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The Forefront of Decorative Concrete

T.B. Penick & Sons received the top prize from the American Society of Concrete Contractor's Decorative Concrete Council awards this year for The Atlanta Botanical Garden project. The Georgia garden included a mosaic made of natural pebbles, which were glued upside down to a netting offsite. "The mosaic is then placed in fresh concrete where it is finished into the surface. The glue then de-activates and the netting is removed leaving the pebbles in place," says the ASCC's membership director Todd Scharich. "The surface of the concrete is retarded to allow the contractor to wash off the cap, exposing the artwork. This leaves a surface that is beautiful, but also a monolithic pour and structurally sound." (Photo courtesy T.B. Penik & Sons)


A Concrete Protector team used decorative concrete to transform this patio. The company's marketing director Will Fowler says customers are increasingly choosing to work with existing concrete, rather than removing old concrete and starting from scratch. (Photos courtesy of The Concrete Protector)

The world of decorative concrete is taking on a futuristic twist as it turns to robotic technologies, innovative modeling techniques and even drones to shape new projects. As the popularity of cast-in-place concrete work reaches new heights, so too does the ambitiousness of the craftsmen leading the charge.

"As we go along, I think the industry will be more focused on training, and developing, artisans and tradesmen," says Will Fowler, marketing director for The Concrete Protector. "There are definitely some very talented contractors out there doing this."

Decorative concrete refers to cast-in-place concrete that's enhanced through color, texture, or forming techniques. With regard to landscaping, it's typically applied to flatwork, planter or seat walls, stairs and water features.

"Its versatility, durability, sustainability and aesthetics makes it a top choice; desirable for architects and landscape architects," says Trademark Concrete Systems Inc. president Lance Boyer. "It is becoming increasingly specified because of the seemingly endless variations of colors and textures that are available through so many different application methods," he says.

"There has never been a better time to be involved in the decorative concrete industry. We see decorative concrete being used extensively to define exterior and interior spaces. While concrete in many places is seen as mundane or just a backdrop to a beautiful landscape, at Trademark, we think of concrete as artwork that can complement and enhance landscape.

"Watching the two unfold hand in hand until both are complete is an exciting part of the job that we hope all designers get to experience."


The renovation of the Hollywood Park Casino in Inglewood, California, included the use of black and white concrete that extends from the exterior to the interior lobby. Trademark Concrete Systems of Southern California used a lithochrome color hardener on the black portion, which was lightly washed to expose the sands. The white concrete consisted of white cement, white sand, and white rock. A top surface retarder yielded a fine sand finish on it.


The decorative concrete work for the motor court at the newly opened Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills consists of two colors of concrete in combination with natural stone. The white portions employed a dyed color hardener with a sand finish. The dyed green banding was seeded with a 3/8" to 1/2" diameter crushed green stone aggregate. Precisely placed saw-cut joints, accomplished with diamond blades, prevent random shrinkage and cracking while adding to the impact of the design.

You might consider Boyer a trendsetter of sorts; he's been working in decorative concrete since 1986. Throughout the past three decades, he's been an outspoken advocate and educator for decorative concrete. Trademark Concrete has held workshops, and collaborated with industry professionals, in a successful attempt to help the field grow.

Today, he says, landscape architects, architects and property owners appreciate the value and versatility of decorative concrete.

"The landscape architects and architects in Southern California have realized the potential of decorative concrete for many years and are driving innovation through their creative designs," says Boyer. "We are excited by the challenges posed by their visions. Going back and revisiting projects that are five, 10, 15, even 25 years old speak to design trends at the time and helps teach newer generations on what works and what doesn't."

Sometimes, he adds, revisiting past projects can spark new ideas that help push the boundaries of modern decorative concrete.

Of course, technology is playing an increasingly large role in the field too. Robotic technologies are helping improve production and accuracy, says Boyer, while drones are surveying project sites to create 3D models.

Technology is also implemented with data pulled from CAD files, and used in imaging and layout for designs, he adds. The increased complexity of designs - many projects in Southern California are on elevated decks - is offset by new computer programs that offer support to landscape architects.

And as urban infill and vertical gardens become more popular, Boyer says the use of 3D modeling may eventually be required in project submittals.



The Saban Media Center, in North Hollywood, California, the new state-of-the-art home for the Television Academy and its foundation, was provided decorative concrete walls, paving, steps, and precast linear pavers by Trademark in accordance with the design by Studio-MLA. The decorative cast in place walls (inset) are tinted with an Ash White color hardener, and lightly washed to expose the fine sand. The concrete paving consists of uncolored concrete with a light sand finish achieved through the application of a water-based, top-surface retarder. The white accents were created by seeding 3/8" to 1/2 " white diameter aggregate. The precast linear pavers are Narrow Modular pavers in Granada White color.

But though technology is helping shape the field, it shouldn't take all the credit, says Boyer.

"With respect to decorative concrete, the level of detail and finesse required to achieve beautiful concrete work is only attainable with a skilled, hardworking crew of craftsmen," he says.

"Decorative concrete relies on the skill level of the craftsman more so than a piece of equipment. It requires the knowledge of integral color, dry shake color hardeners, use of surface retarders, stamping and texturing concrete, (and more)."

Looking forward, Boyer says the greatest challenge in the field will be finding innovative ways of meeting design intent. Accomplishing this, he says, will take a combination of technology and talent.

"Technology coupled with skilled concrete craftsmen makes it possible for us to overcome challenges."

It's a sentiment The Concrete Protector's Fowler agrees with.

Although decorative concrete has been around for decades, he says tradesmen are continuing to find innovative ways to work with it. As the field continues to evolve, he expects its workers to become better equipped through trade organizations, certifications and proper training.

"In some ways, it's a new, burgeoning industry," says Fowler. "Because of the excitement about decorative concrete, a lot of landscapers and painters have jumped in on it and maybe not been as qualified. Some of the less competent people who are not fit for the industry will fade away. Artisans or tradesmen are the ones who will endure in the industry."

Fowler says there are two main factors driving the growth of decorative concrete: cost and the environment. For customers, decorative concrete is significantly cheaper than removing and replacing old concrete. And of course, modifying an existing space lessons the environmental impact of a project too.

"Sometimes in the past, with concrete the tendency would be to call a flatwork company to re-pour," says Fowler. "I think financially and environmentally, that makes less and less sense. People are instead taking their existing backyards and transforming them. It's just a more sustainable option."

Better yet, he adds, decorative concrete gives clients plenty of choices when deciding how to transform a space.


Trademark installed all of the decorative concrete work at the 73- story Wilshire Grand Center, including the 12,000-square-foot concrete plaza at the top floor's bar/observation deck. It was decorated with two lithochrome color hardeners: Platinum Gray and Charcoal. An abraded finish provides a dense, fine sand look. A narrow grouted saw-cut joint placed in a 12" x 24" pattern creates the appearance of hand-placed pavers. The cast in place concrete walls and paving, designed by RELM, include a color hardener with a fine abraded surface.


At this private school in Irvine, California, Trademark provided its campus the varying concrete colors, including Sombrero Buff, and textures in combination with many hardscape elements at this school's campus. The fine sand finish in the darker portions was achieved through using a water-based, top-surface retarder. The seeded aggregate finish was a blend of 3/8" to 1/2 " diameter stone aggregates broadcast on top of the concrete. Trademark template-sandblasted letters and symbols into the concrete, which were then colored through the use of water-based stains to provide the colors selected by the landscape architect, LPA.

"The thing about decorative concrete in general is that you can imitate almost any kind of look outside," he says. "Whether it's slate, brick, tile or flagstone, the sky's the limit."

And it seems more contractors and landscape architects are reaching for that sky. Every year, the best decorative concrete projects are celebrated by the American Society of Concrete Contractors Decorative Concrete Council, which awards projects in 22 categories. The winner of each category is considered for the ASCC's top prize: The coveted WOW award.

"Contractors continue to produce so many quality projects, but there are always a couple that stand out," says Todd Scharich, the ASCC's director of membership. "Some years it is due to size or scale, while others are pushing new capabilities of existing products that sets them apart. Quality is always seen in the award-winning projects, but usually it's an original design that gives the contractors the push or courage to try something new."

One new trend, says Scharich, involves exposed specialty aggregates in a colored concrete mix. He says this allows designers and customers to select the level of exposure of stones or glass.

"(It) can create one-of-a-kind looks on every project," says Scharich. "The resulting surfaces are stunning, but also produce a very safe walking surface. Using bands to border or break larger areas into smaller sections is also being used as opposed to big massive areas of the same application."

Though it debuted in the 1950s, decorative concrete only began to popularize decades later. In 1990, it became commonly used for driveways, walkways and patios. In the 2000s, decorative concrete became a choice option for municipal and commercial sites.

Today, its evolution continues.

"With decorative concrete well established, contractors are now creating looks that cannot be mimicked with any other material, no longer relying on re-creating a brick, stone, or slate look," says Scharich. "Customers are relying on their imagination and the skills of the contractor to create truly unique looks."

As seen in LC/DBM magazine, March 2018.

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December 8, 2019, 8:13 am PDT

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