Remodeling 101: Concrete Countertops
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From rough hewn to refined, concrete countertops have moved beyond the drab slabs of the past. Advancements have catapulted concrete into the world of architectural-grade products, alongside popular stone and wood options. A serious contender for those seeking a customized material with a natural sensibility, it's widely adaptable, but is definitely not for those who cherish perfection. Is it the right countertop material for you and your kitchen? Read on. Above: Not reserved for rustic or industrial settings, concrete counters are amazingly versatile. New York artist Angela A'Court used concrete counters in her kitchen remodel, drawn by the fact they're "not too perfect" (for more on her kitchen, see Rehab Diaries: An Artist's NYC Kitchen Renovation ). Photo by Ty Cole . 1. What exactly is concrete? Above: Concrete is a natural composite material made from an aggregate (typically rocks, sand, and fly ash) plus a cement binder (such as limestone and calcium sulfate) and water. (For those wondering what the difference is between concrete and cement, the answer is that cement is a component of concrete: sidewalks are made of concrete, not cement.) Several companies offer sustainable versions of concrete composed of high percentages of recycled content, including waste fly ash, glass dust, and rice husks. The finished product weighs about the same as granite. Photo via Sunset . Above: "Unlike concrete counters of the past, the new concrete counters are lighter and some have polymers mixed in, so they don't stain or crack," says architect Alissa Pulcrano of Portland, Oregon's Bright Designlab . Shown here, a NuCrete concrete countertop in the firm's Irvington Industrial Modern Kitchen project. 2. How are concrete counters fabricated and installed? Concrete counters are either precast in a shop or cast in place during your kitchen construction. Pre-Cast Concrete Counters: The majority of today's concrete counters are precast, and for good reason. Made to order in any size you like, precast counters are poured in the controlled environment of a shop, enabling more color and texture options as well as the ability to use modern reinforcement technology (more on that below). Each counter is handmade, enabling customization of shape, thickness, sink, and appliance cutouts, and additional details like an integrated dish drainer. Precasting also offers the ability to create a wider range of counter edge options than you can make on site. An identifying sign of precast concrete counters is that they come with visible seams, which is not necessarily a bad thing: seams enable the counter to flex and move a bit more, reducing the likelihood of cracks that occur with concrete's natural shrinkage over time. Cast in Place Concrete Counters: Counters are often cast in place in setups that require irregular shapes. And when poured on site, counters typically do not have seams. Above: A slender concrete counter with a delicate-looking edge detail by Concreteworks of Oakland, CA, in a project by SF architect John Maniscalco . Mark Rogero, principal of Concreteworks , explains that of late there's been "a major shift in reinforcement technology—we use fiberglass reinforcement in surface concrete that has made it stronger, thinner, and more refined than the steel-reinforced concrete of the past." Now concrete counters can be as thin as three-quarters of an inch. Photo by Mariko Reed . 3. What colors and textures do concrete countertops come in? Concrete countertops can be made in virtually any color, though stony gray continues to be the most widely used. Concrete finishes range from rough hewn to diamond polished. That said, there are natural variations in color and texture that occur as the counter is crafted and cured; to concrete advocates, it's one of material's appealing qualities. Above: Concrete counters mix well with other countertop materials. Shown here, concrete and Calacatta Gold marble counters come together in a New York Meat Packing District loft by Leone Design Studio . Architect Roy Leone likes to use concrete when trying to bring more warmth and a greater tactile quality to countertops. "Since they're handmade, they have a character that simply doesn't exist in stone or synthetic materials," he says. "The great thing about concrete is that you can adjust the color to be browner or bluer or whatever works with the overall palette." Photo by Albert Vecerka . Above: A chalk-white concrete kitchen counter by Concreteworks in a project by architect John Maniscalco —white, though not associated with concrete, has become a desirable option. Photo by Mariko Reed . 4. Do concrete countertops need to be sealed and maintained? Like most natural countertop materials, concrete is porous and needs to be sealed to prevent staining. And, depending on the sealant used, some discoloration and patina may develop—a chance outcome that's appealing to some, appalling to others. Sealing technology is now so advanced that some fabricators call their concrete counters stain-proof, and provide warranties against staining. Talk to your fabricator or contractor about the best sealant for the look you want. Maintenance is minimal with concrete countertops: Regular cleaning with non-abrasive cleaners is recommended, as is periodic waxing if your counters have a polished finish. Above: The kitchen of actress-turned-designer Amanda Pays features matte-finished concrete countertops, as well as floors, all of which were cast in place. "Concrete is definitely not for the uptight perfectionist," says Pays, "but I like the way it makes the room feel lived in." For a full exploration of Amanda's kitchen, see our new book Remodelista, A Manual for the Considered Home . Photo by Matthew Williams . Above: A concrete counter with a polished finish in a kitchen by architect Francis D'Haene of D'Apostrophe Design . Placing hot pans directly on concrete counters won't harm the concrete, but may discolor the sealant. Also, cutting directly on concrete will not only damage your cutlery, but may result in scratches in the sealant; cutting boards and trivets are recommended. Countertops and image via The Concrete Shop . 5. How much do concrete counters cost? Handcrafted and custom made for each application, concrete counters are not a budget item. Because of the variability of material and situation, prices range from $70 to $140 per square foot. According to Mark Rogero of Concreteworks , a good rule of thumb is to plan for $120 per square foot for a fully installed architectural-grade concrete counter. Above: New York designer James Huniford's kitchen has concrete countertops that were inspired by his childhood in Upstate New York, where he grew up admiring old stone quarries. The countertops introduce an unexpected twist to a traditional kitchen; see Steal This Look: James Huniford's Hamptons Kitchen . Photo by Robyn Lea for Est Magazine . Concrete Countertop Recap PROS: Concrete counters are a custom handmade product that you can design to fit your space and aesthetic. Concrete is available in a wide array of colors that can be adjusted to match your palette. Despite being a hard surface, concrete provides a soft, textured, natural feel to counters. Properly sealed and maintained, concrete countertops will wear well for years—and can be used indoors and out. Like other natural countertop materials, such as wood and stone, concrete counters develop a patina with use. CONS: Concrete is a porous material and can stain. Sealing is key. Caused by the natural shrinkage of the material, concrete countertops can develop minor hairline cracks that are nonstructural—some consider these a flaw, others a positive textural characteristic. It's hard to control concrete's natural variations in color and texture There's no need to limit your use of concrete to the kitchen. Have a look at hotel that makes inventive use of cast concrete: The Homemade Baja Hotel, $75 a Night Edition . Researching new countertops? Read Questions to Ask When Choosing Your Kitchen Countertops . And for more specifics on the subject, see our Remodeling 101 posts: The Intel on Black Marble Countertops . 10 Easy Pieces: Remodelista Kitchen Countertop Picks. A Marble Countertop Lookalike, Minus the Maintenance . Remodeling 101: Butcher Block Countertops .