Industrial RevolutionDecorative Concrete Comes Out of the Bag – and into the Limelight
By Ashley Kahn
Concrete gets a bad rap.
Take your friendly neighborhood sidewalk. It’s gray. It’s rough. It has enough cracks in it to do some serious damage to your mother’s lower lumbar.
Lucky for mom’s back, the reign of dull concrete may soon be behind us. These days, a new breed of skilled, artistic contractors is mixing it up – with seashells, broken glass and a broader-than-ever color spectrum.
Say goodbye to run-of-the-mill Portland cement. Whether you’re looking for vibrant or muted hues, smooth or touch-me texture, a traditional or contemporary atmosphere, decorative concrete is anything but blasé.
Though it may seem like a recent trend, Tammy Eby, owner of Neocrete in Santa Rosa Beach, says decorative concrete has been around for centuries.
Tabby, a primitive concrete, was used in building as early as the 1600s. Found along the coast of the southern American colonies, the mixture of lime, sand and crushed oyster shell was a viable substitute for more expensive clay bricks. The Spanish fort Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine is a testament to the material’s strength and longevity.
“What we do with tabby today is certainly more modified, but a lot of people are looking for something that has craftsmanship, is indigenous and has a seaside feel to it without being overdone,” Eby says.
Terrazzo is another building material that has weathered the test of time. A cement base is mixed with an aggregate, then ground and polished to expose the hidden pieces – commonly marble or granite, although Eby has been known to use chunks of glass, shell or even metal in her countertops.
“The Italians used to grind and polish terrazzo by hand, and I can’t imagine how they ever did it,” she says. “When I first started, I used a little four-inch polisher … boy, I can sculpt concrete now!”
The work of years past paved the way for today’s concrete applications. An evolving array of aggregates has made the possibilities essentially endless, and modern technology has brought new weight to the concrete trend.
At around 20 pounds per square foot, the ability to make big, seamless pieces once was limited. Now there is Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete, a fairly new innovation utilizing alkaline-resistant glass fibers to render
the previously bulky material lighter and more pliable.
“These technologies are really changing the way we do our jobs to the point that we can get concrete down to a half-inch thick and still have increased strength,” Eby says.
Other creative endeavors include embedded fiber optics, metallic resins and a brave new world of color.
Shades of Gray
Eby is schooled in the impact of dazzling color in decorative concrete.
One way to get away from gray is an acid stain, a chemical process in which a formula of metallic salts and hydrochloric acid reacts with and is influenced by bare concrete, producing a degree of uncertainty in the finished product.
“You’ll have great color variation and a relaxed, beautiful feel,” Eby says. “It’s the closest thing to mimicking a natural stone, yet you get the luxury of a customized look.”
Because it is a natural process, this type of stain is limited to certain color ranges. The “standard eight,” as Eby calls them, comprise earthy shades of gold, reds and browns, warm greens and blues, as well as deep brown and black.
New potassium- and acrylic-based stains are taking color beyond boundaries. Their more topical nature requires skillful application, but they are expanding the market where color is concerned.
One thing’s for sure: No two floors or countertops will look alike. Eby can dilute the stains, apply color over color, and use tinted sealers or aniline dyes to impart any look or feel her clients desire.
Kim Pall, an Emerald Coast homeowner and artist in her own right, refers to her home as “the house that Tammy built.”
Amid countertop and flooring research while designing her Ventana Dunes home, Pall made an appointment with Eby after seeing one of her commercial jobs.
(If you live in southern Walton County, you doubtless have seen them, too. Neocrete’s local creations are as prevalent as pelicans, but Eby is most proud of the terrazzo and blue glass reception counter she donated to Sacred Heart Hospital on the Emerald Coast.)
“When I met Tammy, she introduced me to the number of forms concrete could take on,” Pall says. “I fell in love with it and wanted it anywhere I could get it.”
Did she ever.
The Pall home features four-color acid-stained floors with diagonal scoring, terrazzo kitchen countertops, a backsplash and fireplace of tabby tiles crafted from shells Eby picked up during a vacation in Cape San Blas, and a guest bath of broken glass terrazzo in aqua-hued concrete.
That’s just inside. On the patio are stained, non-slip concrete floors and a mermaid, hand-scored and stained by Eby … with one more shell for her belly button.
Pall is thrilled with the results and says it’s easy as wax to keep the floors looking new.
“We have a dog, children, and we live at the beach,” she says. “We wanted something that would take wear and tear.”
The mop-on acrylic wax takes only 20 or 30 minutes to dry and provides a superficial wearing surface that prevents floors from having to be resealed.
In addition to proper maintenance, the proud homeowner advises those considering a concrete project to view work samples and speak to former clients about the contractor’s work ethic.
“I was lucky to work with the best right away,” Pall says. “Because of people like Tammy who work hard and think outside the box, we have a one-of-a-kind, timeless look in our home.”
After 20 years in the business, Eby knows concrete.
If you hire her to do your floors, the first thing she’ll teach you is the importance of the slab. Not every floor is perfect for acid staining, and she encourages her clients to have reasonable expectations about their results.
“You have to let the floors speak for themselves,” Eby says. “Even straight gray can be stunning … the thing is, people have never looked at it that way and have always assumed the plain concrete will not be the finished end.”
Whether you stick with gray or add color, the process typically takes four to five days. That includes cutting, sanding, scrubbing, rinsing, staining, cleaning, sealing, more sealing and waxing.
Countertops are a bit of a longer haul. Eby generally takes a client through many rounds of color samples before a template is ever cast. Depending on the project, her customized counters can take four to six weeks to complete.
Along with labor, certain aggregates, colors and complex edgework can up the price of a concrete creation. New-construction acid-stained floors, however, are very cost-effective – cheaper than tile, hardwood and even some carpets.
“Most clients want the acid-stained floors because they’re so affordable, while a high-end buyer will request the countertops even though they’re not cheap,” Eby says. “But you break those rules all the time.”
In the past, Eby recalls, clients needed more education. They had seen the product, but didn’t really know what it was. Now, she sends people straight to her Web site, neocrete.com, to learn about the process and check out galleries of her work.
“The only limitation to concrete is the limitation you put on it,” she says.
Art Versus Life
Eby reveals that the secret to her success is hard work, done the right way.
When she started her business, she had no competition. Contractors come and go on the Emerald Coast, but Neocrete stands resolute as evidence to the quality of its product.
The creative spirit behind the company says her work is not for the faint of heart, especially acid stain, which she likens to Russian roulette for the everyday gamble of the process. (It’s not set in stone, so to speak.)
Still, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“One thing I love about this business is that everything we do is tangible,” Eby says. “In three days you can take something that is nothing, turn it into something absolutely beautiful and have a happy client.”
At work, Eby is a contractor. At heart, she is an artist.
Her hidden ambition and longtime goal is to create sculptures and water features inspired by the works of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí and French sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle. Both artists fancied large-scale, outdoor concrete structures with stone and glass covering every surface – an olio of color, pattern and texture.
After viewing the de Saint Phalle exhibit at Atlanta Botanical Gardens, Eby says she “just knew.”
Her reaction to the “Niki in the Garden” collection mirrors her clients’ response to her own work:
“I was so amazed and happy every time I saw it,” Eby says. “If I could show you my vision, that would be it.”
For more information about Eby’s work, schedule or pricing, make an appointment:
161 Goldsby Road
Santa Rosa Beach