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Concrete Coutnertop Customization

Customization Increases Aesthetic Appeal and Real Estate Investment for Homeowners

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, CO—From top-dollar homes in the San Francisco Bay Area to sprawling mountain homes in the Colorado Rockies, discriminating homeowners are demanding custom designs and finishes in their kitchens. In particular, they are looking to express their individuality and distinct design preferences in their kitchens with the fast-growing design material of choice—concrete.

In fact, concrete countertops have become somewhat of a status symbol for kitchens, rivaling granite and other high-end options. Consumer Reports magazine (August 2004) ranked concrete highest for its "customization" and "exclusivity" among high-end kitchen countertops. 

As a custom product, the amount of time and craftsmanship required to produce concrete countertops places them as the most labor-intensive and priciest among leading countertop materials. "We never quote by the square foot like granite," says designer and residential concrete expert, Fu-Tung Cheng of Cheng Design and Cheng Concrete Exchange. "We sell concrete countertops by the piece, valued for artistry, pedigree, and craftsmanship—not for size." 

However, concrete countertops are becoming more accessible for those on a modest budget. The latest custom, do-it-yourself (DIY) project to captivate homeowners and builders is building your own concrete countertop. This DIY phenomenon has gained popularity largely due to Cheng's best-selling book Concrete Countertops: Design, Forms, and Finishes for the New Kitchen and Bath (Taunton Press, 2002). 

"There's little monetary investment yet large creative gains using concrete as a medium," says Cheng, who has been making concrete countertops for nearly 20 years and is regarded as the premier concrete countertop designer in the industry.

The Showstopper

Increasingly, homeowners are moving away from the monotonous, manufactured look of traditional countertop surfaces and choosing concrete for its earthy, timeless appeal. Plus, the options for personalizing concrete countertops are endless: a do-it-yourselfer can color, polish, stamp and stain concrete. Homeowners can imbed personal objects like stones, seashells and fossils into the countertop's surface, adding sentiment and character. Functional features such as drain boards, soap dishes, and trivets can also be incorporated to suit homeowners' own needs and lifestyle. 

With the help of Cheng's books and the emergence of contractors around the country learning to build countertops, concrete is becoming demystified as characteristically cold and industrial. In contrary, concrete is warm and surprisingly tactile; people cannot help but touch their smooth, polished surfaces. "When I had open houses, visitors gravitated to the concrete countertops—many people around here have never seen them," said real estate agent Joy Rasmussen of her recently sold home, a short-term investment property in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. 

KJ Otterman, president of Classic Special Custom Homes (based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado), and Ken Otterman, Joy's husband, custom built the 2,265 sq. ft. mountain home. They exclusively used Concrete Countertops as their guide and Cheng's NeoMix concrete countertop products to build pour-in-place concrete counters for the home's kitchen and three baths. The Sand-colored (from the NeoMix color palette) concrete countertops were polished smooth then paired with natural slate of varying colors, like charcoal, rust and gold tones, that function as backsplashes in the kitchen and baths. As a design accent, small rectangular slate tiles were added to the rim of the bathroom sinks which provided a unique detail to the custom vanities. 

"We were able to list the house $20,000 over market value, and had no problems selling it," comments Joy, while discussing her investment home's long list of upgrades throughout the space, including knotty pine solid doors, natural slate wall accents, hardwood floors and wood trim. "The concrete countertops were easily the most unique and impressive of all the finishes. I believe they were a huge part in adding value to the home. Around here, all you see in homes are granite countertops—and I really think homebuyers are getting quite numb with granite." 

"Concrete countertops are a unique offering to homebuyers who see the same finishes used in house after house they visit," explains Joy, offering her observation as a seasoned realtor. "Having concrete countertops almost gives you bragging rights—you have something different from your neighbors."

Building Business

KJ Otterman and his team of skilled residential builders quickly became adept to the aesthetic potential and versatility of concrete, and now offer concrete countertops as a custom option for their residential projects. According to KJ, builders in the Steamboat Springs area, a top destination resort town, have to work harder to differentiate their projects from the competition since everyone is competing for the same high-end customer. 

The creativity and versatility of concrete has opened a new market for the KJ and his staff. They are confident that adding custom concrete will grow their business and are forming a separate concrete company that will specialize in building concrete countertops, custom floors, driveways, patios and decks. Cheng's follow-up book, Concrete at Home (Taunton Press, 2005) was a source of inspiration for them to get their concrete business jumpstarted. The book offers illustrations of detailed concrete flooring inside and outside of the home among other concrete applications like water features, fireplaces and walls. To solidify their business plans, KJ and his team plan to attend Cheng's Advanced Countertop Design Training in Berkeley, CA. Part of the training will offer them essential information on developing and growing their concrete business.

Breaking the Mold

Another advantage of concrete is its adaptability in either modern or traditional settings especially when coupled with other materials like varied metals, wood or stone. "Concrete adds so many [possibilities] to stone, and the combination with slate, which is hugely popular here, gives the mountain homes an overall warm, natural touch," says Joy. 

Joy and Ken have since built a much larger home (4,000 sq. ft.) that offers expansive views of the Steamboat Ski Resort that will serve as a long-term investment for the couple. They've also expanded their list of custom finishes, including hand-troweled walls, elegant oil-rubbed bronze hardware, knotty pine doors that arch at the top, cabinets in a natural, knotty alder, and their favorite—concrete kitchen countertops. 

Unlike in their previous home, KJ and his specialty crew poured charcoal-colored countertops using the pre-cast method in the unfinished basement of the new home. Before pouring the concrete, they sprinkled an array of semi-precious stones in the mold including Leopardskin, Moonstone, Mother-of-Pearl and Turquoise. After the surface was ground and lightly polished, the finished result was an impressive blend of colors, "By far, the Mother-of-Pearl was the most incredible," says Joy. 

The L-shaped concrete countertop has a rough, rustic stone appearance, complementing its rugged country surroundings. An integral drain board and trivets provides function and added interest to the concrete countertop. Natural slate backsplashes, distinct wall accents, and a butcher block countertop at the kitchen island all resonate with the traditional warmth and earthiness of the concrete countertops. 

Joy and Ken's respective backgrounds in real estate and custom homebuilding, and as investment homebuyers, have helped them realize that concrete countertops can add tremendous aesthetic and financial value to a home. Concrete's customization and "show-stopping" appeal is like no other countertop surface. Cheng is a proponent of emotional aesthetics and building homes that capture these emotions, as in the case of Joy and Ken Otterman. Cheng concludes: "People really want differentiation, something personal, something custom," says Cheng. "And concrete can do that for them."