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Precasting Isn't Just for Concrete Countertops Anymore

portrait of Jeffrey Girard

Concrete rivals or surpasses many common architectural materials when it comes to versatility of design and application. Its customizability is well-known, and more fabricators are starting to realize how they can capitalize on its versatility in expanding their market.

While concrete countertops continue to be popular, offering other high-quality architectural products can help expand a concrete countertop maker’s repertoire without significantly changing how they make their concrete or how they do business.

Recently, the popularity of outdoor kitchens has increased. Even in northern climates, outdoor kitchens are a surprisingly strong source of business for many fabricators. Of course, outdoor kitchens need countertops, and concrete is an obvious choice. My last article in Concrete Decor (May/June 2011) dealt with special considerations for outdoor concrete. Those considerations also apply to other outdoor fixtures and products made with concrete, including those I will talk about in this article.

For many years now, the popularity of concrete countertops has grown. While this looks like a good thing on the surface, many concrete countertop makers have found it challenging at times to get the pricing they want. Basic economics tells us that as demand increases, pricing tends to drop. Not only are there more concrete countertop makers getting into the business, there are more countertop choices for the consumer. And those alternate countertop choices are less expensive than concrete, so the great challenge for many concrete countertop makers is how to sell their products at prices that keep them in business.

Transmuting flat concrete into a vertical wall that has water flowing over it is not necessarily difficult

One good example that we as concrete countertop makers are always up against is granite. The granite industry is, in many areas of the country, vigorously strangling itself in a downward spiral of ever-lower pricing and quality. It wasn’t always like this. Thirty years ago, the granite industry was, in many ways, much like the concrete countertop industry. Small shops did low volumes of business because much or all of the work was done manually using hand-held polishers. Because the work was scarce and stone was seen as a high-value exotic material, it commanded high prices. Remember, the dominant countertop material at the time was laminate and the high-end product was solid surface. Tile and butcher block were the alternatives, so consumers didn’t have the number of choices they do now.

Fast-forward to today. A single CNC machine can take a slab of granite and, entirely untouched by people, turn it into an installation-ready kitchen within a few hours. What may have taken days of manual polishing in the past now can be done with a few minutes of programming. This rapid production, coupled with the flood of low-cost (and perhaps low-quality) stone has created the state that much of the granite industry faces.

The granite industry is, in some ways, trapped by the material it has hung its hat on. Stone to a large extent is what it is. Once it’s quarried, all that you can do to it is change its surface texture.

Some innovative folks have begun dyeing lower-quality stones to create exotic colors. And I’ve even shown some stone fabricators how to acid-stain travertine and marble. Recoloring, while seen as exotic and new for stone, is really an old trick of the concrete industry.

But stone still has one more limitation that doesn’t limit us. Stone is already a hard, rigid material when it comes out of the ground. The granite industry has created a very efficient and cost-effective way to transform large blocks of stone into thin, polished slabs, but the fabricator is limited in what he or she can do with those slabs. If your entire industry is built around and optimized to cut up flat slabs of stone and create smaller pieces with pretty edges, then it’s very difficult for that same industry to efficiently and cost-effectively change to making 3-D pieces that aren’t built out of flat slabs glued together (which is the current way of making complex shapes out of flat material).

In some ways the concrete countertop industry has begun following the same path that the granite industry created. When your business is centered around countertops, it’s expected that comparisons between concrete and other materials will be made. And this has a profound impact on expectations about pricing and quality.

However, since concrete is such a versatile material, it is possible to get out of the kitchen and move into new markets that don’t have these expectations. For example, you can explore making fire pits, water walls, furniture, planters, and wall panels and tiles.

While all of these items also have established alternatives with their own pricing and market trends, they do not face the same “compete directly with granite” issue that countertops do. And they do not have the same sealer performance expectations that kitchen countertops do.

For many years now, the popularity of concrete countertops has grown. Classic Concrete Firepit

What do you do? Consider adding a new product line that’s complimentary to your core business. If you already do outdoor kitchens, why not start offering fire pits too? If you focus on interior work, how about water walls, wall panels or even furniture?

For those already making high-quality concrete countertops, adding these new products should be easy. However, each requires more care and consideration than simply changing the shape of your forms. Transmuting flat concrete into a vertical wall that has water flowing over it is not necessarily difficult, but making a satisfying water wall that actually works can take thought and effort that most countertop jobs never demand.

New products open new markets, but they also have their own learning curves. The last thing you want is a fire pit that blows up or a water wall that leaks. These new challenges test your confidence with working in three dimensions, hone your problem-solving skills and push your creativity — but that’s why you got into this, right?

Teal concrete lounge chair with arms and orange accents.

Build on the skills you already have and hone your design creativity. Stop competing against granite and start realizing all the possibilities that concrete offers beyond countertops.

Jeffrey Girard is founder and president of The Concrete Countertop Institute and a pioneer of engineered concrete countertops. He can be reached at jeffg@concretecountertopinstitute.com.

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