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A Canadian Perspective of Concrete Countertops

If you’re a concrete contractor in Canada and are considering expanding your business to include countertops, you may appreciate my insights.

We established Concrete Countertops Canada in 2006 to specialize in fine concrete finishes suitable for the busiest residential and commercial applications. We set out to become a resource and Canadian industry leader in this niche craft.

Inspired by the design portfolios and apparent business success of specialists centered mainly in Southern California, we embarked on a market analysis in an attempt to forecast demand north of the border. Really, there’s not much out there that is specific to this industry in Canada. However, in the United States, the decorative concrete market is growing faster than any other segment of the concrete industry, with hundreds of manufacturers and thousands of contractors. And according to The Concrete Network Web site, concrete countertops top the list of the most requested decorative-concrete services.

No wonder, when according to a recent study by Freedonia, U.S. countertop demand is expected to reach 540 million square feet by 2011, driven by the remodeling segment, with demand for engineered stone and natural stone countertops growing the fastest. The market in Canada could be expected to grow proportionally, to some 50 million square feet.

Canada is a big piece of geography with a few major urban centers, many, many smaller centers, and lots of fields, forests, mountains, lakes and streams in between. This country boasts a population virtually overflowing with tenacity and ingenuity — just like concrete, come to think.

Our shop is located just east of Canada’s largest metropolis, which is a city virtually cast in concrete. Toronto is a concrete showcase of homes, infrastructure and internationally recognized landmarks, including the groundbreaking New City Hall and the record-smashing CN Tower. This abundance of concrete infrastructure may explain why the uninformed public is skeptical about our promise of concrete as a decorative element. We still receive the uniquely Canadian polite smiles when we speak to new audiences about a concrete showpiece in the centre of their home or office. Oh Canada — always the diplomat. Luckily our growing photo portfolio and a chance to visit our showroom for a touch and feel, along with the relationship we build in the process, generally cement the deal. Since the precaster ultimately influences the end result, it is important that clients trust and respect the artisan’s judgment.

I am business manager for Concrete Countertops Canada, and at the upcoming Design Trends Toronto and Concrete Canada shows, my company’s owner, countertop artisan Rob Bryant, will speak to architects, designers, builders and contractors about the growing trend to concrete for use in kitchens, baths and decor.

The national shows, held Dec. 3-5 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, run concurrently with Construct Canada, Home Builder & Renovator Expo and Property Management Expo. Last year, more than 23,000 visitors from across Canada and 25 international countries, including the United States, attended.

If showcasing the hottest new design trends with one of the world’s oldest building materials seems an odd pairing, consider this. The history of concrete is one of creativity and innovation. Although there’s no crystal ball when it comes to predicting design trends, there is a legacy of kings’ and artisans’ fascination with concrete, dating back to the pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China. In the classical periods of stone building there were no distinctions between structure, ornament, and architecture — form followed function.

Thanks to renewed interest and confidence due to design and technological innovations, our commercial business is growing. However, there is a tendency for architects to spec to larger companies over smaller specialized artisans. We believe that our growth and success in this market segment will be directly tied to repeat business and referrals from a few key designers and architects.

Our residential clients are primarily “innovators” — creative types who value originality. By the time they’ve called us, they are already sold on the warm, natural feel of concrete. They often have a specific color or element they want us to match or complement.

We’re rarely quoting against other stone choices but are often asked about the material’s perceived shortfalls in withstanding the daily assault of a busy kitchen. We find that client testimonials are key. There’s a great testament in a Buddy Rhodes reference where his countertops have been used in a teaching kitchen at a middle school in Berkeley, Calif. The client writes that after 13 years and 3,000 students, the countertops still look beautiful. Unfortunately there are few others in the industry that have a decade-long track record.

In the last 18 months, we’ve trained more than 100 professionals from a variety of backgrounds and trades. The two-day course offers hands-on experience and advice. We also cover client expectations and offer our thoughts on the level of integrity and professionalism that high-end design demands.

Our training alumnae value our Canadian connections to resources for tools and materials, and they are generous in sharing their best connections too. We are working to establish a network of associate artisans in regional centers across Canada to whom we can confidently refer suitable projects and with whom we can share industry news and resources.

We are working to build the industry in Canada together, because single artisans are hard-pressed to direct significant marketing dollars toward educating buyers. It’s interesting to note the number of times concrete countertops appear unreferenced in design magazine advertisements for fixtures or cabinets. We are exploring partnership opportunities with national suppliers for credited product placement.

It’s a long-term plan for long-term success, because while concrete in Canada is nothing new, the challenge for decorative concrete artisans may be in changing existing perceptions and attitudes toward a medium whose historical relevance, flexibility and utilitarian competence should speak for itself. If a trend toward concrete countertops is growing, it may well be one that will outlive its innovators.

So come on Canadian contractors, toe in — the concrete’s fine.

www.concretecountertopscanada.com

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