Guide to Paving: Styles, Costs, and Alternatives
Paving, including concrete, stone, and tile, and paving alternatives, like gravel and mulch, are the materials we walk, sit, cook, eat, and play on in a landscape design. We’ll discuss different types of paving (hard surfaces), and some alternative surface materials that can be used to create functional paths and spaces.
Large Concrete Pavers: $24 per square foot (precast); $60 per square foot (custom)
People love the look of large rectangular or square concrete pavers set with narrow gaps filled by low planting or decorative rock.
There are two ways to achieve this: precast pavers or custom poured concrete.
Custom pours require a wood mold for each individual concrete paver – this adds up to a lot of labor. Complex patterns and larger paver sizes require custom pours. Many contractors prefer to always pour, finding it to be safer, easier, and less prone to failure down the road.
Precast pavers are purchased hard and ready-to-install. Landscape supply outlets typically carry large pavers at 2’x2’, but rarely larger. Some manufacturers make larger paver sizes, but these are typically custom orders whose high purchase and shipping price negates any savings from avoiding a custom pour.
Once installed, precast pavers are more prone to upheaving or settling independently – the crisp path you begin with may get a little wavy with time if soil is unstable or tree roots are a factor.
Whatever your installation method, so-called “gapped” pavers are better for paths or seating areas where furniture will not be shifted too much. The gaps are not ideal for cooking or dining areas, where a chef could trip or a dining chair leg could slip between pavers.
Standard Concrete Pavers: $24 per square foot (sand-set); $60 per square foot (mortar-set)
As a category, precast concrete pavers are the most affordable type of paver, though their prices vary with size and style.
For residential use, pavers are often brick-sized (4”x 8”) or slightly larger. These smaller scale pavers establish a comfortable, intimate feel.
Want something fancier? Go bigger. The larger the paver, the more formal things feel.
Modern designs skew toward cool gray tones, while traditional designs often lean on warmer neutrals. Modern or not, it’s a nice touch to select pavers that mimic or complement the regional landscape.
Install pavers with any standard pattern – we often go with herringbone and multi-size Versailles patterns. In many cases, manufacturers design pavers to interlock, even in multi-sized patterns, making installation quick and simple.
Mortar-set pavers are installed above a concrete slab, and cost significantly more than standard sand-set pavers, which rest on compacted rock and sand. The good news is that sand-set is a great approach for most residential paving jobs.
Brick: $24 per square foot
Brick costs and acts like concrete pavers, but conveys a more historic feel. Bold red feels particularly traditional; visible wear and neutral hues feel more rustic and contemporary.
Add a coat of whitewash to give brick a versatile, vintage look. Whitewash leaves brick a pale pink with white splotches, which gives you more stylistic options – a broader array of materials and colors will pair well with whitewashed brick than they will with bold red brick.
There are tons of great brick patterns, but if you ask us, patios and spaces meant for lingering prefer less linear patterns, like herringbone or basket weave.
Concrete: $18 – $22 per square foot
Cost-effective, versatile, and super durable, concrete looks great in almost any landscape style.
You can adjust its color and texture for aesthetic effect, and to improve slip-resistance. Try darker concrete in lush, enclosed spaces, or brighter concrete in sunny, open areas. Use a broom-finish texture to amp up the slip resistance on paths, pool decks and cooking areas.
Short of asphalt, a basic concrete slab is the cheapest paving option. Even with texture or color treatments, concrete is still cheaper than most pavers.
While attractive at smaller sizes, concrete slabs feel commercial and cold when they get too large (big slabs also cost a lot). We suggest humanizing the scale by applying a pattern – this could be a diamond or square grid of score joints, or a stamped design.
Stamped concrete emulates an array of paving materials, from natural stone to complex paver patterns, and is suitable for paths, patios, and and other lighter-duty areas, just don’t use it for a driveway, where it is prone to cracking.
Tile $45 – $65 per square foot
Tiles are made from clay or porcelain, and require a concrete base, hence the higher price tag.
Clay Saltillo tiles are great for Mexican patio designs, and pair well with colorful accent strips of patterned tiles – try these patterned tiles on the risers of steps or as a band offset a foot or two from the edge of a seating area.
Porcelain tiles run the gamut of colors and styles, and are super durable.
In general, tiles are a great choice to elevate the look of outdoor spaces – they look nice – just be careful when using them in a wet environment, as they can get slippery.
Stone: $60 per square foot
Stone is super durable, and boasts attractive natural color variation that is hard to beat.
For a natural look, install stone pavers with curving edges. For a more upscale look, go with large stone pavers cut to rectangular dimensions.
Stone is at the top of the paving price spectrum, particularly if you opt to mortar-set it.
To offset cost, get local stone. You’ll save on shipping costs, and your stone will evoke the regional landscape. In the northeast, go with bluestone; the northwest, basalt; the southwest, sandstone or Mexican travertine.
Decking: $65 per square foot
Decking is a structure – even decks built to be flush with the surrounding yard require an underground frame to support the surface planks.
With the price of wood through the roof, composite decking like TimberTech has emerged as the best option for decking materials – it’s super versatile, easy to work with, looks great, and has a strong sustainability pedigree.
Our advice: build decks where you need them, and keep them simple. Decks can unlock function for yards with tricky terrain, but paving is typically a more cost-effective option in flat spaces.
Gravel + Small Stone: $6 – $10 per square foot
Gravel is a workhorse material. It’s cheap, durable, able to be relocated, and attractive (in a rustic way) in a variety of design styles.
It’s also permeable, allowing water to drain through it – this helps to reduce flooding, erosion, and water pollution.
Gravel looks great adjacent to solid paving, and is great for casual dining areas, fire pits, or raised-bed gardens.
Stick to smaller gravel sizes for paths or seating areas – rock above 1’ diameter is not comfortable for walking on. If children will be playing in it, go with rounded gravel (though we advise keeping babies and toddlers out of gravel – they tend to eat it). Keep gravel separated from the edge of pools by a few feet to avoid kicking it into the water.
For non-walking areas, larger river rock or Mexican pebbles can be applied, either as a decorative material or as a mulch in a planting bed.
If using a stone mulch, be mindful of sunlight. Stone placed in full sun absorbs heat and warms the soil beneath it, and should only be used with plants that can tolerate heat. Stone mulch in the shade avoids this complication.
As with larger stone paving, look for local gravel or rock mulch to match the look of your region and cut back on costs.
Decomposed Granite: $12 per square foot
“DG” costs a bit more than gravel, but offers a smoother walking surface. It’s fairly safe for dogs and kids, though it will scrape the occasional elbow, and can scratch wood floors if tracked inside.
DG is popular in a tan color that evokes rustic southwestern landscapes – corten planters, tan DG, and limestone accents are a classic combination. In the northern US, DG is more common in a cool gray tone, evocative of bluestone.
Use DG for informal paths and seating areas, the same as you’d use gravel. Separate it from exterior doors with at least a few footsteps’ worth of another material to knock it off your shoes.
We don’t recommend DG as a mulch. It drains very slowly, forms puddles, and deprives plants of oxygen. For a seamless look between DG zones and planting areas, select gravel mulch to match the color of DG.
Mulch: $2 per square foot
Mulch is cheap, portable, and easy to install and replace. The right mulch is safe as a child or dog play surface (check out our blog posts about Dog-Friendly Yards and Kid-Friendly Landscaping), too. It is not, however, going to replace a travertine pool deck.
Use mulch where it feels fitting: surrounded by planting, beneath tree canopies, in areas with a natural, informal feel. It’s a great cost-effective choice for spaces with a forested flavor, but should generally be avoided for high traffic or high visibility zones.
Artificial Turf: $20 per square foot
We tend to think of artificial turf as softscape, but it’s perhaps the most versatile landscape surface available. Turf is easy to maintain, generally quite durable, and can be very attractive. Functionally, it turns on a dime from play area to picnic zone, and can even be used as a pool deck substitute.
Turf gets hot in direct sun, and tends to degrade more quickly with prolonged sun exposure. It pays to invest in higher quality turf products – they perform better and last longer, generating a lower lifetime cost than cheaper materials.
Check out our Guide to Grass Alternatives to learn more about turf!
Surface materials are a principle tool for designers to define spaces and establish a style in a landscape. A little up-front investment can save you down the road – higher quality materials tend to last longer and require less maintenance.
This said, don’t go overboard – target the priority areas for nice paving, and lean on more cost-effective materials for secondary zones.
Whatever material you choose, make sure it complements not only your landscape but your home’s exterior as well. Explore our Exterior Design packages.
Our advice: keep it simple. Limit the number of materials you use, and the amount of paving you install. This will ensure a cohesive appearance, and keep your costs under control.