authors Janice Costa | July 3, 2017
While designers often tout the benefits of quartz, granite, solid surface and laminate, one unique material is often overlooked. But concrete has seen a surge of interest in recent years, gaining attention for its flexibility, versatility and natural beauty – as well as its ability to be forged into a virtually limitless array of one-of-a-kind designs. Concrete can add interest to the kitchen or bath through myriad shapes, sizes, colors and textures.
Indeed, one of concrete’s primary benefits is that “it will and can fit into any style,” according to Kevin Gehman, owner of the PA-based Solid Rock Concrete Design, who sees concrete as the ultimate chameleon. He explains, “We pride ourselves in producing pieces that do not demand attention but receive the ‘best supporting actor role’ in each and every project we do.”
At the AZ-based Architectural Concrete Interiors, Cody Carpenter likes to use concrete “for when you want to break outside the box of normality and really customize something.” He believes the material is particularly well suited for three-dimensional shapes and projects that require specialty finishes.
Architect Maria Diaz-Joves, RA, AIA, of PA’s a423 architecture & design loves concrete because “it can be warm and rustic or sleek and crisp or very elegant and ornate – therefore, it can be used on any style.” She adds, “We have used it with raw steel for an industrial look and with antique carved wooden legs for a vintage kitchen table. We’ve also paired it with reclaimed barn wood in a rustic setting and with glazed modern tile and bamboo cabinets for a clean, minimal look. Concrete plays very well with other materials and that is what makes it so appealing to any design style.”
Part of concrete’s appeal is its ability to work in a wealth of applications, according to Gehman. He explains, “Concrete’s flexibility is a very valuable addition to any kitchen or bath project. It can be utilized where other conventional products cannot, i.e. non-uniform, odd shapes. And concrete can be used not only aesthetically, but functionally. It has the ability to support itself and be molded into various shapes and designs.”
Diaz-Joves also sees flexibility as a key advantage to concrete, pointing out that it allows for customization of the design, texture, shape and finish. She adds, “It has the beauty and character of a natural material and can be molded to almost any shape.”
Carpenter is another artisan who gives concrete’s versatility rave reviews. “Concrete is one of the most versatile surface materials available…and because we are starting from a hand-blended material, we can use different types of concrete mixes that will deliver a wide range of surface finishes and textures – from rustic pitted and distressed finishes to smooth, modern and sleek. Different decorative aggregates, glass, steel shavings or inlays/embedments can also be incorporated into the surface finish to further customize it.”
He continues, “Colors are another customizable trait of concrete, using pigments and/or stains that can be either an integral part of the mix or applied to the surface to tailor it to color schemes within the space [where] it will live.”
However, he warns that this versatility only comes with experience, as the finer points of working with concrete can take years to master.
Diaz-Joves sees many benefits to working with concrete, and the biggest, she maintains, is the amazing ability to create highly personalized designs. As she points out, “The possibilities are endless and each piece is one of a kind!” This makes it a natural fit for kitchen and bath designers looking to create uniquely custom creations for their clients.
Carpenter concurs: “The biggest advantages of working with concrete is allowing yourself the creative freedom to play with designs that are a bit outside the box. Most everyone in our industry is drawn to this medium because of its creative capabilities.”
For Gehman, the material’s appeal comes from its ability to do or be nearly anything. He explains, “We can do things with concrete that one cannot do with any other surface. Architects and designers are becoming very creative when it comes to utilizing concrete in their designs.”
He adds, “Functional areas can be landscaped into these pieces. An example of this would be integrated drain board and cutting board rails, recessed outlets, inlays, backlighting of precious stones and gems and fiber optics…there are virtually no limitations to concrete. It can be poured. It can be sprayed. It can be troweled. It can be hand-packed. It can be ultra smooth or rough. It can be any color. And it can be any size.”
Of course, working with concrete also presents challenges. One of the biggest, according to Carpenter, is learning how to control all of the scenarios that come into play when creating a material from scratch. He explains, “Refining concrete is much different then pouring thick exterior slabs. Temperature, additives, molding techniques – all affect the outcome. There are so many variables you are constantly trying to control. It takes thousands and thousands of hours, years, even decades to learn its nuances. And even then, things can be problematic.”
Gehman agrees that the many variables – “temperature, humidity, shop conditions, inconsistencies within the raw materials, fluctuations in the cement, etc.” – can make working with concrete challenging at times.
Another challenge lies in the sealing process. He explains, “There are so many types and applications available that there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution.” Likewise, he notes, “The weight and size can be challenging. Flipping, processing, transporting and installing are all challenges when it comes to safely and effectively working with concrete.” And, of course, no two pieces are exactly alike. Yet he believes these subtle nuances just add to the uniqueness and beauty of the material.
For Diaz-Joves, the greatest challenge is that, “Concrete is unpredictable and unique, as most natural materials are.” However, she adds, “We happen to love that, too!”
Carpenter agrees that, whatever challenges the material presents, it’s well worth it. As he sees it, “It’s an industry of passion, anxiety, excitement and creativity. We are artists and this is why we choose this path.”
KITCHEN & BATH APPLICATIONS
Concrete seems to be gaining ground in the kitchen and bath, and Gehman believes that consumers are seeking it out because “it’s not average and ordinary.” He notes, “Concrete is being used by itself in a full kitchen countertop or as an accent piece in an island and even used as floor tiles. In the bathroom, a vanity can be made with an integrated, concrete sink as a seamless top. Concrete can be fabricated into an all-in-one shower pan with a hidden curb drain, along with matching one-piece shower panels and benches.”
He cites several concrete projects he’s completed, including a master bath renovation that utilized concrete in an oversized vanity that wrapped around a dividing wall as bedside tabletops. He says, “The shower pan was a one-piece 6’x8′ all-in-one with a hidden curb drain system. Outside the shower was a concrete floor with heating elements to keep the area comfortable. Two floating concrete benches finished off the shower area.”
In a kitchen project, all the countertops were done in concrete, and he explains, “This included a quarter-radius bar top with a waterfall leg where the exposed aggregate was utilized to ‘splash down’ onto the custom-made concrete floor tiles.”
A third project featured a large, seamless island that was created with a unique processing technique “which was used to expose some of the aggregate around the edge where the seating area was to create a beautiful design element.”
Diaz-Joves sees concrete being used not only in countertops, but in backsplashes, custom shower pans, built-in sinks, drainboards and in conjunction with other materials like wood or metal inlays. She notes, “We’ve used it for a 9′-long vanity top with a built-in double sink, a shower pan with a slot drain and incorporated LED lighting and as a kitchen island top in combination with a maple live-edge wood slab. Each time we used a different color, texture and pattern, which was only possible with a handcrafted material.”
Carpenter recalls a project he did with a multi-functional 1,800-lb. concrete island. “This piece had a large undercut on the overhang that created a seatable island on all sides [which] doubled as a large community table during gatherings. It also had a removable section of walnut butcher block that created an excellent prep station for cutting up produce,” as well as an integral prep sink at one side of the island.
He notes that the shape complemented the angles of the exterior of the architecture and created the overhang on all sides, which eliminated the need for a toe kick. He adds “This allowed us to create a very clean steel cabinet box core that would sit on the underside of the island. I made use of some insets and removable stainless steel grates that would act as drying racks and protect the sink from hard wear. I was also able to integrate some electrical outlets on the underside of the overhang that are not visible until you gaze under the overhang. There is also an integrated knife holder that passes through the overhang with an interchangeable box for hiding sponges.”
While that island was massive, Carpenter notes that, in other applications, concrete can actually create a lighter feeling. He explains, “Because of some concrete mix design breakthroughs, we’re able to create lighter, more structurally sound concrete that can ‘float’ across large expanses, giving bathrooms a much more open and airy design – especially in tighter spaces.”
While concrete offers many potential benefits, designers looking to work with this material should first do their research, Gehman asserts. “Find the best concrete artisan in your area,” he says. “Look at their portfolio. Check out their showroom or find out where they have pieces in other locations to examine their craft.” Referrals are also a good idea, as he notes, “Typically, a good concrete artisan is already established with architects, designers, homebuilders, etc.”
Carpenter agrees: “Research the portfolio of the individual, ask how long they have been doing this. You will find that the more experienced concrete artisans will prefer to navigate and help educate the designer on the process and capabilities.”
As for Diaz-Joves, she believes the best thing about concrete is the creative possibilities. Her advice to design professionals is simple: “Be free and creative, and let concrete work with you.” ▪