Article The Hard Truth about Concrete

Concrete as a choice for flooring in commercial buildings had its moment, but is moving out of favor. Learn about its appeal, the reasons why it might not be the best long-term choice, and the solutions we recommend to satisfy your client’s wish list. 

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There has been an industry-wide movement away from the use of concrete as a choice for surface floor material in commercial buildings, including retail spaces where it had its “moment”. Why? Concrete surface flooring is following the typical arc of trends: an interesting idea, the appealing novelty of something new, the reality shock of over-promising and under-performing, and the final settling of the idea to fairly narrow niche.

The End of a Trend

Concrete surface floors rode in on a wave of interest in a variety of new uses for concrete, which included countertops and furniture. The logic driving the interest was plain enough – concrete has that certain industrial “look”, it is a very durable material, widely available, and in rough form pretty cheap. It’s commonly used for subflooring so in theory it might have cost advantages, plus its potential sustainability aspects were appealing. Worth a try, but the evidence of real world application has building professionals chalking up the results to “lessons learned”.

When Is the Right Time?

Imagine you are in an early design meeting with a client – a retail property developer, with a brand new series of stores on the drawing board. Your team is carefully collecting the important design-driver information…the intended use of the spaces, the plan for building systems that must work together, the site and neighborhood restrictions and requirements, and so on. Along the way, the client mentions polished concrete as a flooring option: “I saw a store where it looked pretty nice, and I hear that we might be able to save some money if we go that route.” Every design pro runs in to this type of input, eventually. Is the customer “always right”, or is getting the real story part of the value of “hiring a professional”?

You could tell your client that yes, there have been some advances made in colorant systems for concrete floors recently, but those advances are driven by efforts to address important shortcomings of concrete flooring. The building industry has learned that the hardness of concrete – its core characteristic – introduces some serious drawbacks.

Hard to Love

Cracking is a nearly inevitable problem due the rigidity and hardness of concrete. The fact that you can’t truthfully promise a property owner that a concrete floor will not crack is usually enough to dissuade them from that option. Cracking opens up many unfavorable developments: poor appearance, moisture control issues, cleaning challenges, odor control, infestation, costly repair efforts, and more.

The original hopes/assumptions about cost savings have not panned out, either. The concrete formula used for subflooring is not the same as used for finished interior surfaces, and the process of smoothing and polishing with successively finer diamond-headed grinders has proven to be a considerable expense.

The final blow to concrete as a finished floor is its unyielding hardness underfoot. “Unforgiving” is the term most commonly used. That translates to higher rates of breakage for items dropped onto the floor (customer cell phones, jars of pickles, glassware), and a truly punishing physical experience for those who have to spend much time on the hard surface. Fatigue and pain…we can design to avoid that, can’t we?

Getting To Yes

When working with your clients, uncover the reasons they were interested in concrete in the first place and then find ways to satisfy those objectives. Didn’t the client mention liking the look, and wanting to control costs? Our luxury flooring and VCT have been proven — over thousands of installations and millions of square feet — to deliver the performance and cost benefits building developers and owners value. The client who likes the look of concrete? Natural Creations EarthCuts Luxury Flooring has a palette of patterns and colors to provide that look, without the problems of concrete. Unbound 5.0 mm Luxury Flooring also features a palette of softened concretes available in tinted neutrals and soft grays.