small-format paver or curvilinear design would take. 

Overlay concrete instead of removing it.

Paver overlays present a tremendous opportunity to provide an updated look without all the expense of a complete renovation. It’s critical, however, to make sure the concrete is in good shape prior – as the quality of the base will impact the final product. Techniseal® DriBond™ is a great product to use for overlays and can be used for 30, 60 or 80mm pavers. Once the base is cleaned, simply screed a thin layer (3/8”) of DriBond, place and cut the pavers, and then flood them with water to activate the mudset. Typical driveways, for example, can be overlaid in a day or two with almost no mess or disposal. 

Installs like sand, sets like concrete.

Choose pavers and wall products with false joints over natural stone.

Homeowners still love the look of natural stone. However, natural stone can be time-consuming to work with. Many Belgard paver and wall products offer the look of natural stone with natural textures and false joints that mimic multiple pieces within a single piece. These systems can be installed in a fraction of the time with less expensive labor rates as compared to masonry. Products that offer false joints include Mega-Arbel® pavers, Diamond® 9D Virtual Joint wall and the Tandem® Wall System.  

Get the contractor’s point-of-view on installing the new Tandem Modular Block system.

Installing the Proper Paver Base for Concrete or Porcelain Pavers

As the saying goes, if you want something to last, be sure to start with a solid foundation. This definitely holds true for when installing a paver base for your project.

Using the proper base materials and installation approach is critical for a strong paver patio, walkway, or driveway. We’ve all seen paver installations that are uneven and cracking. In most cases, the fault lies with an improperly installed base. Although soil conditions and terrain can certainly be a factor, the information below can help those do-it-yourselfers undergo concrete and porcelain paver installations that remain beautiful for years to come.

Standard Concrete Paver Base Installation

Standard Concrete Paver Base Installation

Step 1 – Excavation

Excavate all the topsoil off the area where the project will be installed.  It’s imperative to dig down to the clay or subsoil.  If the subsoil in your project area has recently been filled (i.e. as a result of new construction), it’s a good idea to compact it with a large walk-behind compactor before adding the gravel around the paver base.

Otherwise, if it hasn’t recently been filled or disturbed, you can begin adding the aggregate base layer. When calculating the depth of the excavation, you will need to add the thickness of the paver itself, 1” of bedding sand, and the necessary gravel recommended for the type of project you are installing.

Step 2 – Aggregate Base Layer

Typically, the material used for this aggregate base consists of crushed gravel that will vary in size from  3/4” down to dust. For walkways and patios, you will need to add 4-6” of this material. For driveways, you will add 8-12”.  If you have heavy clay subsoil, it’s also a good idea to add a geotextile underlayment. This woven layer of fabric will prevent aggregate from mixing with the soil below. This is especially important in driveway applications.

In colder climates, it may be necessary to add more aggregate base material to allow for the freeze/thaw conditions present there. It doesn’t hurt to add more base material if you are unsure. Once the base material has been placed, you will want to rake it off evenly.  It’s critical at this phase that the gravel be pitched away from the house to allow for water runoff.  Typically that slope will be between 1/8” and 1/4” of drop per linear foot (or more for driveways, depending on the location).

Step 3 – Compaction

For this, you will need to rent a plate compactor with a minimum of 5,000 lbs. of force.  Most local rental companies will carry this piece of equipment.  Ideally you will want to compact in lifts (layers of gravel) no greater than 4”-6” at a time.  Doing more than that will result in an improperly compacted paver base.

Step 4 – Bedding Layer

Next, you will add and level 1” of bedding sand material to the paver base.  The easiest way to level the sand is to purchase two pieces of 1” metal or plastic electrical pipe conduit.  Place the two pieces of conduit down, and using a 2 x 4 board, screed the sand smooth.  Keep moving the tubes down as you go, making sure to fill the voids where the tubes were by smoothing the surface with a trowel.  You are now ready to lay the pavers.

For additional or site-specific design, consult your local Belgard representative or a civil/geotechnical engineer experienced with flexible segmental pavement design.

Overlays – Installing Pavers over Existing Concrete

Paver Overlays - Installing Pavers over Existing Concrete

Thin concrete pavers or Belgard Porcelain Pavers may be placed over an existing concrete slab or a new concrete slab (4,000 psi  and 4” thickness minimum) on a sand or DriBond setting bed.

DriBond will actually adhere the pavers directly to the concrete slab, similar to how thinset adhesive works for tile. It goes on as a thin dry powder (3/8” thick max). Once the pavers are installed, simply soak the pavers with water to activate it. If just using sand, you will want to install an edging restraint as shown in the above diagram.

Prior to installation, verify that the distance from the top of slab to the doorsill will accommodate the proposed paver and setting bed thickness. If the concrete won’t allow for the thickness of the new overlay material, many rental companies will rent small grinding equipment. As long as you are left with a minimum of 4”, you can remove some of the top layer of the existing concrete. The other option would be to cut and remove the concrete near the transition and re-pour it at a lower height.

If the site is located in a freeze-thaw zone, consider any heave movement in your height calculation. Thickness of the concrete slab should be 4”-6” with consideration given to heavier loading (RV, travel trailers, trucks, etc.) to determine the correct depth of concrete base and any internal reinforcement.

For additional or site-specific design, consult your local Belgard representative or a civil/geotechnical engineer experienced with rigid segmental pavement design.

Optional Bases for Porcelain Pavers

Porcelain pavers have the option to be installed over a standard paver base, permeable base, sand, grass, concrete or pedestals. For additional information on installation of porcelain pavers on these various bases, and for special instructions regarding accommodating vehicular loads, download the Belgard Porcelain Paver Installation Guide.

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Contractor’s Corner:
What’s on Your Holiday Equipment Wish List?

Sometimes it’s that one piece of equipment that puts you ahead of your competitors. This month’s Contractor’s Corner blog looks at some of our favorite must-haves for the residential hardscape contractor preparing for 2016.

Aerial Video Drone

Aerial DroneIt’s not just a totally cool piece of equipment, it’s also an awesome selling tool. Don’t just take photos of your completed projects, bring them to life with fly-through videos that you can add to your company website or Facebook page. Showing videos to homeowners on an iPad will allow them to virtually walk through a design and see it from every angle, potentially visualizing how they would live in that space at their own home. Inexpensive drones are available just about everywhere, but if you’re a serious shopper, read PC Magazine’s Best Drones of 2015.

Paver Slab Vacuum Installer

Mammoth Vacuum EquipmentLarger format pavers are widely popular right now, but installing them can be a tedious and strenuous process. Speed installation of large pieces and minimize worker fatigue with vacuum installation equipment specifically designed for paver slabs. Check out the Mammoth VH from Pave Tech®, which comes with two different handle sets: one for single workers, and one for lifting by two workers.

Paver Placer™ Installers

model2--300I know what you’re thinking…Now that I have a more efficient way to install the big pieces, what about the smaller ones? Have no fear, PaveMor™ is here. They offer a line of hand-held paver installation machines that hook up to a standard air compressor to speed installation and reduce workplace injuries. The model pictured here can be used to pick up one standard sized paver or two smaller units at once.

iQ Dustless Saw

HERO-WishListAnyone in the paver industry knows that cutting pavers or wall block creates a cloud of dust. Overexposure to silica dust can cause serious health problems, but wearing a respirator can be a pain — not to mention the cleanup required from the dust and slurry. If you want to see the difference a dustless saw can make, click to view this video.