Sandscape Finishing in Decorative Concrete

Dust off your Rubik’s Cube and fire up your VCR to watch reruns of “Cheers” as well as the “Back to the Future” trilogy because the 80’s are back – especially for the decorative concrete industry – exposed aggregate is back in fashion, folks. However, it’s not the “Miami Vice” exposed aggregate, which was popular when Crockett and Tubbs were on the streets, but a modern take on an old technology.

Currently, one of the most popular exposed finishes is a process often referred to as Sandscape. Sandscape takes advantage of the inherent native aggregates in each region’s ready mix supply. It is poured and finished similar to traditional exposed aggregate. The difference, however, is the type of surface retarder used. These newly formulated retarders have the ability to control the depth of etch, thus allowing for a fine exposure similar to a sandblasted appearance. While old school exposed aggregate was 85% aggregate and 15% cement matrix, Sandscape is the opposite. Decorative sealers, such as L&M LUMISEAL PLUS™ or LUMISEAL FX™, bond to Sandscape better—making it less slippery—leaving a unique and desirable finish.

“Sandscape is so subtle and elegant,” said Meg Arnosti, a landscape architect and designer with Southview Design of St. Paul, MN. “To me, it looks more natural than imprinted concrete. It is not artificial like some of those brick and stone patterns. The Sandscape process is currently my favorite concrete product I’m using in my designs.”

Arnosti does a lot of design work around pools in Minnesota and is particularly concerned with slip-resistance. “Imprinted concrete is passe’,” continues Arnosti. “It’s artificial. It has some durability issues and can be slippery.”

Ten to 15 years ago, decorative concrete installers had very little competition. Those who took a gamble and learned the tricky trade were rewarded with vast market potential coupled with satisfying profit margins. The biggest component of contractors’ work was imprinted concrete. However, the market eventually was flooded with contractors who saw the opportunities imprinted concrete presented, slapped a sticker on the side of their truck, bought some wheelbarrows and a set of Old Granite texture skins and dove in. Ultimately, imprinted concrete became a commodity instead of an art form.

Others in the decorative industry echo Arnosti’s statement about imprinted concrete. “Part of the decline in popularity with stamped and imprinted concrete are the long-term results and appearances,” said Terry Grimble, Director of Technical Services for Bomanite Corporation. “The market was flooded with installers performing poor workmanship and the imprinted industry suffered.” Grimble said many architects and designers started to shy away from stamped concrete because of lackluster contractor performance and also because it is a “faux” product.

Sandscape allows the installer to develop a new niche. Fifteen years ago, imprinted concrete was a niche market, and eventually became oversaturated. Subsequently, quality control and durability issues were compromised and it ultimately gave imprinted concrete a black eye. As a result, decorative contractors’ profit margins suffered. Then, the Great Recession hit. The housing market dried up and many contractors were forced to shutter. Those diversified enough to make it through the downturn are now seeing the profit margins return and the competition diminished.

With the revitalization of the economy and higher household disposable income, decorative contractors were primed for another run of low competition and high margins. But many of them found out what Arnosti and Grimble already knew–dissatisfaction with imprinted concrete in the marketplace.

Grimble works with decorative concrete installers nationwide. These installers are highly trained craftsmen who stay on the cutting edge of concrete technologies. “Decorative concrete contractors have always had a desire to do something new and different,” Grimble said. “They gravitate towards the new, exciting materials and processes, and we are finding exposed aggregate is in fashion again.”

Sandscape requires smaller pours, more detailed finishing techniques, and highly skilled craftsmen. It is a more expensive product than imprinted concrete. But it allows the installers the ability to differentiate themselves from their competition and capitalize on another niche market. Decorative concrete pros find the Sandscape finishing process exciting.

While Sandscape uses the inherent aggregates supplied by the ready mix company, there are other processes and materials that make up the new breed of exposed finishes. Specialty-trained decorative concrete installers have access to a product and process called Revealed. This process combines a wet-on-wet application at ¾” thick over a traditional ready mix base slab. This exterior topping can have intense color hues and customized aggregate blends with different types of marbles, granites and glass.

These installers do a lot of seeding of specialty aggregates in their pours. It is these exterior concrete applications that differentiate the highly skilled installer from the average ones. But Grimble cautions people that the niche market will only last so long, noting that quality is the ultimate differentiating factor that pushes the decorative contractor into the upper echelon.

“Eventually, durability issues and quality control will affect the niche market that currently exists with these refined exposed products,” he said. “Contractors need to establish good processes and consistency in all of the different finishes they provide.”

Ultimately, taking on diverse concrete projects and executing them with high quality minimizes the competition. These two factors also lead to higher revenues and profits for the decorative concrete finisher. This new trend of exposed aggregate in outdoor concrete is a profitable way to create a new niche.

Mike Dougherty
Concrete Arts
575 Schommer Dr
Hudson, WI 54016

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© 2015 L&M Construction Chemicals, Inc. | ConcreteNews Summer 2015.

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