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How to Take Jobs Beyond Decorative Concrete

The phrase “decorative concrete” means many things. Depending on your operation, it may mean specializing in one facet, such as concrete countertops, or it may mean everything from stamped concrete to polished concrete. Regardless of all the options within the world of “decorative concrete,” we tend to push the boundaries, with our clients’ demands and requests pushing these boundaries the most.

Colorado Hardscapes installed decorative concrete, standard gray concrete, tree grates, benches, planters and bollards at Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver. Photos courtesy of Colorado Hardscapes
Colorado Hardscapes installed decorative concrete, standard gray concrete, tree grates, benches, planters and bollards at Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver. Photos courtesy of Colorado Hardscapes

We, as Colorado Hardscapes, push ourselves in the decorative concrete arena when it involves plain concrete, site furnishings and water features. Other concrete contractors include pavers within their hardscape offerings, as well. So, when does it make sense for concrete contractors to do more than their specialty? Shouldn’t all of us just stick to what we do best, which is decorative concrete in one shape or another?

Technically, yes. However, as a result of our specialty in one area, the transition into another is simple and natural, such as providing uncolored concrete and site furnishings. Water features, on the other hand, require more complex involvement. But each of these additions to our provided services stems from the same place: General contractors or owners turn to us for help because the additional service ties into the decorative services we provide. Either that or they didn’t know who else to turn to.

Non-decorative concrete

Like many of you, I find standard gray, broom-finished concrete a bit boring. However, we have lost jobs in the past because we didn’t want to do the boring concrete. Now, we talk to general contractors to see if they would like us to package all of the concrete or just focus on the decorative concrete.

Most of the time, they want us to package everything together. They reason that it makes their life easier and they know the level of quality we deliver. Typically, the conversation is frank and I tell them we will be more expensive on the gray concrete than other contractors. Setting those expectations early helps with the discussion, as some are chasing the low dollar and will request we just focus on specialty concrete. Others appreciate the package deal and, as a result, specialty decorative concrete contractors like us are placing some of the finest non-decorative concrete out there.

Site furnishings

Setting a bench here or there may sound simple, but if you’re involved in the process, you know site furnishings mean more than bolting down a bench to your new slab of concrete.

The demand for one contractor to provide the site package drove Colorado Hardscapes to include site furnishings as well as the standard gray concrete flatwork and curbs.
The demand for one contractor to provide the site package drove Colorado Hardscapes to include site furnishings as well as the standard gray concrete flatwork and curbs.

We recently completed a project here in Denver for a new hospital complex. Our scope included the decorative site concrete, boring gray concrete and installing the site furnishings. Originally, I had the same mindset many of you have and told the general contractor we would rather not install the site furnishings and just stick to our specialty, namely concrete flatwork. But after several meetings, it became clear we had to do the site furnishings as well, for three reasons:

  • The site furnishings were to be installed on or in our freshly placed concrete.
  • The furnishings were high quality and required the same level of perfectionism and management as our concrete to be installed correctly.
  • Us doing the install meant there was one less major item the general contractor had to worry about and one less contractor on the already-complex jobsite.

As a result, we worked through the site-furnishing package with them. We helped price out each item, explored the options, and purchased and installed an extensive site furnishing package that encompassed bollards, tree grates, trench drains, benches, tables, umbrellas and chairs.

I could argue both ways whether installing site furnishings makes sense for us or not, but it certainly worked in this case. I also think it’s important for exterior concrete contractors to know how to install bollards, trench drains and tree grates as they integrate comprehensively with concrete paving. This project also worked well for us as it ran through winter. So, on days the weather limited our concrete pours, our men installed site furnishings.

Water features

It seems logical for us to also handle a project’s uncolored concrete and site furnishings since they are usually near decorative concrete. However, water features are another story and I don’t recommend delving into this area unless you understand how they can get complicated.

By understanding the elements that go into water feature design and construction, Colorado Hardscapes installed this remarkable feature in the heart of Denver.
By understanding the elements that go into water feature design and construction, Colorado Hardscapes installed this remarkable feature in the heart of Denver.

We started doing water features 20-some years ago as they integrated with the rock we create. Back then, it was a matter of figuring out the weir height, sheet flow, recirculating pump size and splash zone. These days our water features are much more complex. What has really expanded our water feature division and made us “dive right in” are interactive splash pads.

After we had installed a few concrete pads for splash features, we realized general contractors hated to have to deal with so many entities — the electrician, plumber, concrete contractor, utilities contractor, health department and water feature designer — to get the feature completed. Because water features are so complex, if one thing goes wrong, it can be a disaster.

Everyone we talked to wished someone would just take the water feature and run with it. So, that’s what we did and now we install turn-key water features. We work with designers and owners on the front end, and then provide the installation, including all of the mechanical work, testing, concrete (of course) and start-up.

Water features entail the same mindset as many high-end decorative concrete projects. They require a lot of work before we connect anything in the ground. But my favorite part, as a concrete contractor, is the early-on involvement with the decorative concrete finishes. We suggest colors, design and layout that work best for each situation. Everyone involved takes pride in the end result: Designers are thrilled their design intent is reality; owners are thrilled they have a water feature as promised; general contractors are thrilled they only had to write one subcontract for the feature and manage one sub throughout the entire process; and we are thrilled to have control over every aspect to ensure a quality project.

Last year, we had the opportunity to work on the historic Denver Union Station. Although the iconic water feature project was void of decorative concrete, it came our way because no one else in the city had the expertise to install a complex water feature. Consequently, Colorado Hardscapes installed an intricate, 92-nozzle, interactive water feature in the heart of Denver. Despite the lack of decorative concrete on the project, we’re proud of our involvement as a result of our willingness to open our doors to more than decorative concrete.

I’m not saying you should try to land every plain concrete, site furnishings or water feature project you can, but I recommend listening to your clients. If certain requests continue to come your way, most likely there’s an unmet need in your area and an opportunity for your company to fill that need as the go-to contractor.

Karen Van Heukelem wears many hats at Denver-based Colorado Hardscapes Inc., including business development, marketing, sales, estimating and project management, with an emphasis on specialty rock construction. She can be reached at karen@coloradohardscapes.com.

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