Photo courtesy of Fontaine Landscaping

Designing and installing walkways and paths seems like a simple venture, but it takes planning to deliver a quality project. “Site prep is everything,” says Jim Conway, president of All Services Landscaping in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

“We take the most time getting the base right in order to ensure the longevity of the product. If the base isn’t correct, the path will fail within a year or two,” Conway says.

Common problems include washout, buckling and shifting of materials. Here’s what to consider when creating walks and paths.

Choose the right product.

Pavers and natural stone are the most commonly used materials. Conway says many of the homes in his area are historic, so a paver walk, with its traditional look, is preferred. In less formal settings, such as a path through a wooded area, natural stone is an alternative. Stamped concrete also is requested by clients in some areas of the country.

Because it’s difficult for clients to visualize colors and textures out of a catalogue, bring samples with you, or meet clients at a vendor display site. “We find it’s easier when clients can see the styles and patterns laid out in front of them,” says Kevin Bolt Fontaine, owner and president of Fontaine Landscaping in Holly Springs, North Carolina. Or use a 3D software program to superimpose the client’s house with the completed design.

Our experts surveyed say cost is similar for most products, ranging from about $22 to 25 per square foot for pavers and about $5 to 10 more per square foot for natural stone. Concrete is somewhat less expensive (by half in some parts of the country), but it’s not the product of choice for most contractors.

“We do concrete, but we prefer the design impact of pavers in most settings,” Conway says. Upsells include drainage work, lighting, plantings or refacing adjoining steps with stone.

Some companies quote by the project, rather than by the square foot. “We see too much variation depending on the complexity of the job,” says James Ulmer, owner of Back to Nature Landscaping and Construction in Blacksburg, Virginia. “Almost every house is on a hill here, which makes accessibility more challenging.”

Future-proof your design.

Because a properly installed walkway can last for decades, think ahead. “If you have a large tree nearby, address the roots, which will eventually move your work around,” Conway says. Selective root pruning may be possible, but sometimes the only option is to remove the tree.

Drainage is a huge issue because of its potential to wash out your path. “Pay attention to where water is going,” Ulmer says. “Take into consideration downspouts or low areas.” Bury downspouts under the walkway, bring water to a pop-up emitter in the yard, or redirect water to a rain garden.

It’s always a good idea to place conduit beneath walks, too, in case of the installation of low voltage lighting or a fountain later on. “Even if a client doesn’t want to do anything right now, I always suggest this so they won’t have to tear up the whole walkway someday,” Fontaine says. “Use PVC, not black corrugated plastic that will collapse eventually.”

When designing, remember that a 3-to 4-foot wide path is most comfortable for walking. For stone, select pieces that are about 2 to 3 feet in width so you don’t have to watch your footsteps, says Fontaine.

Establish your foundation.

Every paver manufacturer offers installation specs, but there are general guidelines. For starters, excavate a minimum of 4 to 6 inches of topsoil. If you’re dealing with rich organic matter, excavate more deeply. All organic matter must be removed because it keeps decomposing and will cause the path to sink over time, Ulmer says. Excavate a few inches beyond the width of the path, too.

Next, compact and fill the excavated area with crush and run (also called crusher) gravel; check with your vendor to be sure you’re using the right product. A geotextile layer may be necessary to enhance stability with some soils. Spread and compact in 2- to 4-inch increments, creating a minimum 4-inch deep paver base.

Top with a layer of concrete sand of not more than 1.5 inches thick, not stone dust or regular sand. “This is where a lot of contractors go wrong by using the wrong sand,” Fontaine says. “You need angles in it so it locks in place. Regular sand is too round and erodes over time.” Use edge restraints to prevent pavers from shifting. As you work, level the path with a slight pitch away from the house for drainage. “We use a transit level and constantly shoot levels throughout the project,” Conway says. “Other methods are not accurate enough.”

Finish by dusting with polymeric sand, vibrating the sand into place with a plate compactor. Lightly spray with water, and let cure.

Dry laid natural stone paths are constructed in roughly the same manner. Wet laid stone walkways require the additional step of pouring a concrete pad with a layer of mortar, then the stone, then decorative grout. Most companies subcontract this type of work.

“I’ve collaborated with a stonemason for years, with both of us helping on each other’s jobs,” Conway says.

“If the base isn’t correct, the path will fail within a year or two.” Jim Conway, All Services Landscaping

For a more casual path, stone pieces are dug around to create a shallow bed, then concrete is laid and the stone Placed, rocking it back and forth and checking the level.

Offer maintenance work.

Because properly installed walks are trouble-free for many years, most companies don’t offer maintenance packages. However, some companies do provide repair services.

Fontaine Landscaping brings samples when meeting with clients instead of relying on catalog photos.
Photo courtesy of Fontaine Landscaping

“We do a lot of repair work, especially on older walkways that didn’t have a proper foundation,” Fontaine says.

Companies also offer periodic power-washing services to remove and replace old polymeric sand, which typically weathers away after three to five years.

Some companies seal walks to enhance the look of the pavers with a slight sheen. “We have some clients who just like that glossy look,” Ulmer says. “We feel it also prevents staining and preserves color.”

These add-on services vary widely in fees, ranging from a few dollars per square foot to a flat fee.

Stay up to date.

No matter how long you’ve been doing it, re-educate yourself about the latest technology. Organizations such as the Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI) also offer classes and certification that can be a valuable way to set yourself apart from the competition.

“We take paver classes and webinars frequently and always learn a new tip, like using a different saw or how to optimize your crew,” Conway says.

The author is a freelance writer based in the Northeast.