The Great Recession hit the hardscape industry hard, but “we are finally back on track,” states Gabriela Mariscal, geotechnical engineer with the National Concrete Masonry Association, a trade group representing producers and suppliers of concrete masonry products such as concrete block, manufactured stone veneer and segmental retaining walls.

She says in 2014 everyone finally reported that they were solidly working in the black, and while precise statistics aren’t available, the reports she’s hearing now from those in the industry are positive. “Everyone says they are very busy and have a lot of work going on,” she explains. “People are saying they are busier now than they were last year.”

In particular, demand is strong for higher-end installations, says Mariscal, though there is variance depending on local markets.

One trend Mariscal has noticed relates to an evolution in the appearance of retaining wall materials. “Plain, gray materials are still available, but they’re not the most popular anymore,” she says. Just because retaining walls are structural and utilitarian no longer means they need to look drab. Manufacturers are going with blends and colors. “And they are aging and tumbling the edges so they’re softer,” says Mariscal. Stamped blocks, which were introduced about two years ago, remain popular, she adds. “That is the newest thing; they are doing away with some of the finishes we used to have.”

Efficiency & Ergonomics

Sales of installation equipment is one way to gauge what’s happening in the market, and Steve Jones, president of Pave Tech, says sales have been strong the past two years.

“Last year was a very good year and this year is even better,” he reports. In particular, he’s seeing demand for the big equipment that’s used in larger commercial installations. That is from companies looking to control labor costs and become more efficient in the highly competitive hardscape installation business. “The efficient contractors — the ones buying our big laying and screening equipment — are the ones getting the contracts,” he observes.

Jones says more landscapers are now involved with hardscape installations on the residential level, where profit margins are much higher. Manufacturers are aggressively marketing to the residential market and offering new hardscape products, he says. This fact, combined with the creativity of the installers, continues to result in amazing outdoor spaces … and good revenues for the installation companies, according to Jones.

One trend he’s seeing is toward the use of larger hardscape pavers. While machinery can handle many of these, even smaller materials can put a strain on installers. When it comes right down to it, hardscaping is all about weight, Jones says. “It’s a brutal business….” Companies that want to keep their good employees healthy need to focus on ergonomics, he urges, including looking into relatively low-cost products that can help dramatically.

Read More: Inside the Recent Growth and Trends of Hardscapes