If you’re looking for a stylish and sturdy outdoor flooring option, paving is an obvious choice
By Catherine Stewart
Enjoying time outside is one of life’s great pleasures, whether you’re cooking up a storm with friends, or just quietly relaxing with your family. For a patio or deck you need a durable, elegant flooring surface that copes with all kinds of weather as well as play, and the odd spill, too. Paving is an obvious choice, but there’s quite a variety from which you can choose.
Pavers are made out of three main materials — clay, concrete and stone. To choose which paver will be best for your outdoor area, work your way through some decision points based on look, purpose, size of the area to be paved, site conditions, durability and ecological sustainability, as well as your budget.
Get that look
For a patio immediately outside your house, you might want to match its look to what’s inside, so the two floors blend together. Although interior flooring is not usually suitable for outdoors, there are a few products that can do both jobs, or manufacturers that make complementary products, such as Amber’s Epos tiles and Newstone pavers. Take some photos of your flooring with you to paving outlets so you can compare. Outdoor light is brighter, so look for something a little darker than your inside flooring, and always ask to see pavers on the ground, not just up on a display board.
If there will be a retaining wall nearby, plan ahead for how the two surfaces will work together. Matching paving and walling can ‘stretch out’ the apparent dimensions of a small garden, a bit like matching floor and wall tiles in a small bathroom.
You can use pavers to help you evoke a particular garden style, too. Old-fashioned formal gardens look good with smaller, dark pavers, especially laid herringbone with contrasting banding or internal patterns. Rustic, country styles work well with sandstock colours and brick-sized pavers. Minimalist modern gardens suit large, sharp-edged pavers in pale grey to charcoal.
If your pavers will be used for steps or edging, you might check if there is a matching bullnose paver in the range. Precast internal or external corners and curves save on laying costs in an odd-shaped area. In some top-of-the-line pavers, you can order special shapes.
Fit the bill
If you’re planning an outdoor kitchen area then you’ll need something that either resists or doesn’t show the inevitable staining from fats, spices such as tumeric, and red wine. Speckled, mottled or busier patterning is a sensible choice — and avoid porous pavers. Ceramic pavers and granite are denser and more stain resistant, especially if sealed as well. For children’s play areas, you might want darker colours that disguise wheeled-toy scuff marks, and possibly a smoother, more even surface for sitting on.
Around swimming pools and spas you’ll need to think of resistance to chlorine or salt attack, using a paver classed as ‘Exposure Grade’, as well as checking its non-slip rating, described as ‘W’ for low slip, or ‘V’ for very low slip.
The size of the space also influences the size and colour of the paver. Often a large-format, pale-coloured paver, especially one set on a diagonal, will make a small space seems larger. Conversely, big areas of paving look better when the surface is broken up with banding using some smaller unit pavers, pebbles and cobbles, or patterned pavers, randomly placed contrast pavers and small planted areas.
Set your sites
Have a good look at the site conditions for your paved area, such as sun and shade, levels, surrounding garden and soil quality. In a hot, sunny spot, dark pavers will be too hot to walk on barefoot. Equally, avoid very pale, smooth pavers as they reflect lots of glare, especially back into the house. A mid to light colour with a textured or more porous surface is ideal. In dark, shady areas, you’ll need dense pavers that resist moisture so they don’t grow mould and mildew, which makes them slippery.
What surrounds and lies underneath your pavers is also important. If you’ve lots of large trees around, choose smaller unit pavers which can suffer a little upheaval without cracking or making too many trip risks. Overhanging trees always drop leaves, so if you can’t sweep regularly you’ll need good stain resistance, or a mottled paver such as an Indian sandstone or perhaps a speckled terrazzo.
You’ll also need to look at the subgrade over which you plan to lay your pavers. If you have relatively stable soil, you should be able to lay up to a mid-sized paver (around 300 x 300mm) on a compacted subgrade and bedding sand. On clay soil that’s slippery, plastic or spongy when wet, you will need to either excavate soil and bring in a more stable subgrade, or pour a reinforced concrete slab first to give your pavers a firm base, especially if you want to use larger unit pavers.
Make sure there’s a drainage fall across the pavers of at least 1:100 but no more than 1:50 so they still feel level, but check the manufacturer’s recommendations.
You can also use pavers on a deck. Rather than support them on bedding sand or mortar, you use small plastic supports, such as Elmich’s VersiPave GP or Durotech’s Duropave. The adjustable supports hold the pavers above the deck and a set distance apart without mortar or sealant, so you can easily take up the pavers if necessary and you can conceal services underneath.
To be eco-friendly, look at whether a paver is made from local or imported materials, the amount of energy in its manufacture and the use of recycled or waste materials. Naturebond pavers are made from Timbercrete, which replaces the sand used to make the concrete with woodwaste, so the pavers are very light, lock up carbon, and are also made by machinery running on biodiesel. Zeostone uses geopolymer technology to replace energy-hungry cement. There are also permeable pavers such as Boral’s Hydrapave, which allow some stormwater to penetrate to a reservoir below and then flow to a storage tank.
Pavers range in price from a budget-conscious $20/sqm for small concrete pavers up to $150/sqm for quality, sawn-all-round large natural stone flags. What really costs are the special pieces, such as bullnosing, and internal or external corners; these can add up to more dollars than the rest of your paving. Clay pavers start at around $32/sqm for small sizes and up to $70 for larger 400x400mm sizes. Real stone, such as sandstone, bluestone or limestone, starts at $75/sqm, and you might be able to use thinner tiles rather than pavers (maybe $10 less) if you’ve got a concrete base.
The overall job costs a lot more if there’s lots of cutting. An irregular-shaped area, curves, intricate patterns and large pavers really add on the dollars. Try and design your paved area so it’s a multiple of your paver width, or choose a size that fits with what you’ve already got, not forgetting to allow around 5mm gap between pavers.
Keep in mind pavers might look hard, but they can still get damaged in adverse conditions. Metal-tipped stiletto heels, heavy gas bottles, trolleys and skateboards can all cause chipping or cracking, especially on step edges. Buy in extra pavers at the start in case replacements are needed.
Flexible or rigid laying?
Flexible laying means the pavers are laid over a compacted subgrade onto a screeded sand bedding course, the joints filled with a brushed-in fine, dry sand and then lightly compacted into place with a vibrating plate compactor. Flexible paving needs a stable edging, such as a mortared line of edging pavers, and is good for smaller pavers, pedestrian-only traffic and tighter budgets. Take care to use the right bedding sand, as too many fines bring salts up into the pavers, causing a whitish efflorescence on the paver surface.
Rigid laying is bonding pavers with mortar onto a reinforced concrete slab. It’s very stable, necessary for large pavers and where the subsoil is clayey and plastic. Mortar must be weaker than the pavers so they don’t crack, and expansion joints are critical, requiring a saw cut through the pavers every few metres, as concrete shrinks as it ages. Clay pavers will also ‘grow’, compounding the problem. Efflorescence can be an issue if water penetrates the pavers, dissolving the free calcium hydroxide in the concrete base.
Close bonds and corners
How pavers are laid is called the bond. Stretcher bond has the joints alternating like a brick wall, while a stacked bond lines them up. Herringbone forms a diagonal zig-zag, and basketweave has rectangles in a two-up, two-down pattern. French bond is currently fashionable, using a mix of rectangular and square pieces in a range of patterns, such as Boral’s Precinct, which sells as a 14-piece set. You can also buy cobblestones in stone or concrete with a mesh back to lay as a paver, or unit pavers that look like random pebbles, such as Boral’s River Pebble.
Discuss with your contractor how pavers will be cut around corners and obstacles, whether areas will have a separate paver ‘frame’ around the outside, and where smaller gap-filling pieces or expansion sawcuts might go, as your choices might differ.
Clay: Clay pavers are made from locally sourced clays which are either extruded and wire cut to size, or pressed into shape and then kiln fired. The colour range covers dark chocolate through burnt oranges to pale cream. Moda and Estilo ceramic pavers from Austral are also made from clay but use a very fine clay grind and a pressed ‘cookie cutter’ manufacturing process, which gives a very smooth, satiny texture and accurate dimensions. They’re available in large-format sizes and colours that include greys, near-black and off-white.
Concrete: Either wet-cast or dry pressed into moulds, they are often made to imitate natural stone. Wet-poured concrete pavers can have colour from added pigments (which can fade over time) or coloured sands, moulds that create textured surfaces, or added aggregates to make pebblecretes and terrazzo. Dry pressed concrete pavers often have a quantity of ground or chipped natural stone to give them the look of real stone. They are more porous and soft, making them easy to damage when laying.
Stone: Split or cut from sandstone, bluestone (basalt), granite, marble or limestone (including travertine). Some stone is Australian but many are now imported, such as the harder (but cheaper) Indian sandstone, and granites from China. Stone paving can be sawn into regular shapes, or more informal crazy paving is making a comeback, especially with very large irregular flags set amid small infill pieces.
Large or Small?
Pavers have been getting bigger, with some now more than a metre across. This creates difficulties for a contractor, as paving must be laid on a reinforced slab, each paver can be a two-man lift and, unless the area is just the right size, there’s lots of cumbersome cutting and wastage. However, with a trend in garden design away from pared-back minimalism to a more natural, easy-going look, the smaller paver (300x300mm or less) is likely to make a comeback.