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Getting Vertical

Polished Concrete in Upright Applications

Most people in the design community have seen some form of polished concrete, whether it be a decorative countertop, or a 100,000 square foot industrial floor, and its popularity in both the residential and commercial markets is on the rise.    As the industry matures, innovative techniques have been developed for utilizing polishing concrete in unconventional, and unexpected, manners. 
One of the latest ingenuities being pushed by cutting-edge architectural firms is to “get vertical”.  This modernization takes the industry of polished concrete to new heights - literally, up, off of the floor and onto the walls.  
In residential markets, polished concrete is already becoming a standard as a backsplash around sinks and on countertops, but vertical polishing launches a broader usage. Soon, polished concrete will be a common item for shower enclosures, eventually spanning entire walls in hallways and sitting areas. In commercial applications, the façade of buildings, using tilt-up walls, are now being polished. Even exposed aggregate is increasing in frequency, which gives the appearance of a fine stone, buffed to a lustrous sheen.   Only the imagination will limit this newest advancement as color, pattern, engraving, and saw cuts are explored. The ability to make stencils with unlimited designs and then engrave or sandblast decorative insignias, logos, or text broadens just how creative and unique vertical polishing can become.  
Though the final result of polishing is always impressive, vertical polishing brings a new set of challenges to the table, as production of these sheens on such difficult surfaces takes advanced skill and detailed labor to accomplish. The raw texture of a vertical concrete wall is unlike that of a concrete floor, due to the different construction methods used.
The three most common construction processes for vertical concrete surfaces are tilt-up, pre-fabrication, or poured-in-place walls. Each method results in a distinct surface condition, which much be anticipated prior to commencement of polishing. A poured-in-place wall will gives a more porous or distressed appearance, while a pre-fabricated wall will give a more uniform or monolithic appearance. Tilt-ups will typically fall somewhere in between, depending on the curing process, finishing method and even the atmospheric conditions at the time of the pour.
Tilt-up walls are poured directly on the floor slab using a bond breaker. The paste, or cream, of the concrete floats toward the top during the pour, which becomes the exterior wall. Thus, the exterior wall generally will result in a smooth, even polish. The interior wall will have more aggregate at the surface, which settled toward the bottom of the pour before the wall was hoisted into place.   The interior wall is also more likely to have air holes and a variegated finish. This leads to a less consistent polish on the interior side and more uniform polish on the exterior. 
Cast-in-place or poured-in-place walls will retain the texture of the form that was used as a mold. Again, it is common to encounter voids from trapped air. Having the walls poured using a smooth material for a “liner” inside the form can greatly improve the uniformity of the surface, preparing it for a better polish.
Pre-fabricated walls are perhaps the most preferred construction type for a uniform appearance in the polish. These walls are constructed in a controlled environment which uses vibrating tables to eliminate almost all of the air voids, and ensures an even distribution of cement throughout. 
Regardless of the building type, its construction, or its intended use, vertical polishing is an exciting advancement that adds a whole new dimension to the polishing industry. The luminosity that polishing can offer lends itself not only to those interested in a highly modern aesthetic, but also to those interested in reducing energy costs and in utilizing an application that is environmentally friendly.