After a slow fourth quarter last year, landscape architects are looking ahead to an uptick in business as the 2014 outdoor construction season unfolds. And when specifying hardscape products, they’re likely to choose materials that appeal to their clients for both sustainability and low maintenance, the 2014 American Society of Landscape Architects’ annual design trends survey indicates.

Hardscape materials and design elements favored by these pros include: permeable paving; recycled materials; fire pits and fireplaces; and installed seating, which runs the gamut from benches to boulders. Water features and landscape lighting are two ancillary product groups that also rank highly.

Manufacturers are emphasizing products that take less trouble to install and are available in a variety of shapes and contemporary colors.

Pavers Win Green-Building Points

Unlike water-shedding sidewalk, patio, and driveway materials, interlocking concrete pavers let water pass through gaps between individual blocks, reducing stormwater runoff and recharging groundwater supplies. This is what the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute calls a “permeable” system.

Pavers are made from high-strength concrete, so they can be used for foot or vehicular traffic, and they’re now manufactured in a variety of sizes, colors, and shapes. When installed over the correct base, they can handle up to 4 inches of rain in a one- or two-day period without surface pooling, says David Pitre, chairman of the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute.

Concrete grids made from precast pieces that incorporate internal spaces filled with grass or gravel also allow the free passage of water. Turfstone Grid Pavers and Oberfields Grid Pavers are two brands available.

The market share of permeable paving products doubled between 2000 and 2010, and is on track to double again this decade, Pitre says. Many local environmental advocacy groups and watershed districts now call for some type of permeable pavement, which should give these products a continued boost.

There also are “pervious” forms of concrete and “porous” asphalt that allow water to pass directly through. Flow rates can hit 5 gallons per minute per square foot, according to the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association. That puts the use of these products on the Environmental Protection Agency’s “best practices” list, and makes them eligible for points under the LEED for Homes green rating system.

Making Installation Easier

A shortage of skilled labor for hardscape crews has prompted Anchor Wall Systems to design wall components that are both faster and easier to install, says Mike More, director of the company’s wholesale business unit. The same features may make segmental concrete walls more attractive to do-it-yourselfers as well.

Products such as Anchor’s Torpedo base block, the ShortCut cap, and the Diamond 10D wall system are designed to simplify and speed up installation, More says.

Similarly, Versa-Lok’s pinning system is designed to make it easier for pros and DIYers alike to create curves, wall seats, and other features, says Matt Singer, director of national sales and training.

Azek has also developed a line of composite pavers that install in interlocking grids. The system keeps spacing uniform, and the company says that the blocks—made from scrap tires and plastics—are half the weight of concrete blocks and can be installed three times faster. According to Azek, the pavers have kept more than 18 million pounds of scrap out of U.S. landfills.

Look for More Stylish Materials

George Gehring, creative director of the consulting and product development firm Metaphor, says that both concrete pavers and segmental walls are among the most rapidly expanding hardscape product lines.

Larger-format pavers measuring 12, 16, and even 24 inches on a side, as well as paver planks measuring 6 by 24 inches, are becoming increasingly popular, he says, as are fully vitrified ceramic planks from companies such as Mirage and Florim. Techo Block also makes a variety of pavers in contemporary shapes, and New World Stoneworks will cut stone to custom shapes and sizes and number the pieces for easy installation.

For Gehring, it’s all part of a new focus on more decorative hardscape offerings. “The consumer is looking for design touches that can reflect their personal style and pick up the decorative quality of the landscape,” he says.

Pitre suggests creating the best possible sales atmosphere. “[Hardscape retailers] should be like Starbucks,” he says. “Create that friendly appeal so customers can look at different ideas that they can incorporate into their homes.”