My palms sweat. A fresh-finished, curing concrete sidewalk beckons me. I sense the damp, smooth surface tempting me to leave my handprint or to scratch the initials of my first love. How many times before have I abandoned myself to the temptation and gotten away with it? I stand, poised, ready with stick in hand to scratch in her name . . . only to be thwarted by a grown-up shouting: "Hey, kid! Get away from that concrete!" I run.
Years later, here I am again, tempted. There isn't a soul around. I pick up the perfect stick . . . but now no one stops me. No longer the delinquent, I can carve, scratch, stamp, mold, and grind all the concrete I can get my hands on—and play to my heart's content. Rather than being shooed away, now I'm invited to stay.
Concrete is a wondrous material. From a primal and formless slurry, it can transform itself into solid form taking on any shape. The possibilities for creative expression are endless. You can grind, polish, stamp, and stain it. You can embed objects in it. It has substance and mass, permanence and warmth. It feels earthy. It assumes forms that irrevocably touch our daily lives: bridges, highways, floors, walls, and now even countertops.
It first occurred to me to make a countertop out of concrete in 1985, when a friend and I were hired to design and renovate a professor's house in the Berkeley hills. He gave us a modest budget and announced, "This is all I can afford to spend, do whatever you want." Armed with this rare creative license, and plenty of youthful exuberance, everything was targeted to be as innovative as possible. Nothing, we decided, would be "out of the box," including the kitchen sink. In fact, the sink is of special interest here since it was the first step in a process that has led to this book.
We decided to make our own sink and countertop with granite and ceramic tiles. The tiles would create a palpable sense of massiveness, we reasoned, and their complex surface texture would give the piece a comfortable, human scale. Basically, we were working toward an aesthetic that has informed much of our work since.
Rather than build a conventional grouted plywood base for the tile sink and countertop, however, my friend and I decided to cast a concrete base. We had already done plenty of kitchen remodels by that time, and we'd seen our share of dry-rotted wood underlayments. Concrete never rots.
So we simply built a mold of two wooden boxes, one nested inside the other. We filled the gap between them with concrete out of a bag. It was a simple process that yielded quite surprising results. When we stripped the mold, we were amazed. The raw concrete was beautiful. It looked like sculpture: There was all that massiveness we liked, and the surface—gray, pitted, crazed, and textured by the mold—had all the complexity we'd envisioned . . . without the tile.
We agreed that it was a shame to hide the concrete, and we resolved that on our next job we'd explore concrete's potential as a medium for creative expression.
And so we did, in my own kitchen. It was a single piece containing 11 cu. ft. of concrete. It weighed nearly 1,500 lbs. It took 10 of us, using two engine hoists, to turn it over once it had cured. We barely managed it, but the piece came out intact and beautiful, and to this day is still being put to good use.
It was beginner's luck, we quickly discovered.
As we designed and built more of these "working sculptures" for our clients, problems came up: efflorescence, cracks, honeycombing, more efflorescence, stains, and then more efflorescence—but each setback led to new insights and new inspirations. With each experience, we learned to simplify the process and control the variables that affect the finished product. And the more we worked with the material, the more encouraged we became.
Concrete has become my material of choice for design expression, simply because its utility and durability are matched by its sculptural sensuality. My approach to concrete is thus design driven, and this book is as much about design and art as it is about the practical aspects of working with concrete.
In Concrete Countertops, we discuss the tools, materials, and methods we've developed that contribute to consistently satisfactory results. And most important, we offer a gallery of design ideas culled from projects by Cheng Design and others.
It's my hope that this book will inspire more homeowners, artists, designers, architects, and concrete professionals to get their hands dirty and play. I invite you to take the techniques presented here as a springboard to explore the creative possibilities of this age-old material. I want everyone to see that concrete not only has an ancient history as a durable, lasting material but that it has proved its efficacy as a medium of aesthetic expression as well. And that today, with improvements in our understanding of its basic properties, science and industry have provided us with materials and methods that enable us to expand the potential of this amazing material.
So, come on, surrender to the impulse to carve those initials.