Apologies once again for the ongoing purdah with regard to news and new content for the website. The redevelopment is almost complete – I’m spending every spare minute debugging and making sure it all works before unleashing it onto the world, hopefully before Christmas, but I did manage to take some time out at the beginning of this week to show my face at the now essential FutureScape jolly held, thank God for the last time, at the cramped, inconvenient and claustrophobic Sandown Park in Esher, Surrey.
I think almost everyone would now agree that FutureScape has, almost by accident, become the most important exhibition even for the hard landscaping trade at the moment. Admittedly, there isn’t much in the way of competition, but the event has grown, started to acquire some heavyweight names, lose a couple too, and most certainly meets a need within the industry. And that growth has now reached the point where it has outgrown its home of the last few years, so pastures new have been sought, identified and booked for 2020.
No baby steps for this show, though, no tentative move to a mid-size venue to see how things go. It’s a full, balls-out leap into the big league with a move to the East London Cavern System known to some as ExCel.
That’s a BIG move, a serious upgrade, and there are legitimate questions regarding FutureScape’s ability to fill that yawning chasm. Like a child moving through the education system, what was a big kid in a small primary school can often turn out to be a lost-soul little kid in a big secondary school. It’s an ambitious move, and one I look forward to following with avid interest.
Meanwhile, back in boring old 2019, in its final autumnal fling by the racecourse (there will be the ineffectual Spring outing staged here before the promotion), what was there to see and hear that might be of interest to a wandering ex-pavior?
This year’s themes were Artificial Grass, enough to cover every stadium in the Premier League, plastic decking, with a who-can-have-the-biggest-display arms race between three big names (Millboard, Trex and GroNo amongst others), and for the soft-scape brigade, tonnes and tonnes of soils and mulches. Following the experience at the Landscape Event back in September, I’d expected to see acres of porcelain, but the show was rather muted in that respect. Oh, there was porcelain and ceramics on show, just not as much as anticipated and those with it on their stands chose to keep it to token samples rather than ostentatious vistas.
Maybe this is a consequence of it being a one day show – building lavish panels of porcelain and cornucopias of ceramics is hard to justify when it will last only 8 hours, yet, following on from the comments above, this doesn’t seem to worry the decking boyoes.
So quite a few recognisable names well-known for stone and porcelain enticed us with tasters of their wares; the Trovia brand from Global Stone, VitriPiazza from Talasey; Stone Paving Supplies had turned over their stand to key supplier, Thompsons of Crews Hill along with Stone Zone and allowed them to showcase the offer on behalf of SPS; London Stone with their low key space more focussed on providing chat space than displaying products; Marshalls with a similar, but slightly more colourful idea; and PaveStone with some very attractive products on a strongly branded stand.
There were others, including Stone Traders and Stoneeasy.com but I saw nothing sufficiently different to draw me in and with so many folk to see in so little time, not everyone was unfortunate enough to be bothered by me on this one day.
I did manage to get a few minutes with Dave from Kebur, the all-round supplier really making a name for themselves by offering what we should think of as a curated selection of paving along with landscape accessories. Every now and again I meet someone with a similar passion for all-things-paving backed-up by a better-than-average understanding of how to satisfy the market. Kebur never fail to impress with what they offer, how they offer it, and how they look after their customers.
Of those offering what we might think of as more traditional paving, the most interesting for me was Kilkenny Limestone Quarries. Beautiful Irish Blue Limestone, including a droolingly delicious flame-textured stone that would look great in any contemporary setting. Just why this gorgeous stone is so underused in Britain has always been a mystery to me. I accept it isn’t particularly cheap when compared with the Asian imports, but it’s such good quality stone and so distinctive. They love it in Europe, where it’s sold as ‘Belgian Blue’, and. naturally, they love it in Ireland: it’s just the awkward sods in between that don’t seem to recognise quality when it’s right under their noses!
Westminster Stone have a fantastically compact but effective stand which manages to make the most of less than a couple of square metres of their highly distinctive National Trust wet-cast concrete paving and the buzz was all about the huge spike in interest via the website following their featuring on some telly programme about a bloke struggling to support a comedy moustache whilst tarting-up a French Chateau or summat. It’s cheering to hear some good news from the wet-cast sector – they’ve had it far too tough for far too long.
A handful of outriders for traditional materials also managed to squeeze themselves in. Van De Moortel have become almost the de facto supplier of clay pavers for garden designers – yes: I know the aforementioned Talasey have their Baksteen range – but VDM do seem to dominate in a way that none of the erstwhile British manufacturers every really managed. I didn’t get to speak to anyone on the stand as every time I passed it seemed to be packed with visitors, so I left them to it.
AllGreen wowed me at this event last year with some delicious wooden setts, which they have once again, although they’ve gone and spoiled them by staining them black! The one thing they really had going for them, in my opinion, was the natural colour, the shade variation, the chance to weather and all that has been taken away. The MD must have seen my face drop, as he rushed over to reassure me that they are still offering the beauties from last year – they’ve been fantastically popular – but they’ve introduced the stained version as an option. Phew! They’re OK, these black timber setts, they still have character and appeal, but, if it’s all the same to you, I’ll stick with the ‘natural’ option. Still gorgeous and still available.
And PietraPave, another attempt at the paving-on-a-mat systems that have been knocking around for decades with limited success. I always find the mats promise so much but then, sadly, fail to deliver because they are not quite as simple to install well as they would have us believe. Having said that, the guilloche on show was very effective, almost good enough to make me think about using one in place of my usual signature individually-crafted guilloche on the sett installation projects I occasionally design and manage.
PietraPave is an offshoot of the Nexus resin mortar jointing business which offers one- and two-part resin mortars cooked up in Britain and, generally, a bit cheaper than the big German imports. I think it would be fair to say that Nexus struggle to talk with me – maybe my work with those German manufacturers puts them off, but that's somewhat self-defeating. The better quality resin mortars need to promote themselves and their benefits as widely as possible: there are particular jobs for which a quality two-part jointing mortar is the best solution, so take every chance you can to explore what's possible.
Speaking of the ‘Big German’ resin mortar manufacturers’ there is none bigger, on the British market at least, than the GftK brand supplied by NCC StreetScape. Quality of product has, obviously, helped them achieve so much success with their VDW range of jointing mortars over the past decade or so, but I’ve always believed that it’s the unrivalled technical support that really helps them sell so effectively. They have the knack of being able to speak to both distributors and installers at a level that works for both – you feel you’re chatting to a mate rather than being sold a fancy bucket of sand and glue!
On the other side of resin’s involvement with the hard-landscape industry, a reasonable showing from the resin surfacing crowd, but, again, nowhere near as strong a showing as might be expected. None of the really big names, but quite a sprinkling of the arrivistes and smaller suppliers such as ClearStone, Resin Bonded Ltd, and Daltex, the system offered by Derbyshire Aggregates. I’ve still not fathomed out why a major supplier of aggs to the resin industry should want to risk upsetting so many of their customers by having their own resin system, but what do I know?
Long Rake Spar, another Peak District based aggregate supplier targeting the resin surfacing trade, has, so far, managed to avoid the temptation to emulate their near neighbour and seem to be sticking with their tried and trusted, and it has to be said, very impressive range of decorative aggregates. In such a competitive market, having something exclusive or that little bit different can make such a huge difference and LRS always seem to have that little bit of something different.
On to what we might think of as paving accessories, those items that make the life of an installer so much easier and strengthen almost any design. EverEdge have dominated the steel edging market for almost as long as I can remember, and you can’t manage that unless you have a top-notch product, but they’re being pushed nowadays by Core LP with a not-too-dissimilar product backed up by an impressive array of other landscape ancillaries, such as decorative panels, geo-synthetics, and ground reinforcement. Core do seem to have a knack of identifying just what the good landscaper/pavior needs to make their lives easier, and it seems to be working well for them.
And many of those installers wanting to make their own lives easier were congregating around the AquaCut stand to gaze longingly at a superb collection of professional saws, blades and specialist cutting kit which has become more important than ever in this age of the porcelain patio. Stuart and Jim are another pair with a real knack for communicating with contractors at a common level, and I’ve rarely met any other business with such a depth of knowledge and understanding.
The final exhibitor I wanted to mention is the masters of something-for-everyone, Azpects. If ever you can’t sleep, try thinking of a product you need to make your life installing paving that bit easier. By the time you wake up next morning, the odds are Azpects will have invented it! They excel at identifying niches for products to improve the working life of the typical landscaper.
What was being most heavily pushed at this show is a sub-base replacement system which, as we could have probably guessed in advance, they have dubbed EasyClickBase. It is a form of cell paver that is intended to drastically reduce the need for excavation, cart away and expensive granular sub-base. Instead of, say, digging out 150mm of so for Type 1 and another 50mm for bedding, simply scratch out 100mm or so, spread and level 50mm of clean 6mm angular gravel as regulating, place the EasyClickBase over that, and then lay the paving direct onto the EasyClickBase.
All sorts of bold claims were being made about the system, and the results they had obtained from some trials over in The States. From a technical point of view, there are some ‘aspects’ of those tests that worried me, but they are minor niggles and I’m sure there are appropriate answers. However, we’ve seen sub-base replacement systems previously and they never do particularly well on the British market. Maybe Azpects can change that.
Having said that, and beyond the performance claims, I have a couple of major concerns about such systems. Firstly, as soon as an installer uses anything other than a conventional sub-base, they are “out of spec” and that opens the door to freedom for every paving manufacturer and supplier to say “Not Our Problem, Mate” as soon as there is any issue with an installation. The paving hasn’t been laid to manufacturer’s spec, therefore any warranty is invalid….and off they go.
Secondly, and possibly an even greater concern, is the whole premise behind this product. It is, in essence, a cell paver – oh, I know it’s much more than that, and the plastic is this, and the footprint is that, and the interlock is the other, but, to the man in a white van, it’s a glorified cell paver and one that, Azpects tell me, will retail around the 25 quid per square metre mark. Now, our chum in the white van will see EasyClickBase at 25 quid and then see SuperCheapPlackyGrid in the same supplier’s yard at, say 10 quid/m² and both of his brain cells will start churning, only to come to the conclusion that he can save 15 quid by using what he considers to be a viable alternative.
A final, minor concern is that it won’t be “easy” to use the system with non-calibrated paving – irregular flagstones, setts, wet-cast and the like will require some intermediary bedding to regulate their inherent unevenness. Just how that can be achieved without creating additional problems isn’t immediately clear.
It really isn’t my intention to be all negative and ultra-conservative. I love to see innovation in our trade, and if someone can come up with a method of reducing excavation and the reliance on so much aggregate, then I’m keen to see it work, but I sense there may be trouble ahead. There most definitely are suitable applications for EasyClickBase but such applications are the exceptions and not the norm. It won’t be suitable for every project, or even a majority of projects, but it is an interesting addition to our armoury of strategies to use with patio (and possibly driveway) installation.
So there you have it – FutureScape 2019 in just over 2,000 words, The move to ExCel is exciting but fraught with challenges. For too long, this industry has desperately needed a chance to show itself off, to exhibit everything that’s good and clever and new and exciting, to tell the world about the wonders of hard-landscaping (and that greenery stuff can have a corner, somewhere, I suppose!) and it does look as though FutureScape could be it.
I look forward to November 2020 with bated breath…..