Beautiful, Durable, and Affordable: Decorative Concrete
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By Aaron Chusid, CSI
Sustainable design has penetrated the construction industry to such an extent
that buildings can no longer get by on LEED® points alone. Now owners expect
sustainability without sacrificing appearance, performance, or affordability.
Many designers are now turning to innovative decorative concrete techniques to
achieve the look and environmental profile they want while controlling costs.
What is decorative concrete?
The range of decorative concrete options continues to expand, moving past
simple exposed concrete to explore color, texture, shape, and more. Techniques
including dyeing, staining, stamping, stenciling, polishing, and sculpting have
found acceptance in a wide range of commercial, retail, institutional and
residential projects, and faux techniques mimic the appearance of more expensive
or labor-intensive materials, such as natural stone.
Decorative concrete extends beyond flatwork. Precast concrete elements are
prefabricated off-site, reducing labor costs and construction time. Concrete
countertops are popular because they can match the beauty and performance of
marble or granite at lower costs and with far greater versatility; through
custom forming they offer results not possible with other materials. Exotic
aggregates – some designers use bolts, gears, and seashells – can be
incorporated in the slab and exposed by grinding for truly unique looks. Tilt-up
construction also has long incorporated decorative techniques, using form liners
to create intricate textures and designs.
While the manufacture of concrete is still a major source of carbon dioxide
emissions, concrete construction offers benefits that can provide a net
advantage. First and foremost, it can reduce overall material use. Exposed
concrete surfaces remove the need for additional covering, such as tile or
paint, and the associated adhesives and coatings. This reduces total
construction time, providing further cost and environmental benefit. These
benefits get multiplied by concrete’s durability; a polished concrete floor that
lasts 50 years will have a lower lifecycle cost than floor coverings like carpet
or vinyl tile that require replacement every decade or less.
Decorative concrete has increased in popularity in the current economy because
it can be used in existing construction, on existing concrete, as well as new.
Extending the service life of existing facilities is another valuable
This article will examine several projects that successfully used decorative
concrete to produce highly sustainable results without sacrificing appearance or
The Intermediate Care Facility in Arlington, Tenn. provides transitional housing
for persons with mental retardation. The facility’s two 2,500 square foot
parking areas were surfaced with pervious concrete, a type of concrete with high
porosity, one of the EPA’s best management practices for controlling storm
runoff. Pervious concrete was used for the entire parking area, including drive
Using pervious for the parking areas eliminated the need for separate retention
ponds; connecting the concrete’s underlayment to a perforated drainage pipe
created a retention system with practically indefinite capacity. According to
J.B. Beer, President of Jaycon Development Corporation of Memphis, Tenn., the
contractors for the job, “The concrete took water as fast as we could pour it.
It didn’t even move from the spot, like we were pouring it on a sponge.”
Using pervious did not substantially increase construction time. Says Beer,
“Prep work took a week beforehand, but it only took two days to pour the
concrete.” Concrete was placed in strips 12 feet wide and 40-60 feet long;
narrow strips allowed teams to lay down plastic sheeting to cure the concrete
quickly after pouring.
According to Alan Sparkman, Executive Director of the Tennessee Concrete
Association, “These were some of the first commercial uses of pervious in the
Mid-Tennessee area. Now, almost every day someone is pouring pervious concrete.
The design community has migrated to it as the easiest, most cost-effective
solution, because it helps people meet increasingly stringent stormwater
regulations in space-limited urban sites.”
Estimating costs for pervious concrete can be tricky; first-costs are higher
than for impervious asphalt pavement, but total costs for stormwater management
can be substantially reduced. For the Arlington project, final installed cost of
the pervious concrete averaged $5 per square foot. Beer estimates retention
ponds for a project this size would cost $10,000-12,000 – less than half the
cost of the pervious – but would consume 7,500-10,000 square feet. Since land
costs can exceed $5 per square foot in urban settings, pervious saved money on
land costs alone. Active filtration requirements are also reduced as pervious
acts as a passive filter, reducing the amount of runoff water while improving
As pervious concrete gains wider adoption, it is also becoming more decorative.
Sparkman reports an increase in use of integrally colored pervious; designers
are also using innovative surface-applied aggregates, such as crushed recycled
glass, to make a surface as beautiful as it is sustainable.
One of the most common uses of decorative concrete is to emulate the visual
appeal of more expensive materials, while keeping the high performance and lower
cost of concrete. This was the goal at Rosedale Elementary School in Hillsboro,
Ore., one of the first ten schools in the country to earn LEED Gold
certification. Decorative concrete flooring helped by providing low emissions,
recycled content, and locally sourced materials. Highly reflective polished
concrete also improved the school’s use of natural lighting.
For the cafeteria and commons area -- a total of 7,500 square feet of flooring
-- polished concrete was the natural choice. “The main reason was to have a
floor that would not require sealing, waxing, stripping, and rewaxing,” explains
Loren Rogers, Executive Director of Facilities Planning & Properties for the
Hillsboro School District. “With a polished concrete floor, all we have to do is
sweep and mop it.”
Robinson Construction of Hillsboro, General Contractor for the project, and
Sustainable Flooring Solutions, the polishing contractor, achieved a
terrazzo-like look at concrete prices. A pea-gravel aggregate mix was floated on
top of the freshly poured concrete. Normally this would be pushed down and the
surface troweled to bring the cementitious cream to the surface; for this
project, the aggregate was left near the surface so it would be revealed during
polishing. Leaving aggregate so close to the surface did produce voids and air
pockets; these were filled in with concrete slurry. To fix the slurry in place
and prepare the floor for polishing, a colloidal silica-based densifier
manufactured by Lythic Solutions, Inc. was used.
According to Brad Sleeper, General Manager of Lythic Solutions, “This was a much
easier process than broadcasting the aggregate, or other typical processes that
involve extensive placement and compaction.” Troweling concrete to raise the
cream is also a labor intensive process; eliminating that step helped control
Final cost for the floor was $5.25 per square foot. Sleeper estimates doing a
similar floor in terrazzo would cost at least $30 per square foot because of
costly materials and labor. Rogers notes that the floor’s low maintenance costs
are also an important factor. “The upfront cost for this polished concrete floor
is about four times what I was told I would pay for vinyl tile. But the
lifecycle cost, the amount we save on not sealing, waxing, and stripping, will
pay for the polished concrete in just 4 years.”
Where to learn more
Decorative concrete is proving a cost-effective means of achieving both
sustainability and appearance goals. Demonstrating its cost benefits, however,
requires taking a long view to see how its impact on the total project offsets
higher first-costs. Estimators and designers interested in learning more about
decorative concrete should attend the Concrete Decor Show & Spring Training,
March 15-18, 2011 in Nashville, Tenn. The Concrete Decor Show is the industry’s
only conference and trade show focusing exclusively on decorative concrete.
Emphasis is placed on hands-on training led by top decorative concrete
professionals, and opportunities to network with industry experts. For more
information about the show, visit