The rockwork is natural, but the structure underneath is concrete. GCS used a belt and suspenders approach with 6-inch-thick structurally reinforced concrete with a waterproofing admixture, plus a 45-to 65-mil sheet membrane underneath. Workers place the concrete with a pump and place the desired shapes with a hand trowel. Crews stamp and chemically stain the concrete afterward to provide a natural backdrop for the rock.
The project featured a 6000-square-foot, dry-shotcrete pool and a rock-patterned stamped concrete deck with integral colored concrete and dry-shake hardener accents. The pool cabana is in the background.

Editor's note: These stories first appeared in RESIDENTIAL CONCRETE, THE CONCRETE PRODUCER's sister publication.

Landscaping is not defined by its traditional focus on plantings, turf, and irrigation. Clients are now demanding sophisticated hardscapes that encompass many facets of the concrete.

Backyard settings now range from water features built with either shotcrete or concrete, concrete pavers, cast cement-based structural stone, and stamped concrete flatwork. Other concrete uses include the dramatic rise in concrete countertops on barbecues to structural concrete used in outdoor fireplaces, fire pits, raised planters, arbors, and underlayment for natural rock paving.

GCS is a design/build landscaping firm in Woodbridge, Calif., that specializes in large private estates. A typical GCS project encompasses five to 80 acres and lasts from two to four years. These estates usually cost $5 million to $25 million. All of GCS's landscape designs include hardscapes, often highlighting concrete features.

Concrete is so predominant that a portable concrete batch plant is maintained onsite. In-house crews perform all the work, other than electrical and pool plaster. Crews are trained and promoted from within the organization. The company views training as the most important investment it can make.

High-end clients typically spend more on the landscape than they do on the residence, making it even more important that all designs match and views from all of the structural components work together.

Clients also frequently love water, so including multiple water features was paramount on a recently completed 4.2-acre private estate project in northern California. The site provided GCS planners an initial flat, blank canvas with no structures or vegetation.

Designing around water

The house's design began in conjunction with the landscape design. GCS planners considered view angles, destination points, transition, and overall flow in the landscape as they laid out the primary design criteria around the water features and other hardscapes. The client also wanted to be able to entertain 250 people comfortably and elegantly. This presented a design challenge because the homeowners also should be able to entertain a very small group comfortably.

GCS accomplished this with hardscape design, elevation change, and isolation of areas with proper planting design. Concrete played a key role:

  • Three concrete fountains formed vessels with European-type cast stone applied to the outer skin.
  • A 6000-square-foot swimming pool featured a 125-foot-long waterfall. The pool was gunited and the waterfall base is poured concrete.
  • The landscape alone included more than 3500 pieces of European-type cast stone. GCS manufactured more than half of these. There also was 11,000 square feet of concrete pavers in the driveway and 9000 square feet of decorative stamped concrete.
  • Crews installed 8500 square feet of concrete slab with rock paving.
  • More than 200 cubic yards of additional concrete was poured around the landscape, including wall footings, grouting, and vaults.
  • A crew of eight completed the landscaping in 33 months. GCS started with a bare piece of land and brought in 655 truckloads of soil, more than 16,000 tons of which was used to sculpture and texture the landscaping. The hardscape features are the focal points of the project. Executing a project of this size and complexity requires meticulous planning and finite scheduling.

    — Bill Goddard is the principal and founder of GCS. He writes articles in a variety of landscape publications and gives seminars across the country on both subjects.