Poured and Scored

Looking for a durable floor? Stained concrete can be hard to beat--and beautiful, too.

Step into the offices of Artistic Hardscapes in Oakland, Tennessee, and the first thing you'll notice is the floor. Desks, bookcases, chairs, and other furniture sit on gleaming sky blue, ebony, and reddish stone, arranged in sweeping bands of color, and polished to a mirror finish. What kind of marble or granite, you wonder, can be cut so perfectly, in such huge slabs?

It's not stone. It's just plain concrete — the same stuff that in the past was reserved for sidewalks and driveways. But nowadays, polished concrete is finding a home inside the home, as floors, countertops, and even architectural elements such as arches and columns.

Concrete floors are becoming especially popular, but they are not for everyone. Older houses in Memphis that have what is known as a conventional foundation — the floor supported on beams above a crawlspace — simply can't handle the weight of a concrete floor.

For newer homes, which are often built on a poured slab foundation, concrete is definitely an option. But it's not just a matter of backing up a cement truck to the front door and pouring a layer of cement over a battered wooden floor.

"Whatever surface is on top would have to be taken down to the bare concrete," says Cheryle Grisham, co-owner with her husband Sam of Artistic Hardscapes, which specializes in concrete floors of all kinds. Carpet, linoleum, wood — everything has to come off, all the way down to the original slab. "We put on a cement top coat, and it actually forms a brand-new palette, which gives us the canvas we need for our design."

When building a new home, Grisham points out that it's critical the contractor knows that that the finished residence will have stained-concrete floors.

"He has to be aware that the floors are going to be stained, because they need to make a tight, smooth, non-open finish on the concrete slab," she says. Concrete, in some ways, is like wood, and if it's porous or rough, the stain will be absorbed unevenly. "The tighter the finish, the better the stain goes down," she says. Plus, it's important that the contractor protect the slab during construction, since even things like leftover nails can leave rust marks that will show through the finished stain.

The hard part is the actual top coat, which is surprisingly thin — "credit card thickness," according to Grisham — and bonds to the underlying concrete or slab. Once that top coat has been applied and polished, it is allowed to cure for 28 days. The scoring, which creates the narrow "seams" in the concrete, is made with a grinding saw. Then the stain is applied, just like applying stain to wood. The concrete itself isn't colored, as many think, but "the stain is absorbed just a little bit, and that's what gives it that translucent look and that marble-like finish," says Grisham.

Floors can be tinted a range of natural colors, like reds, greys, and browns, or the design can be considerably more flashy — blues, greens, and any color in the rainbow. "Sometimes we'll even use multiple stains, like a band of colors," says Grisham.

The final steps are the application of an acrylic sealer, which acts as a "wear coat" and then a layer of wax to give it a nice shine.

Needless to say, the finished product, which can cost $6 to $7 a square foot, is durable. "A lot of times, homeowners will have more dogs than they have children," says Grisham, "and they want something durable and maintenance free. With dogs, you're going to get a little bit of dirt, but that's it. And you can put on another wear coat, just like waxing a floor, every two or three months, but it's really not much maintenance at all."

In the end, homeowners don't have to worry about all the problems that can plague wooden floors: rotting, warping, water damage, and termites. 

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