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Previous Entry On Belgian blocks Sep. 11th, 2014 @ 09:27 am Next Entry
You learn a lot about contractors when you meet with them in person. We had a few people come to talk about installing a patio. And one of these guys who works for a landscaping company that mostly seems to do bougey pool surrounds came by. I mentioned we wanted a paver patio made out of concrete or something else, and he said, “It’s all concrete. If you pour stamped concrete or do pavers, it’s all concrete.”

Uh, NO IT’S NOT, guy. It’s not all concrete. Maybe where you come from it’s “all concrete,” but paving does not have to be concrete.

Concrete is too easy. Concrete is for babies. Concrete is for people who don’t want the real thing. This is concrete, and this is concrete, and this is concrete, and fuck that shit. We live in a nationally recognized historic neighborhood and you don’t use modern imitation bullshit materials.

BLING BLING! THIS is what you need to use.

Look at that. It’s a thing of beauty. Real stone, roughly cut to shape, heavy as hell, it’s not going anywhere. But what is it?

It’s inaccurately called cobblestone. It’s more accurately called Belgian block, but it’s even more accurately called granite sett. Thanks to a gardening and hardscaping guy who came by, I now know what these are. These are the things that make up old city streets. When they tear up streets, you see them underneath the asphalt. Sometimes they get restored in the old part of town, sometimes they just get paved right over again. But these are indeed real granite blocks.

In this country we generically refer to any stones that make up a streetscape as “cobblestones,” but in reality cobblestones are small, rounded stones that you sometimes see in old European streets, or I’ve seen them built into houses here. Rarely you find them in streets here. They are riverstones: small, impossible to make into an even surface, and problematic for walking. At least in the northeast US, what we think of as cobblestones are actually granite setts.

I’ve heard anecdotally that we call them “Belgian blocks” because they were quarried in Belgium, used as ballast on ships to the US, and then removed and used as paving. I’m not sure how true that is, since in the northeast we have our own granite that could have been cut into blocks. But it makes a certain amount of sense, if you need the blocks for when the ship is empty (ie. Coming to deliver stuff from America to Europe) and unload them each time. But that sure is a lot of blocks over the years..

(An even better anecdote is that granite blocks were eventually replaced by poor Irish immigrants as ballast on those ships, and that’s why many of the Irish are here today. I doubt they were used as ballast, but it could be true that since the Irish were coming to America anyway, the stones weren’t needed. We’re one in the same, you blocks and I!)

As you can tell, I’ve read up on my granite setts. Predictably, since I love learning about these old building materials. And since I’m convinced that this is what needs to be our patio, I’ve been on the lookout and have started seeing them everywhere.

As far as purchasing setts, here’s what I’ve found so far:
-If you look up Belgian blocks online, you almost invariably end up with concrete fakes that go for a dollar each.
-There are landscaping companies who sell new stones for landscaping projects. Usually these go for $6 a block up to $12, depending on the size. The same goes for the companies cutting new stones today. Yes, they exist!*
-The blocks routinely get ripped out of the streets during re-paving. Sometimes they’re left in, sometimes not. Troy did this recently was selling them for $4 each.
-Home Depot sells them at $3 a piece, but they are half the size they should be, or less.
-Independent contractors end up with some on their hands. There is one guy on Craigslist who has a few thousand blocks listed for $3 a piece. I got him down to $2 because…
-The City of Albany has their own stockpile for granite setts you can buy for $2 each.
-There is a guy in Schodack Landing selling blocky setts for $1.5 each. That’s the best price I’ve seen so far, but there is also…
-A new apartment complex in Cohoes that required putting in an access road that I can see from my house. What I never noticed and Caitlin just saw recently is that there are piles of granite setts that were left in the weeds next to the road. I might have to call the apartment complex and see what their plan is, if any. They might be holding on to them, but maybe I can get them for cheap? They look nearly forgotten about.

*So why get new blocks? Stone is one of those great materials that, when pricing it, people don’t seem to realize that old stone is just as good as new stone. It’s not like that new stone is going to last longer! Reclaimed granite setts can be had for half the price or lower of new ones, and I just don’t know why the price difference exists.
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Date:September 13th, 2014 10:07 pm (UTC)
This is weirdly fascinating, even if (to my un-discerning eye) the concrete pavers look pretty nice, too. But I imagine, being lighter, the concrete can shift and become uneven more easily?

In any case, best of luck getting the possibly-abandoned granite setts for cheap.
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Date:September 13th, 2014 10:34 pm (UTC)
Thanks. That's probably true of concrete pavers. They are still dense, but thin, and I'd think it'd be all the more important to have a well laid subbase.

Concrete pavers do look good depending on the context. If I was in a new development, I'd have to be insane or insanely wealthy to pave my patio with old setts. Concrete would look appropriate. But since we live in a completely in tact block of 1860s-era buildings, I would feel like an asshole using fabricated materials. Like when you see a vinyl-clad addition on the back of a brick townhouse, it makes me want to throw up.
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