By: Amy E. Lemen
Concrete may have been relegated to skateboard parks, roller rinks and parking garages in the past, but it's taking center stage these days in residential home designs across the country - especially flooring.
Decorative concrete floors are quickly becoming a big design trend because of their durability, easy maintenance, sleek look and healthy-home properties. Carpet allergies a problem? Concrete and other natural flooring help reduce constant sneezing and wheezing. And as concrete for the home becomes more popular, consumers are demanding style to go along with it.
"People see floors done beautifully, and they can't believe it's concrete, and that's increased the profile of concrete," says Sherry Boyd, president of L.M. Scofield. "And, concrete can be quite economical - it's less expensive that slate or marble."
"Nine of 10 people say they didn't know concrete floors were available to them," says Joseph Francis, general manager of products and technical support for Renew-Crete Systems, Inc. "As creative as today's applicators can be, concrete can be used as art to functional floors to sculpture and architecture."
Acid stain and integral color:
Different techniques, beautiful results
It's true that concrete floors on the surface can have a cold look to them, but with popular coloring techniques like acid stains and integral color, consumers can get the style they want in warm tones that only complement their home's interiors.
Barbara Sargent, president of Kemiko Concrete Products, Inc., says it's been interesting watching the acid staining technique "come into its own."
"We started selling Kemiko products in 1970; before that, concrete was used for the flooring in Frank Lloyd Wright home designs," she says. "In the early '90s, during the economic downturn, homeowners started using concrete stain to save money, and the trend really took off in southwestern states like Texas and the southeast."
Sargent says that was the start of a major design trend - homeowners who led busy lives that simply didn't have the time to maintain and care for the floors in their home. And coloring the floors was an easy solution to add style as well as durability. However, there are pros and cons for each technique - and some general guidelines to follow in the process.
Acid stains: Subtle variations mean big style
The chief difference in acid stain versus integral color is that acid staining is applied after the concrete is initially poured and cured, while integral color is mixed into the concrete before it's poured - virtually integrating the color into the mix. Both are very different techniques - and homeowners choose them for very different reasons.
"Acid is a one-of-a-kind look," says Francis. "It's a very earthy, old, warm weathered look on a brand-new piece of concrete - that's what acid is designed to do."
"Every job is a work of art," says Janine Flynn, chief executive officer of Superstone, Inc. "Depending on the amount of lime, you'll get character cracks that make it even more beautiful."
So how does acid staining work? Most companies use a mild hydrochloric acid that reacts with water when it's combined. That solution is then applied to an unsealed concrete floor, and the chemicals react with the free lime substrate in cement to create a permanent coloration of the concrete.
The risk with acid stains? Like Forrest Gump and his big box of chocolates, you don't know exactly what you're going to get. Of course, that's half the fun.
"Acid stains have a different appearance - you can create a marbleized look with acid, almost like the variations you'll find in leather or silk," says Boyd. "Ask your applicator to see three or four projects he or she has done, because your result is highly based on the skill of the applicator."
Integral color: Predictable - and gorgeous
If acid staining is impulsive in terms of color, integral color is predictable: what you see in the sample is what you'll get on your floor. It's also a bit less messy; the color is simply dumped into the concrete truck and mixed up. However, experts say that the right mix is critical.
"You can still get some variation if, for example, one load has more water in it than another, or if the temperature is different," says Flynn.
"Integral color is more controllable in terms of the finished product tone and final color," says Francis. "It's more predictable, takes less creativity."
It's also one of Renew-Crete's most popular options. And, though it's more costly than acid staining at about $100 for 50 to 100 square feet (acid is about $50 for 300 to 500 square feet), it's still relatively inexpensive.
"In sheer volume, we sell more integral color," says Francis. "It's used in everything - from walls to bridges and masonry, besides flooring."
One caveat: whichever method you choose, make sure you use an applicator that is skilled in the process.
"If you're doing a patio project, there's no reason you can't do that yourself," says Sargent. "But if you're doing it in your home, why wouldn't you use an installer? It can be difficult to fix a poor application process - you just don't want to be in fix-it mode."
Trends in concrete
Another emerging trend in coloring interior concrete floors is painting and stamping for even more variation. Custom painted floors can give homeowners the look of marble, stone or slate - or can create a tiled appearance without seams or lines in a low-maintenance floor that also has a tremendous sense of style.
Superstone offers homeowners its Super Surface product, which is a stampable overlay. It goes over an existing slab, which is then stamped with the design of your choice.
"Everyone wants the Super Surface inside the house," says Flynn. "You can also color it with an acid stain or with our Super Hydratone - a water-based coloring system that gives highlights in a choice of 30 different colors."
If you're coloring existing concrete, Flynn recommends using a mixture of half xylene and half clear sealer, then mix in some pigmented sealer for the best results.
"It looks like a translucent surface - very natural with some color," she says. "You can also spray it in certain areas to give highlights."
Want to move beyond driveways and floors? All the experts interviewed for this story say that concrete is becoming the homeowner's material of choice for kitchen and bathroom countertops, showers and bathtubs.
"Twenty years ago, there was no acceptance," says Sargent. "Now, people point to it and say 'That's what I want.'"