• James Ruben

A Systems Approach to Landscape Construction

Updated: Apr 7

Whether you’re a seasoned landscape professional or just getting started in the industry, a portfolio of innovative design/build schematics will streamline aspects of your business.

A systems approach to landscape construction provides the builder a higher level of cost analysis for materials and labor. Cocktail napkin estimates generally overestimate costs, leading to bloated line-items. Under estimating creates its own headaches.


Most builders today use square footage multipliers on their spreadsheet of choice. An alternative approach is a system of unit pricing.

Consider a mortared stone staircase, and all of the work that goes into it:

· Excavation

· Grading

· Compaction of drain rock

· Choosing one stone at a time from a pile

· Trimming

· Setting the stone on a scree of mortar

· Grouting the joints

· Acid etching

· Clean-up

· Hauling away the overage of raw materials and equipment

· Mitigating the damage to flanking plant materials


That’s a lot of considerations to build into a square footage multiplier.

A system’s approach to costing, looks at one step of the staircase at a time. The system in this example is a prefabricated modular step composed of a U-shape metal stair body, and an infilled tread.

Some of the benefits include:

· The fabrication is outsourced, freeing up time

· Grading is no more than levelling the embankment

· The stair bodies overlap and are staked into the ground

· A one-man crew can install ten steps a day needing only hand tools

· Various infill tread materials can be utilized

· Installation of the stair body does not disturb the flanking plant materials


In our example, stone flags can be cut to fit, laid on a bed of compacted base rock or mortar scree if grouting. The masonry material and labor costs are dramatically reduced, without losing the aesthetic of stone.

Other infills include:

· Brick

· Pavers

· Compacted Decomposed Granite

· Rammed Earth


Custom modular construction, as the example above, provides the builder with an equally durable stone staircase, along with the metal riser accent. Feathering prefabrication into our construction processes leads to cleaner and more cost-effective installations.


You know on the front-end of the project the exact:

· Material cost per stair body

· Material cost of your tread infill

· A standardized expectation of labor time per stair body to install and infill


Staging, on-site piles of raw materials and heavy equipment is all but eliminated. While your metal shop is producing your custom stair bodies, you can attend to other aspects of the project. And you can be more strategic in scheduling expensive skilled labor.


This Fabrication-to-Installation approach is most effective in the development of landscape features. This first 32-page How-To manual on Hillside Staircase is one example. It is a step-by-step guide for metal shop Fabrication, along with an Installation guide.

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