Greg Alexander

An Unlikely Solution: Concrete Countertops

Mason-Dixon Arrive, February 2008

It’s quite rare when you buy a house – especially an older one – to find one that is perfect in every way. Almost always, you have to make a sacrifice here and there. Maybe you love the number of bedrooms and bathrooms but the kitchen is original ‘40’s, or the house is perfect inside but lacks a backyard or parking.

Four years ago, my partner Paul and I were vacationing with his parents in the French countryside. Since we flew back into Washington, D.C., I took the train back to Baltimore where I bumped into a friend of mine who immediately asked me, “Have you checked your answering machine?” When I asked why, he informed me that he had gone to an open house that week and had found “the perfect house for you and Paul, the perfect blend of the historic home with one that has just enough updates without sacrificing the historical integrity.” After looking for a few months for such a home, I was skeptical that one existed; however, when I visited for the first time, my friend was right – he’d found our “perfect house.”

After making some simple cosmetic changes – all the walls had been painted a glossy white except for the front parlor, which was painted a hideous Pepto Bismol pink – we focused on the kitchen, replacing the outdated appliances, painting the walls a burnt orange color and adding new lighting. Now the kitchen, which featured ample cabinets and a handy pot rack, was perfect except for one thing – we hated the cheap, faux marble linoleum countertops, which were not only unattractive but also distracted from the otherwise historic nature of the home.

We considered many options – stone, granite and tile – but decided that we wanted something a little different, something that was not seen in every shelter magazine and HGTV home improvement show. We had heard about concrete counters through Paul’s nephew, who worked in construction for our neighbor, a general contractor. Our neighbor told us that the use of concrete as a countertop had begun in the late 1970s, but it was Fu-Tung Cheng, who in 1985 had been hired to renovate a Stanford University professor’s home in California, who had perfected the art. The professor had given Cheng a small budget and free rein to do whatever he wanted. Cheng decided to construct a countertop out of granite and ceramic tiles and instead of using a plywood base as the underlayment, which could rot, he made a mold and filled it with concrete. Cheng was shocked at how gorgeous the concrete looked and was disappointed that it would be covered with tile. He vowed to start using concrete as the actual countertop on his subsequent renovations. Cheng has since written a book (Concrete Countertops: Design, Form and Finishes for the New Kitchen and Bath, $29.95, The Taunton Press) on concrete countertops and has developed a line of materials and instructional materials for other remodelers. When we saw the variety of textures and finishes in Cheng’s book, Paul and I decided that concrete was the way to go. Concrete counters can be stained, polished, stamped and even have items embedded in them for an artistic flair. We decided to simply have ours tinted emerald green and resisted the urge to have anything embedded in it (the at-times irritating, 18-year-old cat was tempting, though). We were drawn to concrete’s earthy feel, its malleable nature and the ability for it to be sealed to prevent staining and decided that the emerald green would complement the orange walls, oak cabinets and stainless steel appliances. We also liked how concrete would look in a historic house.

Before we began having the concrete counters installed, though, we had to consider how adding such a heavy counter would affect our cabinets and floor, especially considering the house’s ripe old age of 100 years. To save on labor costs, we decided to do some of the work ourselves, so the first step was to install support beams in the ceiling of the basement to support the kitchen floor above. Since our basement floor only consisted of about two inches of concrete on top of the dirt subfloor, Paul had to first dig two, three-foot-deep holes to accommodate the concrete footers needed to support the jack posts, which in turn would support the wood beams (I was conveniently out of town that weekend). Next, the old linoleum countertop was removed and a support system was installed on top of the cabinets. One advantage concrete has over some of its counterparts is that it can be poured “in-place” which eliminates any seams; in essence, one solid piece. The down side to this is that it is extremely heavy, so supporting cabinets and floors is paramount.

We decided to add a second sink, so Paul carved out a space for a new matching ceramic sink. We also needed to replace the outdated kitchen window, which was not energy efficient and also unsightly as it was too long, hanging below the counter line, interrupting the otherwise clean sight lines. We installed a new double sash window and bricked it in. It was now time for the counters to be installed, so we turned over control to the contractor and his crew.

The first step to install the counters was to construct a wood mold that would be made to incorporate the beveled edge that we desired. Styrofoam pieces to rest in the sink areas also were made to prevent the concrete from flowing into these sink holes. Rebar – bendable, metal snake-like poles – were placed inside the molds for further support. Next, a rented concrete mixer was brought into the back alley, and a crew of six (including Paul and I) began loading the 20-pound bags of concrete mix, water and green dye into the mixer (of course, it was about 100 degrees outside the day we did this). A special water reducing agent was added, too, enabling the concrete to dry faster and reducing the likelihood of cracking. Wheelbarrows and buckets were used to transport the concrete into the kitchen, and since concrete dries quickly, it has to be transported quickly, so an assembly line was formed. One by one, we transported buckets of concrete up the back steps inside to our contractor and his assistant who would spread it evenly in the mold, about two inches deep. In the sweltering heat, the positions closest to the air conditioned inside were the most coveted. All the concrete had to be in the mold and spread out in approximately 90 minutes. Once spread, it was vibrated by machinery to eliminate air bubbles and then leveled and smoothed.

After allowing the concrete to dry for a couple days, the molds were removed and any imperfections – small holes or chips – were filled with slurry. Next, the concrete was to be ground - a wet, messy, multi-day process that necessitates the kitchen be enveloped in plastic wrapping. The grinding allows the desired amount of aggregate to be exposed – we opted for a small amount on the counters and a larger amount on the beveled edge. A gutter system created a way to remove the excess water. After allowing the counters to dry, a wax polish was buffed in to protect them from staining (I have been known to occasionally spill a glass of red wine).

After the new sinks and faucets were installed (including a new industrial-style sprayer) and the appliances and countertop appliances were put back into place, we had our kitchen back (we had been washing dishes in an upstairs bar sink and relying a lot on delivery services for several weeks). The result was a warm and inviting kitchen with gorgeous, shiny concrete counters, the perfect complement to the historic home we already loved.

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