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Decorative Concrete: A Lasting Impression

By Eric Etchison

The pedestrian walkway outside the Tampa Cathedral in Florida leads to a circular plaza. Both the walkway and plaza use staining and stamping techniques to create the decorative concrete scene in the photograph.
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Are you looking for a way to improve pedestrian spaces with a familiar and versatile material? Consider decorative or "architectural" concrete as an alternative hardscape material on the next project. While most landscape architects and designers understand what is required to design functional and attractive public pedestrian spaces, there may be a material that is taken for granted, concrete! Today's designs for hardscapes are not limited by the selection of gray concrete, pavers or natural stone. Now designs can be flexible, attractive, cost effective and low maintenance using decorative concrete.

Brief History

Decorative concrete made its debut with the Romans' Pantheon and their famous structures circa 299 BC. In the modern era, the introduction of decorative concrete as an architectural upgrade gained recognition around 1900. L.M. Scofield Company, one of the oldest manufacturers of concrete colors, dates back to 1915 with their integral colors and stains.

Today, technological advances have given us the ability to give concrete almost any color, texture, or shape. Some of the most popular applications of decorative concrete include colored, stamped, stained, stenciled, and saw cut.

These installations allow a customized concrete look that can visually compete with natural stone at a reduced cost. One of the early arguments against decorative concrete was its inability to resist fading. Now with the use of synthetic Iron Oxide pigments that are UV stable, this deterrent to selecting colored concrete has been overcome.

Stained concrete is the result of adding color to an older existing or newly cured concrete surface. The stain penetrates the concrete surface and the stain itself will not fade, chip, crack or peel.

Design Considerations

When designing projects for pedestrians, considerations include materials that can withstand everyday use, are low-maintenance, weather resistant, and cost effective. Concrete meets these requirements. Consequently, it is the most common material used for walks and drives. Bob Krauskopf, Midwest District Sales Representative for L.M. Scofield Company states, "Decorative concrete provides a beautiful, durable, and cost effective alternative to natural stone and brick," and he believes that these are the major reasons that the design and construction industry use it.

Decorative concrete can add tremendous value.

Landscape architects, designers and contractors are realizing that decorative concrete can add tremendous value, flexibility, and curb appeal to their projects, while allowing them to stay within budget. Other advantages of using decorative concrete are its strength and durability. The fact that the use of "gray concrete" is an accepted application, improving on it only increases its value as a design and building material. Additionally, the installation process of decorative concrete over most alternatives will likely provide a more convenient, efficient, and economical project.

When comparing concrete to other natural materials, the list of advantages might make one wonder why decorative concrete is a very small part of the concrete industry.

Education and finding qualified contractors are the two major barriers to its use. Working with decorative concrete elevates the installation of the material from utilitarian to a form of public art. Selecting a contractor with skilled personnel trained in working with decorative concrete is critical.

The rest areas along the I-70 rest area were created with old English slate concrete stamps, color hardener and release. The concrete finish was coordinated to match the benches with the landscape.

While the base material is common, installation procedures and the development of an artistic approach with an attention to detail requires experience and an "eye" to envision the finished product. Otherwise, common problems can be unplanned and unwanted color variations, crooked stamped joints, unwanted appearance or texture, and construction joints in odd locations, which result in an unsatisfactory finish.

With the rise in cities and states working to revitalize their urban areas and neighborhoods, there is a demand from the public and, consequently, the private sector's interest in improved public and semi-public spaces. A few examples are streetscapes, parks, municipal and commercial plazas, and large improvements such as riverfront revitalizations. These are all part of why the utilitarian walkway has evolved into more than a place to walk.

This hardscape in the Indiana State Museum uses a combination of terrazzo bands and saw cuts, as well as the use of an acid stain.

One example of a place with heavy pedestrian traffic is Butler University, in Indianapolis. As the University continues to update its 290 acre campus, new and old buildings are being connected by concrete sidewalks with integrally colored and stamped concrete borders.

Decorative concrete is ideal for pedestrian walks

The borders, which look like bricks, are visually appealing, and serve to delineate the edges of the walks, making them safer. As these walks are used by both pedestrian and light delivery traffic, they have to be durable. Mr. Ron Howe, ASLA, Campus Landscape Architect, Butler University states, "In each site project over the last 11 years we have used "brick" stamped and colored borders on our main concrete walkways. It's an attractive, less expensive and durable way to bring the wonderfully different views of our campus into a related, recognizable Butler 'park like' look".

This is a prime example of how decorative concrete is an ideal material for pedestrian walks because of the durability and aesthetics that can be achieved. The applications that follow will demonstrate some of the many ways in which pedestrian spaces are improved using decorative concrete, including stained, stamped, and colored.

Concrete sealer is a product applied to concrete for surface protection and to give the desired appearance.

Stained concrete is the result of adding color to an older existing or newly cured concrete surface, The stain penetrates the concrete surface and, the stain itself, will not fade, chip, crack or peel.

When concrete is properly stained, it creates a marbled appearance. This is used in both interior and exterior applications. The most common applications are artistic designs created for the interior decor of restaurants, stores and office buildings.

Recently, when discussing the use of stained and colored concrete in his work, Ron Taylor, ASLA, a senior landscape architect with HNTB Corporation's Indianapolis office stated, "For our Automated Traffic Management System Headquarters, currently under construction in Indianapolis, concrete stain was selected for several large public spaces. The stain assisted with the creation of a more inviting pedestrian space when contrasted with the adjacent gray concrete while complementing the architecture of the building.

Providing a comforting atmosphere was the goal of this project at Washington Park. Decorative concrete was installed for walks and plazas around mausoleums and memorials. Color hardener, color release and 16" by 16" slate tile stamp were used on this project.

Additionally, the design team specified the stain because we wanted the durability and easy maintenance of concrete with the more natural random look that the stain provided."

There are a few types of stains but the most common is the acid stain. The acid stain actually has a chemical reaction with the concrete and provides earth tone colors that are permanent and are UV stable. Other stains available are water based and come in a variety of colors. They provide a much broader range of colors, but not all are UV stable. Another stain technique or final application is the use of stain sealers that are available in acrylic or water based color tinted sealers and offer several colors.

This neo-traditional community provides a small town atmosphere and contains historically accurate architecture. Tooled joints, a light broom finish, colored concrete star and stained checkerboard were used to achieve the desired look of the project.

The Indiana State Museum used several techniques to obtain the unique look that the architect had envisioned. With the combination of terrazzo bands and saw cuts to create the design, the appearance and texture was provided with the use of acid stain and sealer. The appearance is as marble, but requires only normal maintenance.

Stamped concrete provides a pattern available in a variety of sizes and shapes that are impressed into partially set concrete with special imprinting tools causing a certain natural or distinct appearance.

The latest phase of this residential project included redesigning the entire front yard into a walking garden, achieved by incorporating decorative concrete walks and a driveway that has textured borders and stamped patterns reminiscent of brick.

I-70 Rest Stop

Off I-70 near Greenfield, IN, is a state highway rest area. With the use of decorative concrete, the comfort and appeal of the rest area is greatly improved. The rest stop includes walking plazas and decorative walkways where benches provide an enjoyable place to relax. The areas were created by the use of old English slate concrete stamps, color hardener, and color release. The concrete finish was color matched and coordinated with the benches and landscape to achieve the design.

Colored concrete is a decorative effect achieved by introducing color into the concrete mix or onto the surface.

The entrance to this hotel was designed for elegance. This was achieved by using color hardener and release, a European fan stamp, and slate tiles.

When coloring concrete there are several possible ways to obtain variety. There are four main types of color: integral color liquid, integral color powder, color hardener, and a colored release agent. The most consistent and cost efficient is the use of integral liquid color. Liquid color is added to the concrete mix in a controlled environment, which means it is possible to achieve a specified color accurately over an entire project requiring several loads of concrete over a period of time.

The second colored process is integral powder color; it provides the ability to have well-blended color with consistency throughout the pour. Both methods of integral color result in a chosen color throughout the concrete, and if it chips, scratches, or cracks, the blemish isn't as likely to show up. The third way to color concrete is through the use of a color hardener. The hardener is a powder broadcast onto the surface of the concrete and integrated into the surface. The color hardener can produce bright colors, more than one color can be used, and it hardens the surface.

A medical training facility wanted to improve curbside appeal. This was achieved by using gray concrete, smoked beige release and random stone stamp.

The fourth process in coloring the concrete requires using a release agent. The release agent is broadcast onto the surface before stamping occurs. The release agent keeps the stamps from sticking and interfering with the texture and provides highlight color to the pattern, giving it depth and texture.

This walkway in Switzerland County, IN, blends with its natural environment. Techniques and materials: hardener, release, skin stamps, Ashlar slate pattern, and saw cuts.

Crossroads Plaza in Terre Haute, IN.

Crossroads Plaza is a hardscape commemorating and acknowledging the city as the crossroads of river, road, and rail transportation systems. Crossroads Plaza used several decorative concrete techniques to give the space both style and durability using a texture skin pattern, saw cuts, integral color and sealant. With the main circular area containing an engraved limestone medallion, the workability of the various concrete treatments made a difficult task easy, saving labor time and providing a better-finished product. Colored concrete also allowed the project to meet tight budget constraints.

Concrete sealer is a product applied to concrete to protect and give desired appearance.

The use of sealers on concrete provides a shield against wear and aging. Some further protect against fading caused by UV rays. There are many types of sealers and one must be careful to select the right one. When selecting a sealer, you must base it on heavy or light traffic, location (interior or exterior), whether de-icing chemicals will be used, a matte or glossy finish desired, the degree of general maintenance provided, length of time the sealer is effective, environmental issues, etc.

The use of sealers on concrete provides a shield against wear and aging

As illustrated through the previous applications and projects, decorative concrete can be beneficial on almost all projects. Decorative concrete on private projects is appealing because of the adaptability and flexibility it allows. Institutional work is an area that decorative concrete has excelled in because it features several advantages that campuses are looking for, such as dependability, low maintenance, ability to take abuse, longevity, and exceptional look at a reduced cost.

The main entrance to Warren Central High in Indianapolis helps to slow traffic. Techniques and materials: hardener, release, pavers, and cobblestone.


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February 17, 2020, 2:43 pm PDT

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