Welcome to the world of concrete design
Concrete transcends most materials. This liquid-to-solid stone allows complete manipulation of shape and appearance. It’s no surprise that architects and designers are intrigued by concrete and have been utilizing it in their designs for centuries.
The appearance of each concrete product displays the process and the story with which it was cast, not unlike how our lives and experiences shape who we are. The manufacturing process creates a well-crafted and aesthetically pleasing product for those who appreciate and understand the true beauty of this material.
There are 10 specific things you really need to know as you consider adding this material to your project.
1. Concrete has a timeless aesthetic and complements just about any interior design style
Modern, rustic, contemporary, traditional, transitional and industrial, concrete has unmatched versatility when it comes to shape, color and size.
While granite and marble surfaces are beautiful in their own way, they both exhibit a great deal of variation in color and pattern due to the level of impurities they contain. Features such as veins, color deposits, speckling and mottling are common in these materials, making them somewhat of a challenge to work with when it comes to coordinating against an overall design theme.
In contrast, concrete pieces contain very subtle variation. This is because they are designed with intent - all of the materials and pigments used are determined up front, measured out, and then cast and cured according to a specific process. In addition, the shape of the piece - and thus the degree of modernity or antiquity - can be designed into the mold prior to casting.
For these reasons, concrete tends to align with a multitude of color schemes, tile patterns, architectural styles - making it the ideal medium for timeless appeal.
2. “Concrete” refers to an entire genre of composite mixtures - and GFRC performs at the highest level
The ubiquitous material poured into sidewalks and foundations is the crudest expression of concrete. But there is an endless spectrum of cement mixtures, some of which are quite applicable inside the home. When it comes to concrete site furnishings, the most common - and useful of these mixtures - is known as GFRC.
GFRC stands for glass-fiber-reinforced concrete. The glass fibers provide much higher tensile and flexural strength than standard structural concrete. GFRC typically has many high quality mix additives and a lower water-to-cement ratio. This enables it to easily reach a compression rating of 10,000 psi once cured (standard concrete has a compression rating between 2,500 psi for residential structures to 4,000 psi and higher in commercial structures).
These characteristics translate into real-world advantages. Because GFRC is so strong, fabricators can cast pieces that are larger, thinner, or otherwise not achievable when using standard concrete and other solid surfaces.
3. GFRC weighs a lot less than you might think
Lighter concrete enables fabricators to create very large and thin pieces - enormous tables, kitchen islands, countertops, wall panels, etc.
GFRC is lighter than traditional concrete for 2 main reasons: First, because it is stronger, it can be cast much thinner while retaining the same integrity. Less material means less weight. Second, its glass fibers are significantly lighter than the same volume of aggregate (heavier sand or aggregate) they are substituting. A 30” sink made of GFRC only weighs ~75 lbs and can be shipped throughout the world using UPS.
Additionally, in the case of longer objects (e.g. lengthy tables), GFRC’s strength makes it less dependent on use of steel reinforcement rods that might be required when using traditional cast concrete. GFRC is also 30% lighter than granite per square foot.
Overall, the utility of GFRC is an obvious choice for fabricators and end users alike as it reduces the weight burden on nearly every aspect of concrete furnishings including production, shipping and installation.
4. Handmade concrete site furnishings bridge the gap between art & object
A truly hand-made product is made by people for people. It is one-of-a-kind, carrying the signature of having been created at a unique place in time while under a specific set of conditions. Every attribute of the finished product was determined, revealed, or finessed by a human being.
Casting concrete is extremely hands-on and labor intensive. Every project makes its way through each stage of the manufacturing process where it is met with the same high level of care from craftsmen wielding the necessary tools and the proper experience.
There is an intense amount of oversight and quality control that goes into making sure that every detail meets or exceeds both internal standards and the expectations of the client.
While inherently laborious, it means that each piece is monitored by multiple people on a continuing basis - from the moment it is cast to the point where it leaves the factory. Defects or problems can therefore be detected at a very early stage and then quickly addressed.
5. How the surface is sealed makes all the difference
Just like a fine painting is coated in a final skin of varnish that pulls it altogether, concrete furnishings - particularly sink, tables and countertops - should be properly sealed.
But not all sealers are created equal. Naked concrete - even GFRC - is inherently porous and therefore must be sealed to protect it over time. Since there is no industry standard for sealing concrete, each fabricator has their own sealing processes and methods.
The two most common ways to seal concrete are with either Topical Sealers or Reactive Sealers. No sealer or sealing method is bulletproof and should not be expected to last a lifetime. There may be a point where the concrete seal will need to be reapplied or touched up to maintain a durable and beautiful finish.
Reparability is the most important trait for any sealer. Avoid inexpensive penetrating sealers and/or wax as neither of these give the concrete a great level of protection.
6. Seamless integration opens up a lot of possibilities
Because concrete is cast from liquid to solid, it provides an opportunity to create truly unique pieces containing features that will enhance the user’s experience and reflect his/her lifestyle. Sink drainboards, aprons/drop edges, trivets, surface elevation changes, etc. can all be incorporated into the project during the casting process.
Concrete countertops and sink basins cast as a single piece are referred to as Integrated Sinks. This process yields a seamless and easy-to-maintain finished product. Unlike the case with granite or quartz, there is no need for purchasing a separate undermount sink, cutting the appropriate countertop holes, and then attaching the sink.
In addition to being stronger than other alternatives, integrated sinks will be devoid of gaps that can trap water and other debris - making them easier to clean and thus more hygienic.
Rather than having mitered seams, furnishings like tables and kitchen island tops with “waterfall legs” can all be cast as one solid piece.
7. With concrete, “customized” can also mean “personalized”
Concrete site furnishings can be customized in a wide variety of ways to suit the projects for which they're planned. The dimensions, color, ADA compliance and number of faucet holes are merely the most common forms of customization.
But concrete can also be personalized by utilizing many other creative treatments. Techniques applied to liquid concrete include stamping, casting onto unique surfaces or patterns, embedding objects or other materials (wood, stones, metallic powders, mosaic tiles, towel racks, etc.), and embossing (casting against objects that are later removed, leaving an impression).
Techniques can also be applied to the concrete once it has hardened. These include distressing (antiquing), etching (or removing concrete) via the use of acid, and further coloring and/or pigmentation.
It is common for companies to have their logos and brands distinguished and captured in concrete this way, or for designers to add unique images or messaging.
8. Like snowflakes, no two concrete products look exactly the same
Concrete furnishings are handmade using a complex brew of materials in exacting quantities. Yet, even two identical sinks made on the same day by the same artisan with the same ingredients and formulation will have slightly different surface and edge characteristics. It is not unlike different grains of the same wood or pattern variations in granite, only more subtle.
The unique patina of each piece is largely due to the curing process through which the liquid product becomes a fused, high-strength solid product. But there are a multitude of factors that contribute to natural variation, including (but not limited to) cement particle size and moisture content, aggregate type and size, pigments (if applicable), the length of time spent mixing and pouring, the casting material (e.g. wood, melamine, steel, etc.), the method of compaction, ambient temperature and humidity, the type of post-cast finishing performed, the type of sealer used (if any), and the style and technique of the artisan crafting the piece.
In any finished concrete piece, surface variations are as much a key aesthetic feature as they are a signature of all that went into creating it.
9. As with all materials, planning and logistics are vital considerations
Since most concrete pieces are made-to-order, it is important to adequately plan for manufacturing time, shipping, and preparation.
In terms of timing, keep in mind that handmade furnishings might take several weeks before they arrive at their final destination. Highly customized projects - either commercial or residential - might require more time due to additional engineering or higher degrees of detail or complexity.
Especially large or custom pieces can also present a different kind of challenge: will it even fit through the doorways, stairwells or elevators that stand between the truck and the ultimate destination?
Some concrete projects (e.g. sinks or wall panels) might require that brackets, bolts, reinforcements, or other mediums be mounted to studs, walls, floors, and other surfaces prior to installation. And while certain environments may present unique challenges, other environments might present opportunities.
Be sure to speak to the fabricator to ascertain whether there are any preparatory steps or sequences you must take in order to guarantee a successful installation.
10. Because its applications are so vast, concrete is here to stay
Concrete is the single most utilized material in the history of civilization. That’s because so few materials are as simultaneously robust, long-lasting and versatile as concrete.
From DIYers fiddling in their garage, to state-of-the-art government laboratories attempting to crack the next civil engineering super material, there is an astonishing amount of global research and development aimed at making concrete even more relevant than it already is. The last decade alone has experienced a significant resurgence in interest for using concrete to create things ranging from jewelry to 3D-printed bridges.
It’s no surprise then that concrete has managed to shed its reputation as a vestige of over-urbanization and steadily migrate into the household in the form of innovative, refined, functional objects that both serve and inspire.
The only question remaining is “just how far can we take this material?”
As you can see, concrete design goes far beyond what you might have imagined. It is the medium of the imagination. It can go nearly anywhere and nearly do anything. Take a closer look at concrete for your home—inside and out.