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What to consider before installing a patio

Because patios are rather permanent installations, it's worth the time and effort to build them right the first time. Removing or significantly altering a patio, particularly all the stone and concrete normally associated with one, is an arduous process. So allow ample time to plan your patio concept before the project begins. You want it to be right the first time.

Even a small patio can be an elaborate and expensive project. On the bright side, however, patios lend themselves to construction in stages. This way you can start small and expand or add refinements as time and money permit. But working in stages requires a clear plan in advance to avoid an end result that appears patchwork. In making a plan, take ideas from wherever you find them, such as magazines, movies and other yards you have visited. Keep a file of pictures.

Use quality materials for your patio, even if it seems too expensive at the time. If you want flagstone, then don't settle for concrete brick or other materials that you find less pleasing. Instead, build the project in stages. As an example, if indeed you want a flagstone patio, have the concrete slab poured first and then later add the flagstone. Build exactly the patio you want or you won't enjoy your time on it as much as you should.

Consider how much of the work you plan to do yourself, if any, and what you will contract out. Patio construction often involves a lot of digging and moving of heavy material, such as concrete and stone. So be realistic about how much you can do and what you can do. It's your back.

Architect or Designer?

We've all seen those photographs of stunning patios that regularly appear in magazines. The reason they look so stunning is because most of them were professionally designed. So in planning your patio, consider hiring a landscape architect or designer for your project. They have the education, experience, and imagination to turn ordinary into extraordinary.

An architect or architectural designer may be equally talented, skilled, and full of great ideas. The architect, however, is a university graduate who has served a required apprenticeship with a licensed architect before obtaining his or her own state license. An architectural designer may have worked equally long in the trade but generally is not required to have a university degree and is not state licensed as an architect. Other types of designers, such as interior designers, may be required to be state licensed.

What can design professionals do for you that a general contractor generally does not? First, they prepare the plans that will be submitted to the building inspector's office for review and approval before construction can start. They also bring vision, experience and structural expertise to the job to make sure it fits your goals and your budget. They provide the plans and specifications for the contractor to follow. There are also design/build contractors who include design services in their bids. And, of course, a contractor can follow plans that you draw up, and perhaps even enhance them.

Architects and architectural designers provide professional services, not products. Their rates are usually based on the time spent on your project. They may charge an hourly rate or a percentage of the total construction costs, often in the 8% to 15% range. Discuss fees in advance and have the designer specify exactly what you will receive in turn. Ask to see samples of their work and their list of references. Having clear plans in advance means that you are less likely to change your whole approach halfway through the job, which will increase your costs.

Hiring a landscape architect or designer doesn't mean you won't be a part of the design process. Quite the contrary. The more ideas and information you contribute, the better the designer can create exactly what you want—not what he or she thinks you want.

If a design professional does not seem to be in your patio budget, consider hiring one for just an hour or two. Call and ask the architect or designer if this is possible and what it would cost. During your meeting, explain your concept and then listen to the feedback. Make note of all the suggested alternative approaches. 

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