Whether you’re driving on Ontario’s Highway 407 ETR, riding on Montreal’s subway system or landing at Vancouver International Airport, the “concrete jungle” surrounds all of us.

With its basic ingredients dating back to ancient Egypt, concrete is the world’s most popular building material. According to the Cement Association of Canada (CAC), it has a structural life-time of 100 years or more and many benefits, not the least of which is durability.

Concrete is also strong, energy efficient and 100 per cent recyclable. But while no one questions its place in the building industry, concrete has traditionally been sunk below ground or hidden behind a veneer of siding, brick or stone. Unadorned concrete structures, particularly “cookie cutter” high-rises, don’t typically win many second looks or architectural awards.

However, all that is changing with the advent of new products and processes that capitalize on concrete’s strengths while simultaneously reinventing its image.

According to the CAC, several concrete trends are emerging.

Changing Face
The first is architectural and decorative concrete, which includes
concrete countertops and floors, light-transmitting concrete infused with optical fibres, white-coloured cement for a more pleasing aesthetic appeal, and even white self-consolidating concrete that is typically used to fill forms in applications where a good quality finish is desired.

No longer the exclusive purview of underground parking garages or warehouses, exposed concrete walls – whether polished, coloured, stamped or embedded with aggregate materials – are in demand by homeowners who are looking to make a bold statement.

Likewise, concrete fireplaces, vanities and patio accents are growing in popularity. Concrete mixes of all varieties allow contractors and consumers to experiment with the versatility of concrete while emphasizing convenience and ease of use.

Photos courtesy of The Quikrete® Companies

Quick, Set, Pave

Randy Stone is the Western Canada Consumer Division Sales Manager for Quikrete Companies, the largest manufacturer of packaged concrete and cement mixes in the U.S. and Canada. A 37-year industry veteran, Stone said the company’s best-selling product is standard concrete mix sold in 55-pound bags.

“A large percentage of our concrete goes into fence posts and ours is the consumer’s economical choice for regular concrete,” he said. “We do try to upgrade the customer to more efficient fast-setting concrete for posts, etc., and high-strength concrete for slabs such as pads, driveways and sidewalks.”
“The beauty of our high strength Quikrete 6000 for slabs is that you can walk on it or start construction in 8 to 10 hours compared to standard concrete, which take two to three days,” he continued. “There is less down time for the consumer and it’s also one and a half times stronger than standard concrete.”

Stone said the company’s countertop mix is a newer product that is trending well in the marketplace. “The homeowner or contractor can make their own concrete countertop. The price point is an advantage and you can colour or polish it; it has a nice rustic look.”

The just-add-water countertop mix is available in standard grey and has a light coloured base for use with Quikrete’s selection of liquid colouring agents or stucco and mortar colour.

Stone added that Quikrete’s product line also includes concrete treat and repair products, concrete overlays for driveways and sidewalks, and durable epoxy coatings for applications such as garage floors.

KING, the SAKRETE People, know that fast-setting and rapid-strengthening materials represent a new trend in the concrete industry. These products save time and money, allowing contractors to complete projects much faster than when they use conventional cement-based materials.

In this category, SAKRETE RAPID POST and SAKRETE PSI 6000 are predominant. Next generation anchoring materials are also becoming popular. There are new options on the market, including epoxy products that create a better bond and allow for some movement in the concrete, without cracking or yielding.

Coloured concrete is also in high demand, and KING Colourant can be added directly into any concrete mix for a consistent blend of black, chocolate brown or brick red.

Photo courtesy of KPM Industries Ltd.

Photo courtesy of InStone Products

Concrete Casts Its Charm

Lastly, concrete countertops are made possible using SAKRETE Countertop Magic, which allows contractors to create modern countertops that are
limited only by their imagination. The concrete can take the shape of the material used to make the formwork, allowing for a textured finish. Alternatively, the concrete can be ground to expose the aggregate within.

The kitchen isn’t the only room in the house where concrete – or products that look like it – are making an impactful design statement.

Dustin Wilson, President of Edmontonbased Instone Products, said one of his design and distribution company’s hottest products is urbanCONCRETE. Formed from real cast concrete, these durable and lightweight polyurethane panels can be installed quickly for an authentic concrete wall look.

“It combines the smooth clean lines and finished look of formed concrete with ease and affordability,” said Wilson, who added that the panels screw into drywall with no mess.“

“urbanCONCRETE is used more and more by contractors, primarily in offices, restaurants and residential applications,” he continued. “It provides clients with the desired contemporary look of concrete without all the hard, long hours of work. It is also stocked in Canada and ready to ship.”

Photo courtesy of Logix ICF

Forming New Moulds

The CAC has also noted several new trends in concrete formwork, including the use of insulated concrete forms (ICF). These are concrete walls that are cast on a job site between two layers of foam insulation.

Founded in 2001 and headquartered in Port Hope, Ont., Logix ICF Ltd. is a consortium of five independently-owned expanded polystyrene (EPS) product 
producers located in Canada and the U.S.

The company’s VP of Marketing, Andy Lennox, said Logix ICF is a market leader in North America. Manufactured in four locations across Canada, its specific uses include basements, complete homes, high-performance dwellings, mid-rise multi-family structures, and all manner of commercial public buildings.

“Insulated concrete forms are super strong and very energy efficient,” said Lennox. “As building codes become more stringent across Canada, one important application for our technology continues to be basements. By code, basements used to need R12 [thermal performance] for the top half of the wall and now it’s R20 for the entire wall. The cost difference between ICF basements and minimum code basements has dramatically narrowed. We really see ICFs being adopted by more and more builders seeking a fast and cost effective basement solution.”

For contractors, the Logix ICF system offers several benefits. It combines six construction steps into one simple system to allow for faster builds: concrete, steel reinforcement, insulation, air barrier, vapour barrier, and furring strips. In addition, basement construction no longer needs to be subcontracted and builders can continue to work through cold and wet conditions without major delays.

Homeowners who decide to have their whole home constructed with Logix ICF will enjoy a list of benefits too, including constant draft-free temperatures, no harmful chemical off-gassing, greater severe weather resistance, and smaller utility bills. According to the CAC website, houses built with ICFs require 44 per cent less energy to heat and 32 per cent less energy to cool than comparable wood frame houses.

Lennox said Logix ICF has developed two new products recently. The first, Pro Buck, is an ICF method of framing out window and door openings – incorporating this high density insulating foam buck greatly enhances the thermal stability of the overall ICF wall assembly. The second new release is XP-1, a solution that leverages traditional ICF to create an exposed concrete wall on one side when it is needed for an accent wall or in an elevator shaft, for example.

Also new is www.ICFProLink.com – an online database that matches incoming ICF leads with ICF-experienced installers, architects, designers and engineers.

Built to Last

Whether it’s formulation enhancements, innovative new applications or improvements to the building process, concrete remains the bedrock upon which the building industry is founded.

Thanks to modern innovations, it appears the concrete jungle is becoming quite civilized indeed.