When Frank Lewis asked me to participate in the American Society of Concrete Contractors’ Annual Conference 2008, I had no idea what I was about to experience. It seemed simple enough at the time.
We were at World of Concrete, I had just finished teaching a class, and Frank and I were admiring the work of various artists showcased in the Artistry in Decorative Concrete section. There is a great energy and passion for decorative concrete at World of Concrete. Frank asked if I would be willing to teach a class for the ASCC event that was to be held in San Antonio, Texas, in September. Honored by the invitation, I agreed without hesitation. He then began to describe his vision for the event’s decorative demo — a scale reproduction of the Alamo. From that simple conversation, the airplane left the hangar and did not land until well after the event.
I came to discover that the ASCC and its subdivision, DCC (the Decorative Concrete Council), are very serious groups. As it turns out, this Annual Conference is not only a big deal, but is also packed with information, features fantastic demonstrations where you can really learn, and offers the most amazing group of industry giants in a setting small enough for them to really get to know each other. It took many meetings and discussions to convince the ASCC that this ambitious demo would be a success. No one wanted to see a poor reproduction of a well-known historical building.
Frank flew into Dallas, my hometown. We discussed the vision of reproducing the Alamo and brainstormed the details: technical aspects, products to use, who and how many artists we would need, and logistical considerations (Frank is a natural whiz with logistics). Wes Vollmer, a talented contractor based in San Antonio, would oversee the entire conference. I would oversee the Alamo demonstration with Wes’ help.
We went on to test, mock up, play with and push various products and systems. The easiest and quickest option was to replicate the carved detail with cut foam. Mike Eastergard of PreiTech offered to provide the labor and materials to create these. On a real job, I would definitely go this route. However, we decided that simply coating precise details would not offer much of a teaching demo. We opted to carve all the detail into the carvable vertical mix onsite with reference photographs. I was fortunate enough to be able to convince Ralph Hiene and Randy Klassen, two contractors whose work I greatly admire, to commit to be there for the project. Other amazing talents, such as Bob Harris, Stan Pace, Clyde Cobb, and a few I did not know, would be there as well. With that we were confident of promising results. We spent months preparing to ensure a fabulous event without surprises.
A hurricane — who knew? None of us could predict that a little hurricane could cause so much chaos. Flights were cancelled, the wind roared, and the media was frenzied anticipating Rita’s potential landfall. The night before we were to begin I learned that Hurricane Rita had dwindled our stellar crew to Randy, Ralph and myself. My kickedback comfort level for our well-prepared fun event took a turn. This was going to be a lot of work if it would be just the three of us, and I was worried. Reggie Burnett, a Floric Polytech rep, assured me that he would be there too. I entered the hotel lobby and was introduced to the “few I did not know” and up to that point was not sure would be there, including Kevin Percy and Marshall Hoskins. These guys are the real-deal, mud-in-their-blood concrete heroes. Our outdoor event quickly shuffled from an enormous tent to a parking structure. We were back on track and better than ever. As it turns out, the only stir San Antonio faced from the hurricane was ominous media predictions, travel confusion, and beautiful, breezy, sunny weather. It was awesome and everyone was in a great mood.
We used EIFS, foam blocks that connect like giant Legos, to make the base structure. Specialty Concrete Products supplied FossilCrete for our vertical mix, and SureCrete supplied Eco Stain for the final color. We studied hundreds of photographs and laid out the project with exacting detail. We carved the EIFS and used additional sheet foam to make build-outs, columns and other proud detail. FossilCrete, like most vertical mixes, can be built out, stamped, carved, pigmented integrally and stained. It responds very well to a myriad of techniques.
The actual Alamo does not have much color. Its perceived color is from age, wear and dirt. This made the Alamo especially challenging but quite appropriate for our demo. We worked from unpigmented material that matched the base color of the Alamo very well. We stamped the fresh mud with texture skins. We took the most bizarre collection of gadgets and began shaping and carving the mud wall into a work of art. Ripped PVC tubing shaped the detail on the columns. We used an orange peeler or metal banding to trench out grout lines. Suddenly we had an impressive reproduction. We added a bit more of the mud to the grout lines and then packed it with sand. (The actual Alamo has a very sandy grout mix.) The final detail was color. We opted to use the Eco Stains as they are penetrating and nonreactive. We diluted these and pushed color into crevices and along the roofline with the intent of honoring the color of the Alamo. We lightly accented stones with subtle shading.
We were thrilled to see the response of the ASCC, which had questioned the ambitious venture. They were genuinely and pleasantly surprised to see how well these decorative concrete products perform. I think they might have also been a bit surprised at how much talent their group has. I was surprised too, not by the products or talent, but what a great experience I had. You can be sure I am looking forward to the next event.