What's So Great About Concrete Pavers



I LOVE concrete pavers. When I explain to my clients all the great things about them, all the bad things about other types of hardscaping, and the few drawbacks to pavers, they nearly 100% of the time follow my suggestion and use pavers. When the right style, pattern, and color are used, they can be really beautiful, very practical, and a great price comparatively.


Concrete pavers are like concrete tiles, only thicker, and set in a pattern. They are sometimes called interlocking pavers and are now made by quite a few companies in several styles and colors.



WHAT'S GREAT ABOUT PAVERS

  1. Pavers were created as the solution to cracking concrete. They DO NOT normally CRACK in response to soil settling and earth movements. In California, this is a very important issue, because cracked patios and walkways do not look good, will damage further over time, and can be a safety hazard.

  2. They are the best look for the price on the market. See below about ‘best look.’

  3. They are the best price on the market for the look.

  4. They do not discolor like poured concrete does. As soon as a concrete slab is poured it can discolor and become motley and will remain so and get worse over time, especially where sprinklers overspray. This happens with plain concrete as well as all colored concrete.

  5. They don’t change color as much as concrete slab does in response to sprinklers spraying them (some, but not as much).

  6. They are repairable (keep extras in your garage in case a few get damaged over the years—a good contractor can remove the damaged one and install the new one without disturbing the paver field).

  7. There are some really nice styles available, very upscale. See my photo above.

  8. You can mix paver colors and paver styles and when done in the right way, this can be very upscale and nice.

  9. You can re-sand your pavers at any time. Though it is not really needed very often.

  10. If pavers are maintained properly, they can look great years after they were installed.

  11. You can mix other materials with them. I’m not recommending this, but sometimes this can look really nice, such as a poured-in-place concrete ribbon as a border or through the field, or using a flagstone border around a paver field. Mortared-brick borders and ribbons were the rage in the 1980’s and 1990’s and in my opinion, they date a project. I do not recommend them.


A Simple Pattern with Four Sizes (Lake Forest, my project)



WHAT'S NOT SO GREAT ABOUT PAVERS

  1. There are many styles of pavers that are very out-of-date. I’m not sure why anyone ever came up with these, but they do not look good. Most of these have odd shapes (such as hexagonal, or a kind of zig-zag shape). I always tell my clients to stay far away from these. Some of the completely flat pavers with no tumbling or edge detail also look really plain. I’ve seen them too many times in very bad installations and they look cheap. Stay away from odd shapes and ugly colors. See more on colors below.

  2. Pavers do not abut fully against one another, leaving a ‘joint’ all around each paver, which is meant to be filled with sand. If plain sand is used, it can sweep out or wash out over time. If a polymeric sand is used, after filling the joints the pavers are sprayed with water activating the polymer and the joint hardens. But pavers are meant to move slightly over time as soils settle and the earth quakes. So polymeric sands will crack too, and then the sand can come out in chunks, which does not look good and leaves portions of the joints unsanded.

  3. Weeds can grow in the joints, especially where there is a lot of moisture. Proper maintenance means removing these weeds, which can be done manually or with weed killers and manual removal. Be careful what anyone sprays on your pavers. You don’t want to stain the pavers. And you don’t want anyone to scratch your pavers with shovels, etc.

  4. Proper paver installation is incredibly important. Without it, your pavers can settle and instead of a nice surface, you get a dimpled mess that must be torn out and redone. This negative is really about improper installation, not the pavers themselves. See more in proper installation below.

  5. Proper pattern layout is really important and makes a great installation, or not. One aspect is that avoiding small slivers of pavers should be done when possible. Good tile installers can make good paver installers….they understand how to setup and create a pattern properly, determining such things as where is the starting point? The lines of the paver pattern are important: usually they are either perpendicular or parallel to some item in the landscape, such as the garage door on a driveway or the back of the house on a patio, etc. The designer should specify the pattern and how the lines should be set. I don’t leave such things up to the installers or owners……there is usually a best way and that is what a good designer sees and specifies.



A Simple Pattern in 4" x 4" Paver with Fire Pit and Retaining Wall (Coto de Caza, my project)



PAVER STYLES

There are various styles of pavers on the market. Some are more contemporary and some are more traditional or old-worldly. I suggest to my clients styles that fit with the style of the home or project. Several of the larger paver manufacturers now make some really interesting pavers. Some have an irregular flagstone shape; on some the surface is like a flagstone with irregular texture. THE SHAPE: the pavers have a shape (sometimes multiple sizes within a style). The shape affects the pattern and the look.


THE SURFACE: Some pavers are flat, some have a pillowy surface, some have a textured surface (reminiscent of flagstone). The surface style affects the look.


THE EDGES: Some have a perfect 90 degree edge with no detail, some have an eased edge, some have a beveled edge. The edge detail affects the look of the pavers.


TUMBLED OR NOT: Most paver manufactures produce both tumbled and untumbled pavers. The tumbled pavers cost a little more. They put the untumbled pavers into a tumbling machine and tumble them. The pavers hit each other and some of the edges are knocked off and the pavers scratch each other. It tends to give it an old-worldly look. They can be very nice when used in the right color, pattern, and style.


THICKNESS: Most companies make at least 2 thicknesses of pavers: a 60 mm version (approx. 2.4”) and an 80 mm version (approx. 3.2”). The thinner version is for walkways and patios. The thicker is for driveways and places where heavy loads will occur (like vehicles)—and the deeper roadbase bed is required with these also. In locations with very poor soil that settles easily, manufacturers might recommend using the thicker pavers and thicker roadbase beds even on walkways and patios.


COLORS: Most companies offer many colors. Note that the colors in their brochures and online are NOT the same as the actual pavers. And brand new pavers can look more vibrant than pavers that have been installed for years (due to dust and probably some color fading). They usually offer many solid colors, and also ‘colors’ that are a combination of 2 or more of the solid colors. These give a mottled, varied appearance—which can be very nice in the right situation.


You must see samples of the actual paver in person to really know what it looks like. And the best way to see them is to seem them installed, so you can see what they look like in a pattern and on the ground with sanded joints. Many retailers of pavers have landscaped areas you can walk around to see their different colors, styles, etc. This is really helpful when trying to pick a paver. Each paver company has their own styles and colors (though they are all very similar, with a few exceptions).Keep in mind that pavers are made in batches with colorant. So it is possible that if you build a patio today in one color/style, in 2 years, if you decide to add more to your patio, the color may not be exactly the same. It’s like the die lots in fabrics or tiles.



A Soft, Sandy-colored Paver Patio with FirePpit (Coto de Caza, my project)


COST

Pavers can be the best look for the price—if you use a great paver style and color.


INSTALLATION

Pavers need to be set in a certain way to guarantee they do not settle. Ask the manufacturer of your pavers what their specifications are on installation, especially on material types, and depths. Usually soil is removed to an appropriate depth and the remaining dirt compacted. Then roadbase is brought in and a proper thickness spread and compacted. Roadbase is a combination of gravel and sand and is used under roads. Then a layer of sand covers the roadbase and that is leveled. The pavers are set on the sand layer. Driveways need a deeper layer of roadbase than walkways and patios.



BORDERS

The border is a very important part of installation and design. The best and proper installation of a border is to mortar the border pieces (whether paver, flagstone, brick, tile, etc) onto a concrete bond beam. A concrete bond beam is concrete poured into a ditch (approx. 12” x 12” deep—see your contractor) with rebar in it. This provides a firm, strong edge to the field of the pavers and keeps it from moving over time, causing the joints to open up. The wrong kind of border is the flexible strip with stakes. Amazingly, some paver manufactures sell these items and list them in their brochures and show how to use them. I tell my clients to run from any contractor who uses these.



HOW TO KNOW IF YOUR CONTRACTOR KNOWS HOW TO INSTALL PAVERS PROPERLY

I ask the contractor how they install borders. If they don’t tell me they do what I mentioned above, I know they don’t know what they are doing. I also ask them what materials they use for the paver bed and how deep. Do they compact them? Do they grade the patios for drainage? What kind of drains do they use? What kind of drain covers? How do they cut them? How do they start the pattern? All of these things tell me if they will do a good job or not. And I suggest my clients go see installed projects from contractors to see their work.



Paver Entry Way, Steps, and Driveway Border (Irvine, my project)



FINAL THOUGHTS ON PAVERS

All other hardscape materials will crack over time, including beautiful and thick flagstone or other stones mortared onto a concrete slab. When the forces of shifting and settling are large enough, cracking will eventually occur and can crack right through the stone and concrete.These stone patios can be gorgeous, but they are not very nice when they crack. And they cannot be repaired in a way that makes them look perfect ever again. Even if you have someone attempt to repair these, it doesn’t work well and the new mortar and new stone will not match your old mortar and stone. If you love a stone patio, use it, but know that it might do this someday, no matter how good a job of installation is done. Concrete slabs and steps will also crack. They can crack in the drying process. And if you try to repair a concrete slab, it looks awful. You can’t match the color (even of plain concrete) and when you saw cut concrete to remove sections, it over-cuts, leaving blade marks.


When the right style and color is used on a project, it can be gorgeous. It seems to be generally true that the more expensive the paver/sf, the nicer it is. The nicer ones have more sizes, allowing more variety in pattern.


My idea of a beautiful patio or walkway for a residence is one that is a nice soft backdrop to all of other hardscape elements (such as pool/spa, fire pit, fountain, BBQ island, etc.) and the plants and furniture. For a residence, it is not the patio or the walkways that should be the design focal points. So I try to help my clients pick paver styles and colors that provide that soft backdrop. If the first thing anyone notices as they approach a yard is the pavers (such as a combination of green, magenta, and gray!!), the designer and owner made a mistake. And this is true for whatever hardscape material is chosen.