Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Materiality: Concrete

The concept of mundane materials taking new forms may offer the ability to literally 'recast' their use in a new light. No material is this more true than concrete. In it's many forms concrete is a malleable soldier of the building trades, and provides countless opportunities for architecture and design. While a number of building materials rarely make the trek into landscape territory, concrete is one that is used much - perhaps a staple of the profession due to it's use in paving, as well as it's mutability for organic forms, walls, and other built elements.

Due to it's commonality, there are often two pitfalls which range somewhere in the categories of monontony/overuse, and bad/clunky detailing. While for every example of bad use of material, there are equal and opposite (and perhaps more) examples of great uses, both typical and innovative. In this regard, we celebrate the wonder of concrete, and some of it's many forms, in the following 'Ode to Materiality Series'

The following example of black-tinted concrete comes from Andrea Cochran in her aforementioned Pacific Heights Residence. Would this have the same modern clean lines and impact with a stone or block material? Or, would it blend into the scene and surrounding metal and gravel as seamlessly if it were typical gray concrete coloring?

:: photo via Andrea Cochran Landscape Architecture

Both of these examples are via Dezeen, and involve an opposite idea. See through concrete in a couple of forms. The first example is from Hungarian architect Áron Losonczi, Litracon, which is shortening of Light-tranmitting Concrete available in a blocks of varying sizes. The second, dubbed Translucent Concrete, created by Andreas Bittis. Both are essentially the same idea, with Litracon having the international patent... but a combination of concrete and optical fibers woven through the mix that are able to be lit and provide levels of translucence through the materials:

:: image of Litracon via Dezeen

:: image of Translucent Concrete via Dezeen

A simplistic form of concrete is the concrete masonry unit, or CMU. This shows up in many types of construction due to it's low-cost of manufacture, easy transportation, and simplicty of installation. It's variants include the 'decorative' versions with texture and color variations, as well as the modular walls systems we all love to hate, such as keystone or anchor. A new take, by Loom Studio, is part of their project 12 blocks, which provides textural variations of the volume of the CMU itself, celebrating the prefabrication as well as the malleable nature of the form, and allowing for interesting patterning and combinations without adding significantly to the cost.

:: images via Loom Studio

While this could go on... and probably will - the simplicity of alternative finished concrete paving. To provide an aesthetic quality of paver material without the cost of unit pavers, we like to try to dress up our concrete to give it something beyond it's flat gray nature. Thus our use of coloring and patterning, via Bomanite or other types of systems that involve either a rubber stamp or a roller. The problem with these systems is 1) they tend to look artificially textured and tinted, and 2) the quality and consistency is usually lacking in the actual installation. I have heard some techniques for how to provide more quality control (i.e. use both integral and surface color) but it seems that there are few contractors we can go to with confidence for this service and know we are getting a good product. If anyone has great experiences or examples (i have few) of colored concrete and texture, I think it'd be a great discussion.

I've tended to lean more towards simplicity of textures, without color or with some subtle variations (although going back to Andrea Cochran's walls, i may rethink this). We have not moved much past the simple texturing methods that have long been used (i.e. broom finishes) due to their simplicity. There are a number of options available depending on the needs. One of my favorites is to use rock salt finish on paving, to give it a mottled appearance that is a bit softer.

:: image via Concrete Network

Another method that I have seen, for walls specifically, is board formed concrete, using the grain of the wood to embue a certain texture and quality to the overall finished surface. Again, quality is an issue, but even some inconsistencies work because of the nature of revealing a materials nature (the fluid malleability of concrete) and the process of creating it (the traces of wood grain, bolt holes, and joints remaining in the final mix). I will post a pic as soon as i find a good one.

I realize this is an ongoing investigation, but it has inspired me to endeavor to look more closely at some of the materials we tend to take for granted in design and construction, and investigate the nature of the material, it's uses, and new innovations for application. Suggestions for other materials to investigate are welcome.


  1. Just wanted to let you know there is a really neat site called the Decorative Concrete Forums, there are tons of info and it is very interactive, we do run the site an we are trying to build it up to be the most informative site about Decorative Concrete.


  2. Thanks for the heads up Art. I will check out the site.


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