Why concrete remains a rock-solid design choice

Dr Bill Price of Tarmac Cement discusses why concrete is increasingly popular with architects for its aesthetic as well as practical characteristics

An ever-popular material for construction, concrete is seeing a new wave of usage and innovation, thanks to both its aesthetic values and its inherent qualities of strength, durability and affordability. In fact, a 2018 report by WGSN highlighted that concrete is trending across the latest trade shows and particularly with emerging designers. Innovations in moulding and setting techniques have boosted its versatility, with many using the material in unexpected and unusual ways. From sophisticated board-marked and polished concrete, to furniture and feature walls – the material can make contributions to projects in ways glass and steel can’t.

Concrete as a design element

Commonplace in the 1960s as a key element of the now notorious Brutalist architecture movement, modern developments often focus on concrete’s hard and industrial surface used as a contemporary design element, often contrasted with soft furnishes and tactile textures. Exposed concrete has moved on from being just an architectural industrial material to a source of inspiration for interior finishes, entering homes via the walls, furniture, floors and home accessories. Hard-wearing, and with the option of a rough-hewn texture or even a refined look, concrete is becoming a cornerstone of minimal design. In particular, high strength concrete (40N) is being used increasingly for a range of applications, such as statement kitchen worktops, modern board-formed concrete walls, curved open gutters, and luxury stone terrazzo floors.

Concrete countertops

Installing concrete countertops is a sure way to infuse a stylish aesthetic into your client’s home or commercial application. The countertop doesn’t need to appear cold or industrial; concrete can complement almost any style of room. The key is to add other warmer, natural textures like fabric or wood to keep it from feeling too austere. Adding inserts or inlays is a great way to personalise a concrete countertop in a kitchen, bathroom, or even outside. Whether it’s small stones, pieces of glass or other materials that are mixed throughout the concrete, these can all contribute to a stylish countertop. However, as concrete countertops are generally long, slender, thin beams, it’s critical to use a concrete from a reputable manufacturer with adequate strength and quality to prevent cracking, chipping and shrinkage. Countertops are often the centrepiece of the room, and also need to take a lot of wear. This, plus concrete’s natural capacity for cooling and absorbing heat, makes it the perfect material in this setting.

Board-marked concrete

There are a wide range of exterior building materials used to protect homes from the elements. Using poured high strength concrete for exterior walls can be one of the most enduring, fire-resistant, thermally retentive and maintenance-free solutions. A concrete wall can last without decay for many years. Concrete takes on the shape and texture of the forms into which it is poured, making it possible to enrich the surface character by using textured forms. Often, timber is used in combination with concrete walls to add warmth to the overall composition. For example, if the concrete has been formed with horizontal, rough-board shuttering, the concrete’s surface is imprinted with the wood’s texture and the two materials work together to produce the aesthetic. At some point in a cold winter or a hot summer, the concrete wall will need thermal resistance augmentation, thus insulation. A solution is to pour a four-inch exterior concrete wall, installing rigid insulation on the inner face and then pouring the interior four-inch wall to take advantage of the thermal mass of the concrete on the interior of the building. This way, the building will attain the required thermal resistance from the insulation while still gaining the durability of concrete on the exterior surface.

Which product to use?

A concrete with excellent workability and flexural strength such as bagged Blue Circle High Strength (40N) is a prerequisite for many small-size design applications in modern architecture. The concrete can be moulded into a number of different shapes and sizes – perfect for avant-garde style projects, as well as more traditional builds. Also, using a readily available concrete mix brings greater convenience to projects. Its availability throughout the UK means busy contractors can access the product without travelling too far afield, while also taking advantage of the timesaving and consistency advantages of using a pre-bagged concrete mix. Sometimes, especially on smaller projects, products can remain outdoors and on site for several months. Something as simple as waterproof packaging can protect water vulnerable products and eliminate wastage through rainwater contamination and damage. It’s also worth considering specifying concrete mixes that are available in weatherproof, tear-resistant bags. Overall, as the creative possibilities of concrete expand, from rough to smooth and solid to fluid, designers are trying new techniques to achieve fresh visual elements. This, coupled with its inherent practical properties of durability, heat absorption and cooling, makes the material a versatile choice for the modern designer.

Dr Bill Price is national commercial technical manager at Tarmac Cement