Take a Concrete Approach
Photography: Douglas Burke
Recently, interior design has taken a more concrete approach—literally. Concrete, while at times messy and intimidating, is not just for foundations and utilitarian exterior
surfaces anymore. Forget marble and expensive stone work—these days, concrete is in vogue. Dressed up with stains and stamps, this hardy construction material looks downright chic.
Creating concrete, incognito, can be a home project for do-it-yourselfers who desire the look and feel of tile or slate without the expense. Almost any surface can be converted into a designer, sturdy piece—countertops in the kitchen and bathroom, floors and decks. Versatile and less expensive than other surfacing materials, concrete is certainly making an impression. “What you get and what I really love about it is a soft patina,” explained Linda Lee, who built concrete countertops with her husband, Twig MacCaughern. The husband and wife team attempted the project out of necessity. They had sold their house more quickly than anticipated and hadn’t time to order a countertop, so they quickly fashioned their own out of concrete.
Christine Rhoads of Concrete Maintenance of Utah put her concrete skills to work while incorporating creativity. “It’s kind of a niche that I’ve found that needs to be filled,” she said. “It’s artsy too.” With a new floor as a canvas in the home of local resident Dixie Geisdorf, Rhoads explained how she transforms concrete into stunning décor.
For any surface, prep work is required, removing debris and cleaning it thoroughly. With floors, that might also mean extracting carpet or linoleum before heavy cleaning. In addition, any cracks in the surface must be apoxied, creating a smooth starting point.
The first step in the process of “pouring concrete” involves laying and stapling a metal lath securely to, in this particular case, the floor. Once the lath is in place, Rhoads pours polymer concrete mix as the base. After the base has set, a layer of elastomeric base coat (similar to paint) is applied with a cloth laid carefully on top of it. “That helps prevent movement of a shifting subfloor,” Rhoads explained. A quarter inch of polymer concrete is poured on top of the cloth and then, the fun begins.
“The world is your oyster as far as colors go,” she explained. By using antiquing in the release agent, she offers a wide range of colors for her work. She has a collection of more than 30 stamps, making each surface unique and custom designed to the homeowner’s needs. Concrete floors can mimic almost any type of stone or design with the appropriate stamp or color application.
After utilizing the stamp and color, Rhoads adds four layers of sealant. The entire process, depending on how extensive the preliminary work and crack repair might be, takes approximately four to five days.
Park City local Mark Case took the “do-it-yourself” approach. How-ever, he skipped the first couple of steps in the process by allowing a professional to deal with the initial concrete pouring. Given the new sheetrock in the area, the manual labor for Case involved mostly cleaning and carefully avoiding water damage. Rather than stamping, he set to work carefully slicing into the fresh concrete. “We etched it—cut grooves in it kind of like fake tile,” he explain-ed. The end result featured four by four squares bordered by six-inch by two-foot “tiles.”
MacCaughern built the base for concrete countertops, applied a lath, poured the concrete and removed the temporary plywood sides, once the concrete had set. The entire process took two days and he and his wife liked it so much that they built even larger concrete countertops in their new home. Although this type of project was new to MacCaughern, as a stone mason he was quite familiar with concrete, and therefore not intimidated by that aspect of the process.
Tips from the experts and “do-it-yourselfers”
Research materials. According to Rhoads, it’s important to start with quality materials. She advises researching companies that provide concrete and the supporting products carefully. Case recommends using good concrete. “One of the problems we had was the concrete was too wet and it cracked a lot,” he explained. “The most important thing is the consistency of the concrete,” added Lee.
Practice makes perfect. “Practice first on a piece of plywood or whatever you can find and get your colors right,” Rhoads said. She recommends against trying colors for the first time on the working surface. Case suggests sampling colors where a cabinet or piece of furniture will ultimately cover the test spot. Lee and MacCaughern tested out colors on model forms they built themselves.
Be patient. After putting all this effort into a new floor or countertop, it would be a shame to ruin it by hastily using it. “Let it cure for at least a week,” said Rhoads. “You can walk on it, but with furniture, you have to wait for several days.”
Although concrete has historically made its sturdy mark by serving as a thick, heavy, unmoving chunk, these floors and surfaces do not exceed the height of any other surfacing component. In the case of Rhoads’ newly poured floor, all of the layers put together measure no more than a half inch. Thus, the new floor in no way obstructs doors and fixtures.
“It’s one solid surface. Slate can pop and granite can get dirty … [concrete] will last forever,” Rhoads said. Lee praised the seamless quality and soft patina of her expansive countertop. However, she warns that concrete is not for everyone given that the color doesn’t come out evenly and solid. In a way, it’s similar to faux painted walls versus a solid, deep color.
Although the surface has a long life, it does not have to remain the same. Colors, according to Rhoads, are easy to change by spraying a thin layer of polymer concrete atop the existing concrete surface and applying a new color. Stamping, of course, involves more of an intense facelift.
Maintenance and Cost
Every few years, Rhoads recommends applying a floor polish. Otherwise, indoor concrete surfaces are fairly low-maintenance. Refinished poured concrete surfaces on decks and walkways, however, might require a bit more sprucing up (such as reapplying color) due to sun and salt exposure. As for countertops, Lee finds cleanup a breeze with the seamless surface. “You just wipe it clean and it always looks great,” she said. Like Rhoads, she plans on applying a recommended wax to the counter every year or so.
Rhoads’ charges vary per square foot. For do-it-yourselfers, cost depends on your level of experimentation with stamps and colors as well as choice of materials. Concrete, on the whole, costs less than competitive floor coverings, if there are no glitches in the do-it-yourself process. Rhoads purchases her materials from Concrete Solutions in San Diego (a company that also offers classes and a hotline for concrete-related questions). Case explained that the do-it-yourself approach is more cost effective than purchasing tile or similar products. “It was significantly cheaper. We maybe had $200 to $300 worth of materials,” he recalled. Lee had a similar experience. “We had a bid for granite and Sile stone, both of which came in at $10,000. We ended up spending $248,” she recalled.
More cost effective and longer lasting than alternative floor coverings, the concrete trend is catching on. It’s a new way of decorating that has plenty of room for creativity in partnership with painstaking attention to detail. Everything from simple stone-like stamps to funky and intricate patterns is possible. “The end result is that it’s hard work,” Rhoads said. However, the final product is certain to make a lasting impression.
About to embark on some serious home improvement projects, Jane Gendron will leave the concrete pouring to the experts. When she’s not painting and making late-night treks to Home Depot, Jane might be found working for a local non-profit.