Concrete Countertops: a High-End Option

It can be argued that concrete countertops historically haven’t received much attention from many architects or builders. This most likely is due to the lack of knowledge about the material, and the misconceptions of what it offers. However, new technology is moving concrete countertops into the realm of granite, and possibly even surpassing it due to its custom possibilities.

“In today’s custom world, [concrete countertops] are different than anything else a customer can get and it can be simple or extravagant. People want something different because they are tired of granite. By using concrete, it doesn’t look like their neighbor’s house,” says Rob Rodgers, president and owner, Concrete Studios in Columbus, Ohio.

Virtually any desired color is possible with concrete countertops. Craftsmen usually can match colors to paint books, tiles or other materials. “The main advantage of concrete is that you can get any color you’re looking for,” says Clint Collins, owner, Collins Decorative Concrete, San Diego.

In addition to color, clients have the option of embedding materials into the concrete. “Customers can personalize their countertops. We did a bathroom vanity for a client who collected coins from all over the world. We embedded those coins into the vanity. We have embedded horseshoes, nuts and bolts, and even computer chips for people who are into computers,” Rodgers says.

Other available aggregates are recycled glass, seashells, stainless steel, copper, tile or whatever the imagination desires. “I can cast-in trivets into the concrete near the oven. I will work with the client and how they use their kitchen,” says Chip Miles, CEO, PlasmaStone, New York City. Some craftsmen are embedding fiber optics into these surfaces for another interesting effect.

Concrete countertops are not only for contemporary applications; they can be designed to fit in traditional settings as well. “The initial customer thinks it’s contemporary but when they see the samples, they see it can fit in a traditional house. It doesn’t have to be sleek and shiny — it can be soft and warm,” Rodgers adds.

Sealing Protection

One major misconception of concrete countertops is they stain easily. This might have been the case 15 years ago but new technology in sealers has eliminated that problem. “There are different sealing options. You can start off with a low spectrum such as acrylic that will enhance the color, and give marginal protection. Then there are waxes that will enhance the look but are not [resistant] to stain protection. Then there are the high-end silicates that give protection against heat, etching and stain,” Collins says.

Miles adds that concrete countertops don’t need to be resealed once they are installed. “Granite needs to be sealed on a yearly basis but the busyness of granite hides stains,” he says.

Some craftsmen will tell their clients that a patina will develop. “Some sealers are water-based with wax and if the surface isn’t waxed every couple of days, a patina will develop. The sealer and the wax break down and the patina comes from surface contaminants,” Miles says. Overall, most concrete sealers are resistant to acid and wine.

One should consider that these countertops do crack. However the cracking is not like the large cracks found in sidewalks.

“Hairline cracks can occur but are harmless to the piece. They are literally hairline and if you’re not looking for them, you won’t see them,” Miles says. Because the cracks are so small, food and other matter doesn’t get stuck in them.

Creation Methods

Concrete countertops can be created by way of three different processes: precast, cast-in-place and concrete slabs. Precast is the most popular way of creating a concrete surface. In this style, a craftsman will make a template of the countertops at the site, make forms in the shop and then install it at the site. Many craftsmen will require cabinets be installed and all plumbing be ready at the time of the installation. Both Rodgers and Miles install the sinks themselves to make sure everything fits correctly.

Cast-in-place is least popular due to the numerous environmental considerations involved. In this process, a craftsman does all the work at the jobsite. This method has a shorter lead time than precast but can be risky since the craftsman essentially is turning a kitchen into a workshop.

The third option is concrete slabs that are offered through manufacturers. Two companies that manufacture large concrete slabs and sell to fabricators are Vetrazzo and EcoSurfaces. This new trend in concrete countertops is making them more accessible to architects and builders around the country because they are fabricated by the same people who handle granite. Builders need only locate their local natural stone fabricator for these products.

“We manufacture cement-based slabs using recycled glass. The slabs look identical to natural stone slabs and are available in two different sizes — 8 ft. by 3 ft. by 2 cm, and 10 ft. by 5 ft. 6 in. by 3 cm,” says John Collins, managing member, EcoSurfaces Manufacturing, Santa Ana, Calif.

Vetrazzo has a strong reputation for its recycled glass aggregate. “It has a different aesthetic because of the glass. We cut through the slab to expose the glass,” says James Sheppard, Richmond, Calif. Vetrazzo is offered in 9-ft. by 5-ft. by 3-cm slabs.

Both companies offer products for contemporary and traditional settings. “We have 20 different colors from dynamic colors to a range of neutral colors,” Sheppard adds.

EcoSurfaces is available in six colors and two textures: honed and exposed. “Honed is for more traditional applications.

Exposed would be used in a bar countertop or commercial setting,” says EcoSurfaces’ Collins. Different surfaces are also available from high polish, medium polish, leather and more.

Due to the high level of recycled glass in these surfaces, they meet the demand for green building products. Vetrazzo offers its clients a certificate of transformation that tells the homeowner the source of the glass in the countertop.

Both companies offer support to architects or builders. Vetrazzo has a design guidebook complete with technical details. It also has a fabricator training program so architects and builders are guaranteed they are working with certified fabricators.

EcoSurfaces has LEED assessments on its website and abides by the Marble Institute Specifications for fabricators.

Solid Green Benefits

As the green movement continues, it’s good to keep in mind the green benefits of concrete countertops. Besides using recycled glass, fly-ash can be used to add to its environmentally friendly benefits. “Concrete countertops are getting more known for being green. There are ways for our company to make it greener and to be used in place of other products,” Rodgers adds.

Granite still holds a large portion of the custom home pie, but as architects and builders understand the possibilities of concrete, this trend may shift. “If architects and builders get the right information, concrete countertops will be right up there with the granite trend,” Miles says. “If professionals are looking for a new product that can withstand the test of time, then they should use concrete.”