Decorative concrete doesn’t come on a bigger scale than this. Developer Geoff Palmer has built more apartments in downtown Los Angeles than anyone else — more than 3,000 — all in the same faux-Italian style. And he’s trusted one decorative concrete artisan to fancy up the driveways, courtyards and other common areas of his big buildings.
That man is Andre Plouffe, founder of Designs in Concrete, based in Thousand Oaks. Over a series of jobs as a subcontractor (he bids with the concrete contractor), he’s earned Palmer’s trust by staying on time and on budget. In return, the developer gives him an enormous amount of leeway. Plouffe often overrides plans and specs to put in what he thinks will look better, and he doesn’t even ask the boss, he says. They trust him. And they keep hiring him — projects for G.H. Palmer Associates account for 60 to 70 percent of his gross revenues.
As a result, Plouffe’s work plays a central role in a series of huge apartment complexes with Renaissance-themed names such as the Medici, Orsini and Visconti that have transformed downtown L.A.
Luxury complex for college kids
“G.H. Palmer are not the easiest guys to work for,” Plouffe says. “They’re tough. They say, ‘There’s your schedule and this is when your pour days are. And make them, because there are guys coming up behind you.’ They push you. But the first week of the month your check is there. You’re never calling them for money, ever. If Geoff hasn’t been paid by the bank, he’ll pay you out of pocket. You dream of clients like that.”
Their most recent collaboration, The Lorenzo, is the first Palmer complex geared toward college students. Half a mile from the University of Southern California campus, the $300 million, six-story fortress occupies the city block at Flower Street and Adams Boulevard. It offers more than 900 furnished apartments, plus an impressive list of luxury amenities that include two gyms, four pools, two professional-size indoor basketball courts, community lounges, steam showers and a sauna. The centerpiece is a $4.5 million fountain that emits lasers and fog and shoots water in time to music.
“You move away from home and you live in a freaking luxury complex like that? My God. I want to be a college student,” Plouffe says.
Decorative concrete is part of The Lorenzo luxury experience — from driveways and walkways to pool decks and patios.
The courtyard surrounding the big fountain is decked out in the same Brickform large cobblestone pattern used on the driveways. The courtyard was colored with Proline Concrete Tools’ Espresso and Mojave release. The walkways were set apart using Proline’s bluestone hammered-edge ashlar stamp.
The courtyard up the stairs from the fountain, and the pool deck beyond, were stamped with the Lorenzo Travertine stamp, an ashlar stamp designed for this project by Proline. “I wanted something different,” Plouffe says. “Nobody else had it.”
It’s a hammered-edge stone pattern with the biggest stones measuring 17-by-40 inches, larger than in other ashlar patterns. About 3,000 to 3,500 square feet were stamped with it. Proline now sells the stamp on its own site.
The Lorenzo offered Plouffe many opportunities to do some of his improv. A second courtyard with a fountain was slated for a pattern Plouffe didn’t like, so he instead played off the walls, which featured precast stones in a running bond pattern. “We skim-textured that whole courtyard, then saw-cut and hammered stones on it in a 20-by-40-inch pattern, stained them different colors and grouted it.”
Where the design called for fish-scale fan patterns in smaller areas where they would look weird, Plouffe instead installed a hammered-edge tile pattern and some texture that complemented the looks of nearby walls and planters. And on a second pool deck, where a pattern monotonously repeated itself, the crew used bands and randomly stained stone patterns to break it up and give it some character. When walkways widened into circle areas, they’d deviate from the planned texture and joints to cut, hammer and stain tiles in diluted shades of a given stain.
“I bet you we went through 12, 15 pallets of color hardener at 50 bags per pallet, and probably four or five pallets of release, at least,” Plouffe says.
What’s even more impressive is that Plouffe oversaw $1.4 million worth of work while undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer.
With a little help from a friend
Wilgus runs his own decorative concrete business, JMW Contractors, and was Plouffe’s colleague in stamped concrete in the 1970s. “He ran my project for three or four months when I was in the hospital getting surgery and starting to deal with chemo. From October (2012) to January or February or so, he kind of took over the project for me, ran my guys and kept me on schedule. Doing 100-yard stamp pours with a boom pump at one time — where am I going to find somebody to do that, to take my place? There are not exactly a million guys out there, let alone a guy who will volunteer to say, ‘Hey, I’ll take care of this. You just get better.’”Plouffe was diagnosed two weeks after he started the Lorenzo project. “I was off of it for a while. That’s when John Wilgus took over.”
Wilgus didn’t ask for money at first, and when Plouffe insisted on being billed after a month and a half, he asked for $5,000. Plouffe gave him $10,000.
Sure, he says, being off the big job was frustrating. “But the project really wasn’t that high on my list of priorities. Staying alive was. I knew it was in good hands but I didn’t really think about it that much in the hospital. I had enough on my mind.”
Life goes on
The treatments worked at the time. But the cancer has returned, and Plouffe is currently diagnosed with Stage IV. “I’ve been in pretty good shape. I still feel good now. But the sh*t came back.” Still, he’s not slowing down on the business front. He’s working for Palmer once again on the next big project. “I’m already four months into the Da Vinci. It’s another 400-unit project. It’s not as big of a scale and it’s not as fast-track a schedule.”
Designs in Concrete also will be doing all the decorative for two planned non-Italian Palmer complexes on Broadway in downtown L.A. And there’s more on the docket after that. “No one even bids against us anymore,” Plouffe says. “I’ve taken care of him for this long, and out of 15 projects I think I tore out six steps. We stay on track, we give them a quality project, on time, on budget. If we don’t like it, we change it and make it look better.”
His team has mostly been with him on the Palmer projects since the Medici 15 years ago. “So they all know what’s going on and how everything goes. It’s a pretty well-oiled machine.”
The workweek is not that bad, Plouffe says. “I get my chemo on Thursdays, I go to Big Bear Lake, I work Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and then I get chemo again Thursday. I’m just trying to do what I can with it. It sucks. I’m getting two chemo drugs, where before I only got one. So that really kicks my ass. But hey, it’s better than being in a pine box.”
His team can carry the workload for him, he says. “My guys have really grown up through all this. They’ve picked up the slack and they do a lot more stuff than they used to, and they really help out a lot.” He name-checks Jaime Palma, Manuel Salinas and Victor Lopez, calling them “my three main men,” and also credits “the crews and owners of other subcontracting companies for their never-ending support and encouragement through the rough times.”
He will keep coming into work as long as his health allows, he says. “It’s like a big family. I know these guys. They’re friends. I enjoy going there and doing stuff. All the people care about what’s happened with me and they’re really supportive. There’s a lot of positive energy.”
Project at a Glance
Client: G.H. Palmer Associates, Beverly Hills, Calif.
Decorative concrete contractor: Designs In Concrete, Thousand Oaks, Calif. | www.designsinconcrete.net
General contractor: G.H. Palmer Associates; Sam Maus Sr., project coordinator; Sam Maus Jr., senior superintendent | www.ghpalmer.com
Concrete contractor: Silverline Construction, Los Angeles | www.silverlineconstructioninc.com
Landscape/hardscape architect: L.A. Group Design Works, Woodland Hills, Calif. | www.lagroupinc.net
Scope of project: Decorative paving for drives, walkways, pool decks and stairs.
Size of job: Close to 2,500 square yards of stamped concrete
Time to complete decorative concrete work: A year and 10 months, concluding in July 2014
Total cost of project: $300 million
Contract for decorative concrete work: $1.4 million
Most challenging aspects: Trying to stay on schedule with 100-yard concrete pours, dealing with weather when pours were scheduled up to two weeks in advance, running almost 600 linear feet of hose to pump concrete to the locations throughout the project
Products used: Stamps and texture skins from Solomon Brickform and Proline Concrete Tools, including a custom-made Lorenzo Travertine stamp from Proline, plus Rotating Ashlar Blue Stone and Random Stone Large stamps, and 18-inch Slate Tile and Belgium Slate texture skins; Espresso, Sand Canyon, Cream Buff and Mojave color hardener from Proline Concrete Tools; Mocha and Walnut release agents from Proline Concrete Tools; Dark Walnut, Padre Brown, Antique Amber and Faded Terracotta acid stains from L. M. Scofield Co.; Brickform Gem-Seal