Ground Cover

Outdoor spaces are an important part of residential planning. When done well, they tend to draw people into the fresh air as well as add value to a home.

The environment--hot and dry, wet and shady--will determine the appropriate type of decking. Photo Courtesy of Patrick Beasley

One important aspect of these spaces is the choice of flooring. When considering the options, there are several items to be addressed:

  • What is the intended use?

  • Who will be using the flooring?

  • What is the slope and/or grade of the site?

  • Should ADA accessibility be considered?

  • What is the budget?

  • What are the surrounding materials and environment?

Asking these questions will help determine what materials are appropriate.

Some of the most commonly used options for outdoor flooring are:

  • Paving materials

  • Decking

  • Gravel

  • Stone.

In this article, the pros and cons of these materials will be explored as well as other factors to consider when selecting the appropriate flooring.

Paving Materials

Typically, there are two types of paving materials:

  • Pavers

  • Continuous or solid surfaces.

Pavers can be manufactured from concrete, clay, granite, and other materials. Paving materials are a great solution to outdoor flooring needs when conditions are right, and they are installed correctly.

For instance, clay has been used for centuries because it is abundantly available in many markets, and offers a classic appearance and pattern choice.

Other benefits are that clay typically does not fade in the sun, the pattern choices are desirable, the material choices are often available locally, and there are many skilled installers.

On the other hand, clay may not hold up well under heavy vehicular traffic, it can be difficult to match older brick, and it offers fewer colors and patterns than other paving materials.

Meanwhile, concrete pavers are a more recent product and have become widely used and respected for their versatility.

Your choice of flooring can impact the feel of your landscape design. Photo Courtesy of Patrick Beasley

These pavers offer unlimited choice of color, texture, pattern, style, and shape, and provide a long-lasting solution for flooring.

Concrete ensures a durable product that can withstand everything from foot traffic to heavy machinery and trucks. This permeable paving also offers solutions for storm-water management and environmental sensitivity.

All pavers offer many options with great versatility in color, pattern, and texture, as well as size. Be sure to consider options such as sealing and joint material.

Be creative with the design of space with color, pattern, and texture, and play off the architecture of the residence to extend the vertical spaces and patterns onto the hardscape surface.


Decking is a widely used and versatile option with many choices, including wood type, color, stain, and composite materials.

As Americans, we are blessed to live in a country full of wood resources, including both natural forests and planted “crops” of trees. Woodworking is a common trade and skill, from local father-son carpenters to larger contractors and home builders.

Although wood is the most common decking component, there are others to choose from, such as manufactured lumber, which contains recycled materials.

When considering decking as a residential-flooring solution, there are many factors to evaluate, such as local climate, slope, and soils.

For example, if the site is shady and moist, there are different maintenance needs than for a sunny, dry environment.

Water-sealing, painting, staining, and sanding are some considerations for ongoing maintenance. Wooden decks exposed to sun tend to fade, crack, and dry, while wooden decks in shady, moist conditions tend to become slippery and potentially unsafe.

And although manufactured lumber may offer less maintenance, there are other factors to consider, such as cost, weight, and available material, as well as the availability of skilled installers.

Decking has several benefits. When building on steep slopes, decking offers flexibility in design. Using decking (post-and-beam construction), one may easily achieve unlimited solutions to grade challenges by creating level and easily usable spaces.

When building decks, be sure to follow local and national codes for materials, construction techniques, and safety. Be sure to consider the need for handrails for steps, guardrails for safety, and ramps to achieve ADA-accessible routes.

Finally, decking offers environmentally conscious use of material, as wood is a renewable resource, and manufactured lumber may contain recycled materials.


What image does the word gravel conjure up? Is it angular, round, large, or small? Is it dark or light, stained or colored?

Its low cost, availability of local materials, and, in most cases, the lack of need for skilled installation are just some benefits.

Gravel may be used for pathways, driveways, and drainage and erosion control, and is available in many shapes and sizes.

Angular gravel--often limestone--tends to migrate less with forces of gravity and water movement. Additionally, angular gravel offers a more stable walking surface than rounded gravel, but may be less comfortable to bare feet.

Rounded gravel and river stone are softer and offer greater aesthetic value. Edging restraints should always be considered with rounded gravel because it tends to migrate easily with foot traffic; slope and safety should always be considered as gravel can be loose and cause unease of footing, especially for the elderly.

Environmental considerations include availability and source. Gravel typically is derived from nature, and is not considered a renewable resource. Mining, mountain removal, river dredging, and the high cost of transportation are among some environmental costs to consider.


Stone can be a natural and timeless material for flooring, and has been in use for centuries throughout the globe in countless methods and patterns.

When experiencing a space with stone floors, we tend to feel part of nature, or at least more connected as we have brought a part of nature to the living area.

Stone may be installed in many different fashions. To achieve appropriate installation, first determine:

  • The type of stone

  • Its purpose

  • The nature of the surrounding environment

  • The properties of the stone.

Does the flooring need to provide a stable and no-slip condition, or should it be smooth and shine? Will there be foot traffic, and what type? All of these questions can help determine if stone is appropriate, and if so, what method of installation should be used.

There are two general methods of installation--on grade or on a sub-base. If stone pieces are thick and heavy, oftentimes they can simply be laid on or cut into grade without any underlayment material. The stone may have enough surface area and weight to withstand movement, settling, and other forces.

Once in place, sand, gravel, or native soil may be used to secure joints. If plantings are to be used in joints, be sure that the right soil and a drainage plan have been considered.

Using a sub-base provides a more permanent installation of stone flooring. If the stone is thin--such as slate or bluestone--it will most likely need to be installed on a concrete base with concrete joints.

This type of flooring is extremely expensive due to the cost of the material, installation of the concrete, and the stone itself.

The sub-base is the most important part; if not installed correctly, the concrete will crack, shift, and show the slightest imperfections in the veneer material, possibly even causing damage of the veneer itself, and unsafe conditions.

Many factors must be considered when determining the appropriate residential flooring.  Talking with the client and asking the above questions are a good start. Appropriate planning, design, and installation are the key to a successful project.

Follow these basic guidelines, and you will be on your way to finding the appropriate material for your project.

Patrick Beasley, ALSA, LEED AP, is a Landscape Architect at Acadia Landscape in Knoxville, Tenn. He can be reached via e-mail at .


With all of the options, how do you select the appropriate flooring? Ask several questions to start the design process:

  • What materials are available locally?

  • Are there skilled installers available in the area?

  • What type of environment will the material be installed in (e.g., wet or dry, windy, sunny or shady, etc.)?

  • What are the slope/grade challenges?

  • Is ADA access necessary, or will the space benefit by providing easy movement for the disabled or elderly?

  • How does the material fit in with other materials already installed on-site?

  • What is the cost of the material, and does it conform to the allotted budget?

  • What are the environmental impacts of installing the material?

  • How much transportation is required to get the material to the site?

  • How much waste is produced by the material?

  • What type of extraction or manufacturing is necessary?

  • What maintenance needs will be required with the material?

  • How will drainage tie into the site and flooring?

  • What are the safety concerns?