Concrete is the new workhorse of home improvement projects. Although it’s been around a long time, it’s taken on a new life inside homes because of its special properties:
- It’s durable, sustainable, fire-resistant, and affordable.
- It can be molded to fit any space and shape.
- It can be dyed, stamped, embossed, and polished to match your home’s design.
- It holds heat, which makes it great for bathtubs, floors, and sinks.
- It has a unique, one-of-a-kind look.
Where does concrete fit into your home? Check out these possibilities:
Kitchen countertops: A concrete countertop ($65-135/sq. ft.) is made in one pour, meaning it’s seamless -- no worries about water seeping in cracks and joints. You’re not stuck with a rigid rectangle, either — pour concrete into a custom mold to make any shape you can imagine. The countertop and sink can work as one continuous element, and you can add a built-in dish drain, trivet, and soap dish.
Kitchen sink: A concrete kitchen sink (from $200) is long-wearing, low-maintenance, and blends well with just about every décor. Solid concrete sinks retain heat and dampen the noise of garbage disposals.
Fireplace hearth: A concrete fireplace hearth or mantel can be stamped to look like brick or stone, or left as a solid piece and stained a dramatic color. Because it retains heat and then releases it slowly, it’ll help keep your family room warm long after the fire has died out. Costs vary widely and depend on style, size, and finish, but figure about $110/sq. ft.
Floors: Concrete floors are incredibly durable and practical. They’re super-easy to clean, needing only routine dusting and a wet mop, and they resist scuffs and scratches. Colored dyes and embedded materials add subtle colors, textures, and patterns that make each floor unique.
Expect to pay $2-4/sq. ft. for a basic stained floor; $4-10/sq. ft. with a stamped pattern and more than one color; $6-12 for a polished floor; and $18/sq. ft. for an etched or hand-stained finish.
Bathroom tubs: A concrete bathroom tub can be small -- in the Japanese soaking style that requires little floor space -- or it can be big enough for two. Some manufacturers include embedded heat coils within the tubs themselves. Costs vary, but generally start around $3,000. Caution! A big tub might require beefier floor structure — consult an architect or structural engineer.
Shower walls and floors: A concrete shower means no grout to scrub! Troweled-on concrete creates seamless, waterproof shower walls and basins. Figure you’ll spend $1,200-$2,400 for a 36-by-36-inch show stall.
Working With Concrete
Working with concrete inside your home is only for the most experienced DIYer. Otherwise, find a contractor who has expertise in the product you need and the kind of finish you’d like. Concrete is comparable in cost to stone, ceramic tile, and marble; custom sizes, shapes, and finishes add to the cost.
What’s the Downside?
Concrete is waterproof, but the surface is porous enough that it stains easily. You’ll need to protect your concrete with a quality stone sealer.
Concrete sealers are either penetrating or topical.
Penetrating sealers are designed to soak into the concrete to seal pores and help liquids bead up on the surface so they can be easily wiped away. Most penetrating sealers ($30-$45/gal.) slightly darken the surface of concrete. They should be applied every 2-3 years; use carnauba wax between sealing.
Topical sealers form a protective coat on the surface of the concrete. These hard and durable finishes include:
1. Acrylic sealers ($30-$120/gal.) provide good waterproofing protection, but they tend to wear out faster than the others.
2. Epoxy sealers ($40-$75/gal) form a protective film that’s extremely long-lasting, but they have a glossy finish that’s prone to scratches and abrasions. They’re tricky to apply.
3. Polyurethanes ($75-$120/gal) provide a durable, transparent finish that resists abrasion and chemicals. They’re moisture intolerant until they cure completely, and shouldn’t be applied where dampness might be present, such as on a basement slab floor.
If you’re worried that your concrete will crack or chip, relax -- that’s the nature of concrete. Vermont architect Mitra Samimi-Urich of Mitra Designs Studio says that minor chips and hairline cracks give concrete its character. Hairline cracks don’t affect concrete’s integrity and can be easily repaired using a DIY urethane crack-mending product ($75/21 oz.).
Is Concrete Green?
Most builders and home owners give concrete the nod for being an environmentally friendly remodeling material. It’s usually made locally, which means less energy to deliver it to you. The sand and rock that go into it are renewable resources.
Its long life means concrete doesn’t have to be replaced for decades, saving materials. When it does go, it can be crushed and reused — maybe even turned into a sidewalk.
However, the manufacture of Portland cement, a key ingredient in concrete, produces carbon dioxide. Some concrete mixtures include recycled glass and byproducts from power plants, including fly ash, which can reduce the amount of Portland cement needed in the mixture.
On the flip side, fly ash has been known to contain trace amounts of heavy metals, such as arsenic, mercury, and cadmium. GreenBuilding.com says there’s little evidence heavy metals can leach out of solid concrete, but that the long-term effects of fly ash in concrete have yet to be determined.