Mr. and Mrs. Do-It-Yourselfer

Through the Thick and Thin of Building a Concrete Countertop

SAN FRANCISCO, CA, August 2005 — Concrete countertops, recognized first by architects and designers for their aesthetic potential and project versatility, are fast-becoming the answer to homeowners’ demands for a relatively inexpensive countertop alternative that doesn’t require a high-level of expertise to install. In addition, they offer homeowners an exciting opportunity to literally try their hand at being creative. Step-by-step books, videos and hands-on training are now readily available for homeowners to confidently engage in such do-it-yourself (DIY) projects as building concrete countertops.

Married couple Chris and Ali Collins were excited to take on a DIY project after purchasing their San Francisco flat. A logistical real estate developer/construction manager and an educational specialist, Chris and Ali are also architecture and home design enthusiasts. With a penchant for getting their hands dirty, building and installing their own concrete countertop seemed a natural choice for them.

The couple’s instructional guide and source for design inspiration was award-winning designer Fu-Tung Cheng’s Concrete Countertops: Design, Forms, and Finishes for the New Kitchen and Bath (Taunton, 2002), a national bestseller in the remodeling and design genre. Since its release in 2002, Concrete Countertops has been the go-to guide for designing and building concrete countertops. The book takes both professionals and do-it-yourselfers through the step-by-step process of design considerations, planning, building a concrete countertop mold, mixing and pouring the concrete, curing, grinding, polishing, and finally installing the concrete countertop.

“We found the book to be very helpful,” says Chris. “It really was a key element to what we feel was a big success. It was a challenging and rewarding experience. We also loved the ease of using Cheng’s mix products.”

Chris happens to be no stranger to concrete: “My interest goes back several years when I was building restaurants and retail spaces. I installed concrete countertops and worked with concrete artisans doing integral color and stained concrete floors.”

In April of 2003, Chris and Ali purchased a two-flat building in space-challenged San Francisco. Recently, they sold the lower flat as a tenant-in-common unit and now occupy the upper flat, which offers roughly 950 sq. ft. of living space. Before they considered building their own kitchen concrete countertop, Chris and Ali hired a contractor for an extensive remodel of the home.

Combining existing traditional design elements with a modern aesthetic, several interior walls were eliminated to open up the old “shotgun” style layout. The result is an open, loft-like living space where the kitchen and living zones flow together. Architectural details that were preserved include the original red oak floors, 10-feet high coved ceilings and original doors and trim.

“We both enjoy the process of designing and creating our own living space to fit how we live. This applies to the space we occupy as well as the details within it,” says Ali. “We both like the idea of working with our hands, using materials that are natural, accessible, beautiful, and flexible.” Chris added, “Concrete counters are beautiful, cool, earthy, solid, and you just want to touch them. The counters were a perfect way for us to create something beautiful out of our own ideas and hard work, and the uniqueness of the end product is a representation of our unique ideas.”

Their kitchen, 10 feet wide by 15 feet long (150 sq. ft.), didn’t offer much room for Chris and Ali to work — but that didn’t stop the big plans they had for their narrow kitchen. They wanted to have a logical cooking zone with a work triangle, plenty of counter space and still have enough room to accommodate a dining area.

Like most urban San Francisco properties, space is almost always an issue. To remedy this, a straight run of upper and lower cabinets and a concrete countertop with a dishwasher, sink, oven and stove is located along one wall of the kitchen. A built-in banquette and dining table is located opposite the concrete countertop work area. An adjacent wall hosts a refrigerator and tall cabinets.

Chris and Ali agree that the most interesting addition to the kitchen is the concrete countertop. Having used all Cheng NeoMix products, the finished product is a visually stunning work surface with rich, complex colors: NeoMix Pro-Formula’s reddish-brown color, Brick, and flecks of semi-precious Leopardskin (yellow and black) aggregates. “This particular color combination blended perfectly with the color theme we had for the cabinetry, tile backsplash, floor and wall finishes,” says Ali.

Understated design details of the 12-foot long, 3-inch thick concrete countertop include rounded edges at the countertop front and the sink openings as well as a decorative metal strip under the front edge of the countertop to conceal the plywood sub-top.

Chris and Ali took special note that despite the tight working space of their basement, their collaborative work ran smoothly from pour to finish. “Like the rest of our remodel project, building the concrete countertop brought us closer together,” says Chris. “We work very well together. It starts from the fact that we communicate very well and our design ideas complement each other.”

With the completion of the project and the creative work done, Chris and Ali admit that their biggest challenge was building the concrete forms. “Particularly for the sink cut-out, which has radius corners and two different size basins,” says Chris.

Though Concrete Countertops afforded them a solid guide throughout the project, there were a few questions they had that went beyond the book, they received assistance and guidance from Cheng Concrete Exchange, the designer and author’s online resource for frequently asked concrete countertop questions, image galleries from other DIY projects, and complete line of mixes and finishing products to make a countertop.

Despite a couple of minor learning curves, Chris maintains that there is an overwhelming sense of accomplishment upon completing their concrete countertop. “The best part is seeing and feeling the finished product and knowing we did it!” It’s been said that if a couple can survive a home remodel — especially — a DIY project together—they can survive anything.

From the looks of a job well done on their first concrete countertop, these happy do-it-yourselfers are in it for the long haul. Chris says of future projects, “We plan to create a concrete fireplace surround and perhaps a hearth to go with it!”