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Concrete: Creative Use and Proper Maintenance

Life might not be possible without concrete; it’s included in the construction of every building. So if the concrete industry is healthy, it’s a reflection on the entire construction industry. 

The good news is that cement and concrete sales are growing at a fast pace. The Portland Cement Association (PCA) produces quarterly economic forecasts of cement usage for both Wall Street and the federal government — Portland cement is considered to be a commodity. Consumption increased from October 2014 to December 2014 by approximately 15,000 metric tons, and sales are expected to increase by 8 percent each year for the next three years. 

That translates to increases in both commercial and residential construction. If Congress passes the infrastructure bill currently being discussed, the construction industry will get another big boost, further increasing cement sales.

The decorative concrete industry is more difficult to quantify because, unlike cement, no economic reporting is done. Joe Garceau, co-owner of Butterfield Color, a manufacturer of decorative materials and supplies in Aurora, Illinois, says, “Sales increased in 2014, and expect significant growth in 2015.” 

There are many types of decorative concrete including:

•    Colored concrete, which uses either integral colors or dust-on color hardeners to broadcast on the surface. It’s the oldest manufactured decorative product, dating back to almost 1920.
•    Acid etch staining, which employs chemicals that when placed on hardened concrete react with cement hydration byproducts to form colors that become permanent.
•    Stamped concrete patterning, in which a wide selection of patterns are used to stamp impressions in concrete while it is still in a plastic state.
•    Artificial rock work, a technique once the province of zoo construction and amusement parks, has found its way into residential projects such as fireplace hearths and facades, outside patio bench walls and wine cellars. This work is either hand carved in fresh concrete on site or as precast panels.
•    Specially constructed stencils, which add graphics, colors or textures to concrete surfaces.
•    Thin, stampable, self-leveling or thick overlay cements, which are placed over existing slabs, provide an infinite number of possibilities.
•    Decorative form liners attached to inside wall forms cast vertical patterns, especially masonry unit designs. Overlay cement products can also be troweled onto site surfaces to provide these finished looks.
•    Concrete dyes, which penetrate immediately after application. The color is translucent, so the look of the concrete still comes through. 
•    Epoxy coloring, which can be troweled on by talented artisans over concrete to achieve stunning effects.

Decorative concrete became popular for both residential and commercial applications with the introduction of stamped patterns because contractors and designers could become part of the creative experience. Stamped concrete is still the largest segment of the decorative industry.

Polished concrete is a popular treatment for commercial warehouse floors and increasingly for decorative work in restaurants and commercial office atriums. Judging from the increasing numbers of companies manufacturing diamond polishing machines and diamond “tooling,” it is a fast-growing industry.

Concrete countertops for residential kitchens and furniture also deserve mention. They were first introduced in the 1980s to wealthy homeowners who wanted a unique look. But over the years they have become popular with middle-income homeowners, too. Countertops are often diamond polished and colored with dyes or left a natural concrete color.

No product is perfect, and some maintenance is required to preserve decorative concrete, which provides additional opportunities for professional contractors. All of the products mentioned in this article require sealers, which either coat over a surface or penetrate the concrete.

The first maintenance step involves cleaning the concrete with pressure washers or scrubbing machines and then vacuuming the surface. Occasionally, repair work is needed when there is physical damage, requiring skilled workers with a good knowledge of materials.

Decorative concrete continues to become more popular because people can be creative with it and the prices are affordable. Ask yourself the question: “Would you rather install a colored, stamped concrete driveway at your home, or an asphalt driveway?”

Plain concrete is about the same cost as asphalt now, and the decorative work costs just a bit more.

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Joe Nasvik is a writer and editor serving the concrete industry. He has 18 years experience as a concrete contractor. Contact him at jnasvik@sbcglobal.net.

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