Archive for March, 2011

NJ Mason Contractor – Natural Stone Work – Stone Masonry Patio

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Natural stone masonry and stone structures can be largely overlooked when it comes to landscape and swimming pool designs. To some homeowners, swimming pool and dining patios are valued but seriously underestimated in terms of their power to really define an outdoor living space. Natural stone patios provide a number of opportunities to transform the most functional aspect of a landscape and swimming pool into an art-form that adds to the overall ambiance. Before you embark on a natural stone masonry project of your own, use this blog to help learn how to judge quality masonry construction.

This week, I went to consult on a masonry project and discovered that 2,000 square feet of patio needs to be removed and reinstalled. Why you ask? For starters, the contractor neglected to install any expansion joints and more than likely missed a few other important steps vital to the proper natural stone installation process. We are taking core samples  and sending them out to an engineer for structural analysis. A paver company who thought it was a good idea to start installing stone appears to have gotten in over their head.

Unfortunately, with the recession still lingering, there are many companies like this who just don’t have the experience or who mislead clients about their ability when interviewing for these large projects. Many companies are getting on the “one-stop shop” boat and leaving plenty of unhappy customers in their wake. In order to help you see through this smokescreen, I want to share some tips on how to determine a quality natural stone installation.

First of all, when you’re researching companies on the internet and you’re going through photo galleries, be sure that you see multiple examples of what you’re looking for. For example, we can show our clients 50 NJ outdoor kitchen and fireplace structures. If we have a client that is looking for natural stone patios or walls around their pool, I can show them 100,000 square feet of natural stone patios or 50,000 square feet of veneer. Just to be clear, I’m not trying to boast; I’m just trying to convey how important it is to have a lot of hands-on experience.

If a landscaping or swimming pool company advertises a natural stone patio or a masonry structure on the internet or in a print ad and it interests you, make sure you ask to see that very patio as it stands today.  Try to see several examples of the masonry to help judge a company’s craftsmanship! When you go see the stonework, be sure to get a good look at all the masonry patios and walls. Here are a few things to look out for:

1. Look at the joints. Joints should be no wider than ½ inch regardless of the pattern or type of stone. Larger joints tend to separate from the stone faster than normal because of the different absorption rates of mortar compared to the denser stone. If the joints are too big, the patio is sure to call for repairs sooner rather than later as a result of damages from freezing and thawing.

2. How does the stone feel when you walk on it? Any sawn pattern stones with a finished surface like sand blasted limestone or thermal faced bluestone should be very consistent. It should feel like you’re walking on smooth glass. Irregular stone patterns or natural cleft stones will be slightly inconsistent but should still feel evenly pitched. If the stone feels uneven when you walk on it or if there are large edges sticking up or large pieces missing, it could be a sign of poor craftsmanship.

3. Give it the Tap Test. Bring a small hammer or a 2” stone with you to visit the project. Gently tap on the stone throughout the patio area and listen for hollow pockets. A hollow sound suggests that the stone has somehow separated from the setting bed. Very few stones should be separated from the setting bed! If you have a hard time recognizing the hollow sound, don’t worry. At least the mason contractor will see your hammer and know you mean business.

4. Make sure there are no large puddles on the patio. Obviously it’s easy to detect puddles after it rains, but even if it’s been dry for an extended period of time, you can look for accumulated areas of dirt or grey chalky film left behind by puddles on the patio.  Small puddles are fairly common on large slab stone patios and tend to form in stones that are cupped or concaved. Most of the time we try to avoid the cupped stones, but sometimes its unavoidable. Even on a patio that has 2” pitch, you may still see small puddles. As long as the puddle is within a single stone, you shouldn’t be too alarmed. On the other hand, should you see puddles spanning several stones, this is definitely a source of concern. Large areas of standing water tend to erode the masonry joints on a patio. This allows water to infiltrate the setting bed and cause widespread separation of the masonry and the natural stone.  Eventually the structural integrity of the concrete patio slab will be compromised as a result of these large puddles.

5. Check for settling where the patio meets up with other structures such as the pool coping or steps. If the back of the pool coping is higher than the patio, this is a sign of settling. Look at the staircases too. If the bottom step is taller than other steps leading up the staircase, this could also mean the patio has settled and   the base preparation was more than likely inadequate.

I encourage you to be a little skeptical when it comes to your next masonry project. Go out and visit completed masonry works and put them under the microscope. With hammer in hand and these few helpful tips, you’ll be able to judge good stone masonry and feel comfortable about your investment. If you would like any additional information or want to dissect some of my own stone masonry work using these tips, email me at

Concrete Patio Resurfacing NJ– Stamped Overlay Concrete Surfaces NJ

Saturday, March 26th, 2011


With all the snow we’ve received in New Jersey this winter, you may not have seen most of your patio and walkways in months. Now that spring has arrived, I encourage you to take a look at your NJ landscaping, particularly your masonry paths, steps, and walkways. Are they worn and dated? Do they have chips and exposed aggregate, possibly from the stress of this cold winter? A stamp overlay could be the perfect solution for your concrete patio, driveway, and walkway problems.

A stamp overlay provides a quarter-inch thick concrete resurfacing that will renew your patios and walkways in strength and appearance. If the concrete is badly cracked, it will call for a repair or replacement, but if the concrete is just worn and unsightly, a simple resurfacing will do the trick. First, an acrylic or later primer is applied. Then, the thin layer of cement is applied. After that, the new surfaced is stamped with a texture to make it look like new. In the end, the resurfacing process is extremely convenient since the very thin layer (1/4″) can easily match any elevations of existing structures such as steps or coping.

There are two types of stamp overlays, cementitious and elastomeric. Each of them can be stamped, colored, and stained in a variety of patterns that can even mimic natural stone. A cementitious resurfacing option is a strong, waterproof coating system that can be modified with specific colors and stains to achieve the decorative look that the name suggests. This new surface is even advertised as freeze/thaw resistant. In addition, the new surface will resist deicing salts, which may be extremely valuable if next winter is anything like this one.

Building a Zero Edge swimming Pool – Vanishing Edge Pool Infinity Edge Pool? Beware!!

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

Building a Zero Edge swimming Pool – Vanishing Edge Pool Infinity Edge Pool? Beware!!

The other day, I visited a woman who was interested in an outdoor kitchen. We looked at the space, and I shared some ideas with her. On the way back to the house, she asked, “You build swimming pools, right?” I said, “Of course.” She then told me she was having someone repair the tile on her zero edge pool, AKA  infinity edge pool or vanishing edge pool and asked if I would take a look at it. “Sure,” I replied, but in a few minutes, I was also sure she wished she never asked the question.

The tile was falling off, and the plaster was cracked throughout the collection pool at the bottom of the infinity edge wall. Noticing that there was probably a more serious issue with the pool, I asked her if I might come back the next day to remove the cover and see what was causing the problem.

The next day, we removed the cover and saw that the vanishing edge inground pool design was in need of much more than a simple tile repair. After four years, this $150,000 infinity pool was in horrible condition. Here’s what we found:

NJ vanishing edge swimming pool Zero edge pool infinity edge pool

NJ vanishing edge swimming pool Zero edge pool infinity edge pool

Gunite Rebound

The weir wall (i.e. the wall of the pool that showcases the infinity edge) was cracked in several places. Initial core samples show signs of “rebound” encapsulated in the wall. When the gunite is sprayed and applied to the pool, a certain amount bounces back. This “rebound” should be discarded before the gunite is shot over it once again. If not, useless gunite is trapped beneath the surface, creating pockets of nonstructural masses in the walls, in this case the weir wall. This threatens the structural integrity of the wall that withstands tremendous pressure from the pool water all on its own (i.e. without the support of surrounding soil). This can be dangerous when the rebound forms weak deposits of unusable gunite scattered within the wall.

Calcium Deposits

What was left of the tile on the weir wall had severe calcium deposits all across the surface, producing a white stain on all of the tiles due to a process called efflorescence. During this process, water enters the pores of the weir wall and slowly travels through to the other side, picking up salt and minerals from the concrete along the way. When it reaches the other side, which in this case, is covered in tile, the water evaporates and leaves the salt and minerals behind. The salt and minerals form calcium deposits on the tile and may lead to cracking. They appear in the form of white stains.

Plaster Cracking

Due to the structural failure of the weir wall, the Pebble-Tec pool plaster, a 20-year rated finish which probably cost the homeowner about $35,000, was cracked throughout the lower weir wall and needs to be replaced after just four years.

Poor Construction

To wrap things up, we checked the level of the weir wall, and it was 3/8 of an inch out of level, which is significant when you’re dealing with an infinity edge pool.  If the pool were 1/16 of an inch out of level, the infinity edge could run on a 1 hp pump to move the necessary 25 gallons per minute over the edge of the weir wall. The pool builder on this project used a 4 hp pump, which can move 400 gallons per minute over the infinity wall, to compensate for the lack of precision, taking “playing it safe” to a whole new level. Also, a 1 hp pump runs on 3.5 amps as opposed to the 20 amps of a 4 hp pump. In other words, by having a level infinity edge and using the appropriate pump, the homeowner could have cut energy usage for the water feature by 80%.


If a pool company is going to advertise a vanishing edge swimming pool on the internet or in a print ad and it interests you, make sure you ask to see that very pool as it stands today; furthermore, look at all the pools they are promoting that might interest you and try to see several examples of the pools they are advertising! When you go see the pool, be sure to get a perfectly good look at the infinity wall itself, not just the view it overlooks. If done right, infinity edge pools showcase every essential skill of a quality pool builder. If done wrong, these pools won’t be able to hide it. Here are a few things to look for when visiting that vanishing edge swimming pool:

1. The flow shows best. Take a look at the working infinity edge and make sure the water flows all the way across the vanishing edge. An even flow over the edge will show you that the swimming pool is level and did not settle in the ground due to poor soil conditions and bad engineering. Then, check the pump size and make sure the pump is not oversized to compensate for imprecision.

2. Have the contractor turn the water off and look at the top of the weir wall. Make sure there is no discoloration or cracks in the tile at the top of the weir wall. With the water off, you will be able to really focus and see any possible imperfections.

3. Check where the pool meets the patio on every side. There should be a consistent joint where the pool meets the patio. Be sure that there is no separation. If there is, the pool could be settling or rolling as a result of problems with soil, drainage, or slope.

3. Examine the backside of the weir wall. Are all the tiles intact? Are there tiles popping off? See that there are no cracks in the joints of the tiles as well. These problems could mean that the weir wall was poorly constructed or improperly sealed.

4. Do you see any discoloration in the tile on the weir wall? Calcium deposits will lead to big white spots on the tile. While this may occur in slight moderation, you certainly don’t want to see it throughout the weir wall. If you do, it is a good sign that there are voids or “shadowing” (i.e. empty spaces behind the rebar) in the gunite. Either way, water is travelling through the wall and leaving salt and minerals behind when it evaporates, which is not good.

5. In the trough or collection pond, closely examine the plaster. Make sure there are no cracks, spider cracks, or deformities. If the finish is cracked or deformed within its lifespan, it could be because there is water traveling through the weir wall and damaging the outer surface material. The collection pool should have just as smooth a finish as the inside of the pool.

Bonus: Visually take note of the length of the weir wall. If the wall is within 1/16 in. from level, the infinity edge will need 1 gallon per minute for every linear foot. Ask the pool builder what size pump he uses to run the infinity edge. Any weir wall 25 feet in length or less should be running on a 1 hp pump. If the pump is too big for the wall, the swimming pool contractor could be making up for imperfections and costing the homeowner unnecessary money on operating costs.

Remember, “you don’t know what you don’t know,” and that’s dangerous in the pool business! The swimming pool contractor who built this pool has been in business for over three decades and just followed standard pool building practices, which in this case contributed to the pool vessel failure. Do your due diligence! If you see a swimming pool contractor advertising pools that you like, demand to see them!

For more information email me,

NJ Landscape Architects – Avoid Free Landscaping Plans at “All Costs”!

Friday, March 11th, 2011

NJ Landscape Architects – Avoid Free Landscaping Plans at “All Costs”!


Starting a great landscaping project with limited funds?  Here are five hardscape and planting suggestions that are GUARANTEED to save you THOUSANDS.

1.     Always start with a landscape plan (blueprint) prepared by a licensed landscape architect. This will ensure a balanced design and will allow you to phase the work as budgets permit.

2.     Pick materials and plants that will work within your budget. You can cut the cost of a project in half with the right choices in material. For instance, if natural stone isn’t in your budget, try pavers and save about 50%.  Larger trees and shrubs cost significantly more than smaller ones. Reduce the size and save 20 – 50%.

3.     Start the construction process by focusing on your main areas of concern, your focal point, and your most valuable asset. In general, focus on the areas you’re going to enjoy the most.

4.      When phasing a project, always look ahead to future portions of the project. Be sure to include any infrastructure components like conduit or irrigation lines early in the process so you don’t have to disturb your completed areas. An experienced landscape architect will help prevent you from doing things twice!

5.     At the start of every landscaping or swimming pool project, the best investment is a great set of plans prepared by a licensed landscape architect. A well thought-out set of plans takes a considerable amount of time to prepare, but they will help avoid hidden costs and minimize overruns in your custom landscape or swimming pool project. Don’t waste time with anyone offering you free landscaping or swimming pool plans. It’s a gimmick used to trap you into a situation where you never know the true value or cost of your project. Pay for the plans, and you will own the exclusive rights to them. Once they are in your hands, you can get an apples to apples comparison through a bidding process.

Please remember only a Licensed Landscape Architect can offer landscape architecture services. Anyone offering landscape architecture services must post their landscape architect’s name and license number issued by the state in which they practice. If any firm is advertising landscape architecture services and fails to post the proper credentials, please contact your state’s Board of Architects or your state’s Attorney General.

Luxury Pools Magazine Profiles NJ Custom Swimming Pool and Landscaping Company

Thursday, March 10th, 2011

If I were to describe the key to a successful swimming pool and landscape in one word, I would probably say “balance.” This Spring, our team at Cipriano Custom Swimming Pools and Landscaping of Mahwah, NJ shows how to use a luxury pool and landscape to find balance in the outdoor living space. The unique forum for this demonstration comes not only in practice but also in the pages of Luxury Pools Magazine. In the very first pages of the biannual periodical, the luxury pool magazine dedicates a three-page spread to our design and build firm. Here, I took the opportunity to outline three examples of luxury pools that met a number of challenges throughout design and construction. In the end, each of them blended seamlessly into its surroundings and provided every piece of functionality called for by the homeowner’s lifestyle. Let’s take a quick look at the balance achieved by these pool design ideas:

Ridgewood, NJ: Small Lot in a Flood Plain Calls for Privacy and Quiet Relaxation

On a small lot in Ridgewood, NJ, a luxury pool called for privacy from nearby neighbors and a safe, permissible solution to its location in a flood plain. By obtaining a variance for construction from the town, our licensed NJ landscape architect Bill Moore was able to simply raise the coping 18” and prevent flooding in the pool. For privacy, a decorative barrier wall rests behind the small pool and also serves as the backdrop for the pool’s hand-crafted fountains, antique medallion, and fiber optic lights.  Planting layers, two large potted plants on either end of the privacy wall, and a cool, quartzite patio complete the outdoor oasis with a natural feel.

Tips for Small Back Yards: Make the most of your space! Integrate dining areas and pool areas in order to have dual-functioning spaces.  When planting trees for screening a small back yard, use trees with compact growth habits. I prefer hollies and arborvitae over spruce or fir. If you’re designing a pool and have children, try not to let the pool dominate the entire back yard. Kids need open space.

Saddle River, NJ: Steep Yard and Tough Township Meet Creative Design

In Saddle River, NJ, a back yard included strict township regulations, a steep slope, and a 26-foot elevation change. Our solution was a luxury swimming pool with multiple waterfalls pouring in and a natural vanishing edge flowing out. To accommodate the elevation change over a short distance, boulders on the vanishing edge pool were set vertically to mimic outcroppings overlooking the Hudson River. As the waterfalls drown the noise of a nearby highway, the homeowner can relax on the pool patio or entertain on the dining patio or outdoor kitchen.  Boulder rockeries retained the slope in the landscape and the lush plantings softened the massive stones to create the tranquil scenery.

Tips for Properties with Large Slopes: If you’re going for a natural look, rockeries can be used in lieu of retaining walls on steeply sloped properties. Rockeries not only blend into the landscape but they also cut your cost by up to 2/3rds. Planting in large masses also helps maintain the natural look over a large slope. Of course, you can add a couple of special, stand-out pieces, but by keeping it simple, you can create great transitions without breaking the bank.

Kinnelon, NJ: Luxury Pool with Every Amenity Requires Fine Skill and Detail

The goals of a Kinnelon, NJ pool were to accent views across a New Jersey valley, provide room to relax and take in the sights, and create a safe, well-lit pool at night. We chose a glass tile infinity edge pool to accent the view by offering an uninterrupted line of sight. A cool, formal Limestone patio provides plenty of space to relax by the pool and enjoy the benefits of a full outdoor kitchen and grill. Additionally, 200 fiber optic lights were carefully installed in the floor of the pool, and none were damaged during plastering and glass tile work.  Around the pool, a Tuscan style landscape included large masses of summer blooming shrubs and perennials. Ornamental statues were also scattered about the landscape in order to tie the entire classical scene together.

Tips for Budgeting Luxury Amenities in Your Landscape: Once you choose your focal point, be sure to spotlight that area first. If you have options all over the place you will definitely have a hard time maintaining a budget.   Remember it all starts with a great design. You can double the cost of a project with your material choices! Once you have great layout, it’s up to you to pick materials within your budget.  When you’re choosing a builder, try to find someone who has a lot of experience with high-end construction. One outdoor kitchen or fireplace doesn’t make someone an “Outdoor Living Expert”!

Our team’s preparation, ingenuity, and experience allowed us to meet the goals of our clients and the challenges of the properties in each of these back yards. Every luxury pool balances beautifully with the lifestyle of the homeowner and the overall surroundings of the outdoor living space. To read more about our swimming pool and landscape design approach, pick up a copy of the Spring 2011 issue of Luxury Pools magazine.