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Patio Living

The patio is back.

There was a time, back when Mom and Dad were newlyweds, that patios were everywhere. Baby boomers in the 1950s grew up in suburban, look-alike ranch homes that featured back yards with little concrete pads big enough for a few lawn chairs, a charcoal grill and a couple of tiki-style citronella candles.

The patio fell from favor when the boomers bought their own homes and equipped them with sprawling outdoor decks constructed from pressure-treated lumber. Now, the pendulum is swinging back.

"I think that what has happened is that people are getting tired of the maintenance their decks need," said Al Sickles, a landscape designer in North Canton, Ohio. "I've seen decks that were falling apart after only six or seven years, and it just gets harder to maintain them with every passing year."

Increasingly, he said, homeowners are replacing their decks with patios built from brick or concrete pavers, or with combination deck-patios that avoid what Sickles calls "the boat-dock look." One attraction of patios is that homeowners can build one themselves to save money or hire a professional to save time. Either way, it's possible to add a patio behind your home in as little as one weekend.

Let's start by looking at the do-it-yourself route, and then consider the advantages of hiring a pro.

Homeowners who want to save money and enjoy the pleasures of building a patio with their own hands are likely to start by visiting their local home center and asking for help from someone such as Rob Hamer. Hamer, a landscape designer in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, advises customers on the best materials and construction methods for the patio they want to build.

Hamer and Sickles both said that one reason for the increased popularity of patios over decks is the improved selection of materials. The standard of the past — red paving bricks — is still available, but is increasingly challenged by a wide variety of concrete paving stones that come in many different shapes and colors.

Weathered-looking, earth-tone pavers that are reminiscent of cobblestones are popular with consumers who have a traditional style of home, while sharp-edged blocks in unusual colors and forms are favored by people trying to build a patio for a contemporary style home, Hamer said.

He said that manufacturers encourage do-it-yourselfers by providing free booklets that give amateurs step-by-step instructions on the design and construction of patios. "If a couple came in here and told me they wanted to build their own patio, I'd give them a project pack they could take home," he said. Hamer said he will happily design a patio for customers, but most people want to do that job themselves.

Traditionally, patios have been shaped like rectangles, which are easier to design and build. However, consumers are increasingly interested in patios with curved borders, and Hamer said there's no reason do-it-yourselfers can't build curves. The key, he stressed, is renting a special masonry saw called a wet saw, which features a diamond blade. "If you just take your time, it won't be that difficult," he said. The wet saw is available at tool-rental companies.

Once the design is finished, the next step is to determine its area in square feet. With this figure, it's simple to plan how much material you need to purchase. Basically, the materials you need are paving stones, edging material, and base material (either sand or crushed stone). There's a wide range of prices for pavers, but Hamer calculated that a typical 250-square-foot patio would cost the consumer $500 to $1,000 in materials. That would cover an area slightly larger than a rectangle 12 by 20 feet. That many blocks and stones are too heavy to transport in the back of a car, so homeowners who don't own a truck will either have to borrow or rent one or pay for delivery.

With the materials in hand, the last step is to actually build the patio. The best method, Hamer said, is for the homeowner to start by tilling up the space, removing 4 inches of topsoil, then putting down 2 inches of crushed stone. The stone is then tamped down with a handheld brick or a special compacting tool. It's fairly easy to get this area flat by "screeding" the base with a long piece of lumber, then to install the edging material on the compacted base.

Hamer advises homeowners to lay the paving stones one-quarter inch apart. This gap is essential to keeping the pavers straight and level over the seasons, he said. A good guide is to use a paint stirring stick to set the gap between the stones. With the stones in place, dump some sand on top of the pavers and use a broom to sweep the sand into the gaps. The sand-filled cracks act as expansion joints, preventing frost from disrupting the surface. The final step is to hose the area down, helping the sand settle in the joints.

An amateur should expect to work about eight hours to complete about 100 square feet. A single person should be able to complete a 250-square-foot patio in about three days.

"The most common mistake people make is not allowing themselves enough time," Hamer said. "I've seen people buy materials Saturday for a patio they plan to use on Sunday."

If you're not particularly eager to dig dirt or haul blocks, you're probably a candidate for hiring professionals. In that case, you'd seek out someone such as Sickles.

"If a person said they wanted us to design their patio, the first thing I'd do is make an appointment to go to their home and inspect the area," Sickles said. He'd draw a site plan noting the need for landscaping buffers, traffic flow and presence of windows and doors on the house.

Sickles would ask how much use the patio will get. "Is it something that a couple will use to sit outside and drink coffee, or will they use the patio to throw polka parties?" The use determines the size.

Generally, Sickles said, a 250-square-foot patio is large enough for a grill, a small collection of patio furniture and space for foot traffic. "We've done projects of 600 square feet or more, but 250 square feet is what most people need," he suggested.

When Sickles designs a patio, he tries to avoid straight lines. Curved borders are more appealing, he said, and it makes it easier to place landscaping around the patio. Most clients, he has found, hire a professional because they want more than a hard surface for patio furniture: They want it to be enclosed by landscaping and other elements that give it the feeling of an outdoor room.

That's why Sickles' design will include things such as evergreen screens, flowering shrubs, decorative trees and a selection of plants that provide colorful blooms in spring, summer and fall. Depending on the client, he might include space for potted annuals, fire pits, stone sitting walls and outdoor lighting.

Obviously, such a job costs more than a do-it-yourself project, but consumers get more than an installed patio, Sickles said. They also get a professionally executed design.

The materials are installed by skilled workers who are more likely to recognize if the site requires special treatment because of drainage issues or other problems, Sickles said. He added that he's seen many amateur installations since he started working as a landscaper in 1983, and that it's his impression that do-it-yourselfers don't work hard enough to create a solid, well-drained base that will remain smooth and level.

Hamer, who has installed plenty of patios over the years, argues that amateurs who want to do a quality job can get professional results if they just take enough time.

"I could probably complete one of these projects in half the time it would take an amateur," he said. "But there's no reason why the quality couldn't be just as good."

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company