Concrete countertops are a popular option for homeowners who value craftsmanship and the unique character of concrete. Many contractors have recognized this and added concrete countertops to their businesses. Successful contractors have also recognized that concrete countertops' fit, finish, overall quality and performance are in a different class from conventional decorative concrete work. Those who have mastered concrete countertops are ready to expand their product line beyond countertops.
On the surface, there seems little difference between concrete countertops, floor tiles, stair treads, fireplace surrounds and shower wall panels. All are thin, flat and made of concrete. But each application has its own requirements for fit, finish and performance. After all, a floor tile serves a different function from a fireplace surround, but each must be made to satisfy that item's functional, aesthetic and performance requirements. Understanding what these requirements are is the key to being successful when moving beyond concrete countertops. Following are a few examples of non-countertop items and the things you need to consider for each.
Fireplaces offer a variety of possibilities because they have distinct parts that can be mixed and matched. The three major components of a fireplace (other than the firebox and chimney, of course) are the mantel, surround and hearth. Each can be approached individually or as a combination. All-in-one surrounds that have a hearth and mantel built in are larger and more complex than a stand-alone hearth or flat surround panels that wrap around the firebox opening.
Flat surround panels are often treated like oversized tiles. Tile thinset is used to adhere the panels to the wall, which must be smooth and flat to ensure a precise fit. GFRC makes creating thin, hollow sections easy, so it's possible to hide the structural supports inside the concrete. Hearths, mantels and large complex surrounds are often mounted onto sturdy brackets or steel hardware bolted to the wall's framing. This makes installation fast and results in a clean, hardware-free look. Careful planning will ensure installation happens without a hitch. You'll need to know where the studs in the wall are and make sure you mount the support hardware exactly where it needs to go.
Keep in mind that the exterior components of a fireplace are not meant to get hot. Only the firebox is designed to take the heat. Ordinary concrete can't take the high heat of an open flame the way refractory materials can, so plan accordingly. It may be tempting to use ordinary concrete or GFRC to create a firepit or pizza oven, but over time the heat will destroy the concrete.
Shower pans, wall panels and even ceiling panels can create a sophisticated custom enclosure when combined into a total package. Shower pans can be made in one piece or in several pieces, but either way they must be sloped for drainage and provide a non-slip surface. Wall panels can be treated like large tiles, with sizes ranging from a few feet all the way to ceiling height. Often wall and ceiling panels are installed just like large tiles.
Wet areas like showers require extra care. Water has a way of finding its way into areas that shouldn't get wet, so it's important that you understand how showers are built and what is used to waterproof them. Always make sure there is a code-compliant waterproofing barrier behind or beneath your concrete. Never rely on the concrete to contain the water. Any leaks that happen will be blamed on you!
With smaller tiles, it doesn't matter that much if the wall is flat or plumb. However, large panels, and especially floor-to-ceiling panels require that the walls they are mounted to are flat and plumb. While this is virtually non-existent with existing construction, it is achievable by furring out the walls to create flat planes for the wall panels to attach to. This makes templating the walls easy and ensures the wall panels can be installed and that they fit well together.