Brick, slate, stone -- in concrete

October 30, 1994|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff Writer

You've probably walked on imprinted concrete and never known it. It may have looked like a cobblestone walkway or a flagstone terrace or a driveway made of paving stones, but it was the same stuff they use to build highways and dams.

Growing numbers of homeowners are choosing decorative concrete as the material to give their driveways a distinctive look, although it costs more initially than asphalt. It's become popular in upscale developments, where builders want their expensive houses to have plenty of "curb appeal." And this classy concrete is being used as a less costly alternative to tile and brick for patios, terraces and pool decks.

In the last three years, Increte Systems, one of the largest imprinted concrete companies in the area, has seen its business increase by at least 38 percent each year -- and 45 percent last year.

How has something so ordinary as concrete suddenly become the paving material of choice?

In many cases, surprisingly, it's because decorative concrete looks so good. People cite various other reasons -- durability, affordability, easy maintenance -- and, of course, those are important considerations. But what it often comes down to is that they see someone else's beautiful "tile" patio or "brick" driveway and want one of their own. Many customers feel that patterned concrete is actually more attractive than natural materials. As builder Mike Minnehan of Starcom Corporation says, "The color tones are superb, and the different patterns offer tremendous versatility."

Obviously it's a big improvement over asphalt as far as looks go. Kathy Schardt of Annapolis picked a slate pattern for her driveway, but decided on shades of brown instead of slate gray. "We get tons and tons of compliments on it," she says. When you have some 25 patterns and 30 or so colors to choose from, there are lots of possibilities.

"It looks gorgeous," says Kenneth Schwarzwald of his drive, in Anne Arundel County. He loves it, in spite of the fact that the surface has to be resealed every few years and he's lost some traction on his steep driveway. He picked a slate color, "dark because my house is dark."

However intricate the pattern or unusual the color, the contractor starts with the ordinary concrete used for outdoor pavement. The surface is finished in various ways to make it resemble brick, stone or slate.

One of the most common is to pour the concrete and then put down color hardener. It provides the main color and increases the surface's durability. A "release" can be applied, adding a secondary color, shading or the look of grout.

The contractor then uses stamps and texturing tools to create the appropriate patterns. The final step is to apply a sealer on the faux-finished concrete, which brings out the color, adds a slight sheen and helps protect it against weathering and stains.

Only recently has the process become common around here, although it's been used in Florida for years. Did you think those were real cobblestones in DisneyWorld? They're actually imprinted concrete.

"Fifteen years ago it really took off, when the chemistry became available to do multiple colors," says John Tedesco, Northeast sales manager of the Florida company Inco, which manufactures decorative concrete tools.

The process has gradually made its way up the East Coast, although it becomes less practical the farther north you go.

"In severe winters it's not ideal," says builder Mike Minnehan of Starcom. The biggest problem with patterned concrete is that if it ever does crack you have to replace the whole slab, not just part of an interlocking block.

"I am a little concerned about bad weather," admits Joan Phillippi, whose new curved walkway is done in a pattern called "Flower Rock."

That's one reason to make sure you hire a reputable contractor, and why the lowest bid isn't necessarily the best.

Ask for references, and go see the work for yourself -- particularly older projects that have been exposed to the elements for several years.

According to their literature, some of the larger companies like Bomanite, whose local dealer is Hunt Valley Contractors, have installed architectural concrete with good results both in freeze-thaw areas like the Northeast and in constant subzero climates like Iceland. The durability of the project often depends on the experience of the installer.

Paul Nettleton of the Bartley Corp., a franchise of Patterned Concrete Industries, suggests that one of the most important things to compare when getting different estimates is the "subgrade preparation." Is the concrete, for instance, reinforced with wire mesh or steel bars?

Whether imprinted concrete is inexpensive or costly depends on what you're comparing it to. Increte Systems charges roughly $5 to $11 per square foot with a $2,000 minimum. That's a lot more than asphalt costs. But it's economical compared to a driveway or patio made of natural materials such as stone or slate or, to a lesser extent, brick. They can cost a third or half again as much.

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