When it comes to innovative design ideas for the kitchen, bath and other areas of the home, concrete can be a solid material choice. Tying into the growing desire for design elements that can be customized to the client’s specifications, this material offers many unique properties that give it an upscale appeal. Equally important, concrete is many times easier to use than most design professionals realize.
Concrete countertops share many of the characteristics of other countertop materials such as solid surface. For instance, they are versatile, durable and offer a wide range of colors, textures and finishes. Additionally, they allow for integrally molded sinks, drain boards, backsplashes and seamless installations.
However, using concrete as a design element opens up possibilities far beyond what many other countertop materials allow.
One of the main differentiators of concrete products is their customizability. A skilled concrete countertop maker is a craftsperson in the true sense of the word. He or she can create three-dimensional molds to fit any design the client or kitchen and bath professional can envision, allowing endless possibilities for not only flat slabs but also vertical and sculptural elements.
Concrete offers a broad range of design possibilities because it can be molded and manipulated while it is in a fluid, malleable state, and it can be cut, shaped, honed and polished when it is hard and solid. These qualities make designing with concrete both flexible and highly innovative.
However, misconceptions about concrete abound. Concrete countertops are sometimes viewed as esoteric and finicky, appropriate only for those who want really far-out industrial design.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Concrete countertops can be any style, from French Country to Industrial, Retro to Rustic.
Concrete countertops are often used to beautiful effect in traditional style homes, especially higher-end custom homes.
Typically, concrete countertops in these homes are chosen in warm earth tones reminiscent of natural stone. They provide an alternative to the hard, formal look of granite. And, because concrete can be molded into endless shapes, intricate edge details are possible that would be impractical or impossible in natural stone.
Concrete countertops can also be a terrific element for tying together a design. Concrete countertops can be color-matched to a paint, fabric or tile sample selected for a completely custom new home. Backsplash tiles can actually be embedded in the countertop to tie the theme together.
Concrete countertops can easily incorporate the embedding of different materials, shapes or colors. This adds to the material’s custom capabilities, since it allows kitchen and bath design professionals to incorporate meaningful mementos that reflect the clients’ interests or passions. For example, in one design, a couple’s broken wedding china was embedded in the bar top to personalize the space.
Concrete can also be seamlessly cast into a variety of forms and shapes that would be difficult or cost-prohibitive in natural stone. Integral concrete sinks are popular options, but more complex and non-traditional forms are also possible.
Uniqueness and personalization are what clients most desire in concrete countertops. From a simple but meaningful embedment to a spectacular functional sculpture, if the designer or client can dream it, a concrete countertop craftsperson can make it.
What type of client would find concrete countertops a good match for their kitchen, bath or other-room project? People who value high-quality, handmade objects are more likely to perceive the benefits of concrete countertops. Indeed, the “bobo” or bourgeois bohemian – affluent but creative people who value handmade items and natural materials – tends to find concrete an attractive option.
Interestingly, concrete aficionados are drawn to this material not only because of what it can be, but because of what it is not.
On the surface, concrete’s uniqueness, customizability and wide design flexibility attract those who want looks that other materials cannot provide. Concrete’s hand-crafted quality contrasts with mass-produced slabs, and harmonizes well with wood, glass, stone, tile and metal.
But many clients who choose concrete do so for reasons other than its appearance. Concrete appeals to people who want to add “green appeal” to their homes. Most concrete countertops are hand made, using at least some natural and recycled materials. Crushed bottles, automobile glass or even porcelain from unused tubs, sinks and toilets can be used to replace mined aggregate. Portland cement content can be reduced by using more environmentally friendly additives. Concrete countertops are locally made rather than strip mined and shipped overseas.
A growing movement of discontent with the commonplace is also drawing more people to concrete. As granite moves from a premium material to a more commonplace countertop choice, those who would have chosen granite for its natural beauty and uncommon nature are now looking for something new and different.
It’s not uncommon to hear dissatisfaction with granite’s shiny formality or sheer commodity. And, growing concerns with the environmental impact of quarrying and importing natural stone from across the world have environmentally conscious clients looking toward locally made materials such as concrete.
Market acceptance of concrete countertops is at different phases, depending on where you are in the country. In many areas of the country, granite is becoming passé as it becomes more commoditized and less expensive. Fabricators are offering granite at lower and lower prices, and introducing 2 cm thick granite at increasingly mainstream prices. Homeowners are starting to say, “Everybody has granite. I want something different.” This is where concrete can provide an attractive alternative.
However, design professionals need to recognize that concrete should not be sold merely as a granite replacement. The craftspeople who make custom concrete countertops can offer tremendous design flexibility, and this is key to marketing concrete to consumers.
Of course concrete isn’t for everyone. Clients who are extremely picky about every little imperfection may not be the best candidates for concrete, or for natural stone for that matter. An engineered stone countertop might be better for these clients. And, as with any truly custom, hand-made product, concrete’s premium pricing discourages low- to mid-end clients looking for less expensive options.
Concrete, like other materials, has its advantages and disadvantages. No discussion would be complete without a fair discussion of both the positives and negatives. Popular press has often focused on the negatives, but there are many positives that can make concrete the right choice for certain clients.
Some of the key advantages of designing with concrete are as follows:
- Custom capabilties: Concrete’s biggest advantage is that it is completely custom. Clients choosing concrete can have a countertop that is unique to them, and highly personalized.
- Versatility: Concrete is extremely versatile, allowing designers freedom from constraints of size and shape so they can focus on design.
- Practicality: Contrary to popular belief, concrete countertops do not need to be stain-prone and difficult to maintain. They do not have to “develop a patina.” In the past few years, concrete sealer technology has progressed by leaps and bounds, and sealer manufacturers are recognizing that concrete countertops have unique and stringent performance requirements with regard to staining, heat and scratching. Most concrete countertops behave similar to granite with respect to staining.
- Imperfect nature of material: Concrete countertops are hand made and hand finished, so minor imperfections should be seen as an advantage. Since concrete is a heterogeneous mixture of many different ingredients, subtle variations in color, shade, texture and overall appearance should be expected. All concrete is susceptible to tiny, harmless hairline cracks. They will sometimes appear months or years after installation, and are generally a result of seasonal movement of the cabinets and the house itself. These should be considered part of the aesthetic charm of concrete, and not a defect. Like natural stone, concrete exhibits natural beauty rather than plastic perfection.
Following are some of the key disadvantages of designing with concrete:
- Unrealistic expectations on the part of consumers: All concrete countertops are not the same. The concrete’s stain-, heat- and scratch-resistance depend on the maker. Individual craftspeople can provide information about performance characteristics of sealers used, so designers can properly educate clients about what to expense. Due diligence is key to client satisfaction.
- Long lead time: Concrete countertops are a long lead time item. Precast concrete countertops generally take approximately four to six weeks to create. Custom colors or custom integral sink shapes, for example, can add additional time. Early planning and project coordination are the keys to successfully integrating concrete countertops into a project.
- Difficulties in finding good concrete countertop craftspeople: Not all concrete countertops are created equal. This is an extremely important point, and the source of most problems with concrete countertops.
Finding a Professional
Reliable, professional concrete countertop makers can be hard to find. There simply aren’t enough competent craftspeople in all areas of the country. More contractors are seeing the popularity of concrete countertops and getting into the business.
This will increase supply, but it also necessitates caution.
Many decorative concrete contractors mistakenly believe that they can elevate a floor on some cabinets and that makes a concrete countertop. However, the aesthetic and performance requirements of any countertop are different from those for any floor. Many excellent concrete countertop craftsmen get started with floors, but kitchen designers should not assume that because a contractor has experience with concrete floors that he or she can automatically make a good concrete countertop.
In hiring a contractor who works with concrete countertops, it is critical to get references, get samples and see actual projects they’ve done. Find out how much experience they have or how well they’ve been trained. Consider the contractor’s professionalism and membership in any trade organizations.
Books and videos have made it easy for do-it-yourselfers and entry level contractors to make concrete countertops, but these tend to be low in price and poor quality. It’s best to avoid shopping by price. Concrete countertops are not a low-price alternative, and a contractor who says otherwise may not understand the quality level the kitchen and bath industry demands.
Some kitchen and bath design professionals, having had a bad experience with the material in the past, or having read blanket statements such as “concrete countertops stain” or “concrete countertops crack,” may feel that they cannot trust the material in their designs. But, as with any material, using the right concrete countertop maker can make all the difference. Reviewing the information here, and on www.ConcreteCountertops.net, may cast a different light on concrete’s potential, subsequently opening up a whole new world of design possibilities.
What Design Pros Need to Know About the Concrete Countertop Process
Although kitchen and bath design professionals will generally not be responsible for making a concrete countertop, it’s important for them to understand how the countertop will be made. Understanding the process will help them to better plan projects and build realistic client expectations about the time frame, performance characteristics, etc.
The basic steps of the process for making precast concrete countertops are as follows:
- Template: This is done exactly as it would be with other countertop surfaces, usually with manual methods, to produce a full-size template.
- Form: Forms made of melamine, wood, steel or foam are built around the templates on sturdy, flat and level casting tables. The forms are almost always built for upside-down casting.
- Reinforce: Steel rebar or carbon fiber grid is arranged to sit in the bottom of the countertop (the top of the forms) to provide tensile strength to the concrete and prevent breakage.
- Mix: The concrete is mixed either using a from-scratch recipe of sand, cement, aggregate and special chemical admixtures or highly specialized concrete countertop mixes. Usually pigments are mixed in at this point to provide coloring.
- Pour: The concrete is poured or placed into the forms. If custom embedments such as pieces of glass or metal are used, they are usually secured to the bottom of the forms with the concrete poured over them for a custom look.
- Cure: Concrete hardens and strengthens through a chemical curing process. Slabs must be kept damp and covered during the curing period. The length of time needed to cure to an appropriate strength depends on the properties of the mix, and varies widely, according to experts..
- Hone/Grind: The forms are stripped away, and then the slabs are flipped over. Depending on the mix design and method, the slabs may require grinding, slurrying with a cement paste to fill air holes in the concrete and polishing. Usually edge designs have already been cast in the countertop; however, it is possible to use diamond tooling to cut edge designs, but any aggregates in the concrete will be exposed.
- Stain or Dye (Optional): Some craftsmen use acid stain or dyes to color the surface of the concrete. Sometimes these colorings are applied over integrally colored concrete to give more depth of color or patterning, or over stencils to create an intricate pattern for a unique look.
- Seal: Concrete must be sealed. Many of the performance properties of concrete countertops (stain resistance, acid resistance, heat resistance, scratch resistance, required maintenance) depend on the sealer. Concrete countertop manufacturers use a wide range of sealers, from penetrating to film-building, that provide a wide range of performance characteristics, gloss and build levels.
- Install: Installation is performed almost exactly the same way granite countertops are installed.