Monday, October 19, 2009

Countertops That Rock: The Ease and Elegance of Concrete

If you have ever dismissed the idea of concrete countertops with concerns about cracking or prejudged it as cold and unfriendly, it may be time for you to take a long second glance. Now, more than ever, this earthy and environmentally kind material may find a place in your home and in your heart. And oh, the places it will go; concrete is showing off its new-found versatility by turning up in the most unexpected venues.

Talk about mud pies with moxie. Who would have thought you could create such allure with a mixture of cement, rocks and dye? Color personalities go far beyond the classic sidewalk gray, to spicy earthtones, warm and subtly textured, and to polished black, as swanky and hip as a beatnik in a beret.

Concrete is rocking it's style in home designs from rustic to contemporary, with intriguing applications in virtually every room of the house. Consider its benefits as a shower surround; minimal grout lines mean easy cleaning and the addition of inlaid tile or other decorative accents (think pebbles, shells, fossils, metals) bestows texture and personality.

In this master bathroom, an "eroded" edge detail adds to the distinctive character of the shower walls.

This elegant one-piece vanity top with integral sink and graceful curves would be right at home in a very traditional design setting.

Cement can be molded into virtually any shape or size you can conceive of. You want seamless? Cinchy. Curves? Can do. Choose any thickness, from thin and graceful to extra beefy. You may opt for a built-in raised drainboard or an inset butcher block for your kitchen.

Mossy green cabinetry, chocolate brown concrete countertops and a pebble-infused backsplash harmonize in this approachable kitchen.

Labor Intensive 
"Why does concrete cost as much as some granites?" is a question I have often fielded as a Kitchen Designer. I myself presumed that concrete should be more affordable until I watched the process first-hand. I sat at my desk in a kitchen showroom several years back watching, fascinated, as the fabricators returned day after day to complete the next stage in the eventual creation of a unique and sensual surface that would thereafter provoke visitors to appreciatively run their hands over it asking "Is this concrete? I love it. But I'm afraid it will crack."

Durable and Practical
It's important here to distinguish between cracking and "crazing". Crazing, or an occasional series of very fine lines in the outer surface of concrete, literally the width of a hair, is generally considered an enhancement to its natural charm.
Cracking, on the other hand, is happily a thing of the past. According to Bayard Fox, owner of Cement Elegance in Bend, Oregon, "New technologies have made it possible to make lightweight, crack free, and stain free concrete products. They also do not require any maintanence!" Fox has developed a system using just a 1/2 inch layer of concrete over a lightweight aggregate core which contributes to their "no cracking" warranty. And because worthy fabricators will stand behind their product, there's no reason to fear this user-friendly material. 

Environmentally Friendly
Fox lists these virtues which allow concrete to promote a happy habitat:
  • Locally produced, reducing shipping and fuel.
  • Raw materials are sourced locally.
  • Made custom, reducing waste inherent in other solid surfaces.
  • Can be repaired instead of replaced. Can be re-colored instead of replaced.
"The trend for unique products that have durability and longevity is exciting. Concrete has the flexibility to be made in any color or shape and can be made to fit any style of home. Contemporary design is making its way to the northwest. Concrete is perfect for this style." says Fox.
From Farmhouse to Modern, I think another reason this material transcends style is because there is just something endearing and unpretentious about such ambitious rock dust. And it sure cleans up nice.

Form meets function with chic, clean lines in this weatherproof concrete patio ensemble by Cement Elegance.

Top photo: courtesy Cocina Designs and Ruettgers Photography.
All other photos: courtesy Cement Elegance.

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