Letters: Concrete Countertops

It is refreshing to see concrete countertops featured in a trade magazine (“Alternative surfaces: the green option”, April 2009 Stone Business) aimed at the stone professional. As a long-time advocate for and an educator and researcher in concrete countertops, I commend you for raising the awareness of this versatile material. For too long concrete has “flown under-the-radar”, and its current rise in popularity is timed well, because there have been very recent advances in material and sealing technology that make it an attractive countertop material.
Concrete is a chameleon material. Traditionally it is perceived as a material delivered in a truck, as the article mentions. But there are many forms and variations of mixes and casting techniques used, only two of which are mentioned in the article.
One form of concrete not mentioned in the article is glass-fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC). GFRC permits long and lightweight concrete slabs to be fabricated, satisfying many clients’ demand for seamless countertops. GFRC is also ideal for large, monolithic and complex pieces, such as fireplace surrounds or countertops with integral sinks.
Many do-it-yourselfers rely on prepackaged concrete countertop mixes to help them with their projects. Professional concrete countertop fabricators generally design and make their own concrete. This gives them great control over their material, allowing them to use local and recycled materials in their concrete, vastly increasing the green level of the concrete countertop.
All cement-based products share similar basic qualities and performance characteristics, although there is a broad range of quality among concrete countertops. First-generation concrete countertops were sealed with simple acrylic sealers and finished with wax. Extensive testing by The Concrete Countertop Institute has shown that acrylics, while inexpensive and easy to use, offer short-term protection that burdens the homeowner with frequent reapplication. And wax, of any sort used on countertops, offers no real protection at all. State-of-the-art sealing technology eliminates the need for reapplication, provides stain protection on par with or even superior to other countertop materials, renders waxing obsolete, and is still green. The ultimate performance and the public’s perception and acceptance of concrete countertops lay squarely on how it is sealed. Using the latest high-performance technology is essential to success at making concrete countertops.
Concrete countertops are unique and are custom made to order. This simple statement fails to capture the complexity and difference between a product that is made from scratch and one that is a manufactured sheet good. Concrete’s character, versatility, green qualities and appeal as a unique material stem from the materials it is made from. Understanding those materials is another essential prerequisite for success at concrete countertops.
Integrating concrete into a fabrication shop is not necessarily easy. Working with stone or solid surface has its own challenges. The challenges of making concrete compound the degree of difficulty. With the right education, the right materials and the right expectations, concrete can be a valuable addition to any fabrication shop looking to expand their repertoire.

Jeffrey D. Girard, P.E.
President, The Concrete Countertop Institute
Raleigh, N.C.