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The Metamorphosis of Decorative Polished Concrete

The Cutting Edge

By Sharon Harry

Customized color palettes, elaborate etched designs, and layered, mottled hues have intertwined the polished concrete and decorative concrete markets. Decorative polished concrete creates a whole new aesthetic, merging a flooring system that was originally intended to minimize maintenance with one that adds integrated colors, acid stains, and stenciled designs.


While the coloration of concrete has been around for decades, the converged application techniques radiating from the decorative industry have spawned this fresh dynamic for polished concrete, taking it beyond the industrial. Born out of the creative artistry of the craftsmen applicators, the development of unconventional methods mingle acid stains and solvent mixed dyes with water based colorants to create an entirely new and exotic patina. John Groom, of Concrete Designs and Resurfacing is very familiar with this combined technique. On one of his projects, he used a unique blending of acid stains to obtain a floor that is reminiscent of an aerial photograph of the earth, with bubbling geysers erupting from the crust of the terrain. By breaking the rules of traditional acid stain application, Groom has accomplished multi tiered color by overlaying acid stains with penetrating stains, and by combining densifiers with water based dyes. These innovations have greatly influenced the polishing market and it is the tradesmen of the art that are the impetus.


Industry growth sprouts the necessity for advanced tools and products, and as decorative concrete melds with polishing, technology is challenged to keep up. The product choices have skyrocketed. Tradesmen can choose from an entire Pantone® spectrum of hue ranges, and manufacturers continue to push to develop the newest, cutting edge invention that will become the next progression. Integral colored concrete, water based stains, penetrating dyes - the products dedicated to coloration of concrete continue to evolve as quickly as the field itself. However, regardless of the colorant type, one common color trend has emerged, at least as far as the color choice. "We have seen a lot of customers leaning toward ‘true browns’", states Mark Whelchel, principal of Decorative Concrete Finishes. "There has also been an increased request from customers for a distinct shade that is a blend of two or more dyes, creating a color that no other facility will have."


"Warm, rich earth tones seem to be the predominant choice for dyed polished floors," Erin O’Brien of Perfect Polish mentions. "From golden wheat and deep chocolate, to terra cotta and burnt orange, facility designers most commonly choose colors that are inviting, but also neutral." In addition to the beauty they add to the floor, colored dyes can be used to designate work areas in industrial facilities. O’Brien reported receiving requests from industrial sites to use dyes to create "authorized personnel only" zones and specialty storage regions, clearly defining the space.


Evolving from the mundane to the magnificent, coloration is not the only decorative sector jumping on the modernized polishing bandwagon. Once used primarily to etch out diagonal patterns and mimic tile lines, saw cuts are now used to carve out intricate, abstract designs, color blocks, and impressionistic patterns across the floor. Stenciled images and logos, splendid as a stand alone design, have morphed off of the concrete. Using airbrushes, what was once a 2-dimensional flattened shape seems to leap into a 3-d reality as shading, color gradients, and feathering is applied. Entire trompe de l’oeils can be recreated on the floor to enhance the surrounding aesthetic, or become a solitary focal point.


"When you walk through some of the casinos in Las Vegas, you see the ceilings painted to look like a beautiful sunny day with clouds floating aimlessly about," Brad Padgett, President of Concrete Polishing Technologies remarks. "Imagine the ability to take your floor and put the same concept there, with a mural of an oasis in the desert with palm trees and cactus growing up out of the sands. Never before have so many options been available to designers to take a concrete surface and express the tone of the facility in that floor."


The success and innovation the decorative polished concrete market has seen over the last few years is likely due to a combination of factors. One factor is the drive of the consumer to have a facility that is unique, and fully reflects their image. Secondly, polished concrete can be crafted to imitate more expensive floor coverings, such as terrazzo, granite, or marble. A polished concrete floor with a salt and pepper grind, dyed to a deep black, and polished to a luminous shine, will look very similar to granite, with a price tag less than a half of its stone counterpart. The same can be compared for a large aggregate exposure, which will resemble terrazzo, or a floor dyed and polished to mimic marble.


Regardless if polished concrete is used as an affordable alternative or not, it is a genuine material in its own right. Matthew Lutz, architect and assistant professor at Virginia Tech, remarks on today’s construction market, and how difficult it is to use authentic, quality building supplies. Comparing faux wood vinyl siding and other ‘faked’ components that are popular today, Lutz mentions what he feels is one of the strongest benefits of polished concrete. "It’s an authentic, architecturally spectacular material that has the potential to be done in such a way that it gives a $10 per square foot floor [appearance] for $5." He continues that though not equivalent to marble or granite, "It’s still… far above and beyond the other alternatives that architects have to choose from in the same price range."


The advances seen in the polishing industry are driven through the enterprise of the decorative concrete installers, as they coalesce their techniques. With it’s popularity on the rise, there is little doubt that the metamorphosis of the decorative polished concrete market will fulfill its emergence into the mainstream.