5 Ways to Add Pizzazz to Plain-Jane Concrete

Plain concrete gets a stylish makeover with customized approaches.

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A house with a beautifully remodeled exterior and a drab, cracked sidewalk and driveway is like a bride wearing a stained old trench coat over her spectacular wedding gown. No matter how lovely the dress, the coat kills the overall effect — and it is the first thing people will notice.

Similarly a home's curb appeal soars when its image is complete. Exterior hardscaping is a dramatic design element that augments the home's updated architecture.

Though usually lauded more for its durability than good looks, concrete has chameleonlike qualities that permit it to be customized in myriad ways. What's more, decorative concrete — like its plain gray cousin — will give homeowners decades of service when properly installed and maintained.

"The biggest selling features of decorative concrete are its curb appeal and aesthetic value," says Bob Harris, president of the Decorative Concrete Institute, Douglasville, Ga., and author of a series of books on decorative concrete topics, including Bob Harris' Guide to Stamped Concrete and Bob Harris' Guide to Stained Concrete Interior Floors.

Bob has first-hand experience with hardscape and curb appeal. He recently sold his own home, which has a striking stamped concrete driveway, in only a week. When he asked the buyers what attracted them the most, they replied "You have a driveway that looks like a million bucks!"

Bob suggests several techniques for giving any concrete surface a "million-dollar" makeover:

Add pattern and texture. By imprinting patterns in freshly placed concrete, you can offer homeowners the high-end look of stone or brick pavement — and often at a much lower cost. "Some stone or brick is cost-prohibitive simply because the installer has to cut and place individual units, as opposed to just pouring a monolithic slab of concrete and applying texture," Bob explains. He notes that stamped concrete is also easier to maintain; it has no open joints for weeds to sprout in.

Stamping tools used to be made of rigid metal and produced cookie-cutter-like imprints devoid of surface texture. Today, most stamps are made of rubber or polyurethane and molded from real materials, so they achieve amazingly realistic textural effects. Stamp suppliers also offer dozens of pattern choices.

"The homeowners we work with most commonly choose slate, brick or stone patterns," Bob notes. "These styles come in many different variations and dimensions to meet individual tastes."

Get creative with color. Thanks to an expanding array of integral and surface-applied coloring options for concrete, it's possible to achieve dramatic multi-tonal effects through color "layering," producing a look that has been very popular in cabinet finishes and interior wall painting for several years.

Again, nature is the inspiration; no natural stone is completely uniform in color. Bob's crews simulate natural variations with a combination of media: integral color, color hardener (a powdered pigment that's floated into the surface), tints and topically applied chemical stains. "Our main goal is to make the work look as realistic as the natural stone, tile or brick we are trying to replicate," Bob says.

Though subtle earth-tone shades are popular for stamped pavements, concrete also can be the canvas for bolder, more vivid color schemes. Dyes and newer polymer-based stains are available in vibrant tones such as red, yellow, orange and cobalt blue. Creative contractors use these products to expand the color palette and produce dynamic graphic compositions.

Reveal the aggregate. The aggregate in concrete can double as a decorative element when lightly exposed to reveal its color and texture. Often this is an economical way to give concrete some flair. The process is fairly simple and requires no special tools. Richly colored natural stones such as red granite, rose quartz or amber-brown river gravel are either mixed into the concrete or pressed into the surface. After the concrete is placed, the aggregate is exposed by removing the top layer of cement paste — usually by spraying a chemical surface retarder onto the slab, then scrubbing or pressure washing the surface. For an intriguing look, try substituting materials such as crushed seashells or colored glass for the decorative aggregate.

Engrave designs into the surface. Even old concrete can get a facelift to bring it up to par with a newly remodeled home. If the existing concrete driveway or patio is in good condition (with no spalling or major cracks), it might be a candidate for engraving. The process scores straight lines, rectangles and even circular patterns into the concrete using a machine about the size of a lawn mower with a sharp diamond blade. Engraving machines are commonly used to cut brick, tile and cobblestone patterns, but just about any motif is possible. Staining can further accent the engraved surface.

Top it with a decorative overlay. Overlays are another option for rejuvenating existing concrete, especially discolored or pitted surfaces. These products — typically a blend of cement, aggregates and polymer resins — go on like a super thick paint to smooth surfaces and add color. With some overlay systems, you can customize the look by staining, dying, scoring, stenciling or even stamping the surface. "The beauty of using an overlay system," Bob says, "is that you can transform a bland, unattractive slab of concrete into something that looks quite spectacular."

With a new look to the house behind the driveway and to the driveway itself, the overall effect truly can be spectacular. No tattered trench coats — just a remodeling job that is complete down to the last detail.

Online Resources

Find publications and other materials on decorative concrete: Portland Cement Association

Locate an experienced decorative concrete contractor in your area: ConcreteNetwork.com

Attend a workshop on decorative concrete: Decorative Concrete Institute

Get more information on engraving equipment and locate an engraving contractor:  Engrave-A-Crete

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