By Cory Olson
Concrete often gets a bad reputation. A few complaints pop up again and again: It’s too heavy to use with ease; it’s too utilitarian to be visually attractive. But more often than not, contractors who dislike working with concrete just don’t have much experience with it. Once you familiarize yourself with the best ways to utilize the product, you’ll find it can be a valuable tool in your outdoor-living arsenal, and pre-bagged concrete is particularly handy for projects of all sizes. As you consider which project types and sizes might work best for you, it can be helpful to keep a few things in mind before working with any sort of concrete.
If you’re put off by how heavy bagged mixes are, think about the alternatives for hardscape concrete projects. Oftentimes, there aren’t any. While it’s true that bagged mixes can weigh up to 80 pounds, it’s a lot easier to begin a job with your own bag than it is to rely on ready-mix trucks: They tend to be so large that they can’t even get onto driveways, let alone enter the front or backyard areas where the outdoor living areas are. Pre-mixed bag concrete is easier to transport, and can be bought according to the project for which it is needed. For example, bags might differentiate between high-strength or fast-setting features, giving you the precise formulation you need to ensure your work is successful.
If you have little experience in this area and are still nervous about diving in, it can be a good idea to review some of the basics. Luckily, the Internet offers plenty of resources for contractors and DIY-ers alike. Manufacturers, such as Sakrete for example, host videos about mastering concrete skills such as repairing large cracks and installing fence posts that are readily available on their website.
Once you’ve mastered some tricks of the trade, start with an easier project. One of the best avenues to begin concrete work in hardscaping environments is dry-stacking, making knee walls around fire pits. Concrete can be formed and poured in, or you can use a specialty mortar mix to create a block wall. That adds a substrate that you can veneer around and on top with natural or synthetic stone (also made of concrete) to give it an authentic look. Fire pits are hugely popular among homeowners right now, and the trend doesn’t appear to be slowing. As owners look to expand their outdoor living spaces with large features such as fire pits or entire outdoor kitchens, opportunities for contractors to use concrete products in hardscape settings are only growing.
Even if you’re not gearing up for a new project, concrete skills are still invaluable for contractors. Concrete is the perfect tool for all kinds of hardscaping repairs, and bagged concrete puts a wide variety of specialty repair products right at your fingertips. For example, a mix designed specifically for patching can be used to fix mortar joints that may be in a wall. Weather means that some cracking is inevitable in hardscapes, and bagged concrete can fix hairline cracks to cracks of about an inch.
One obstacle to developing concrete acumen can be a homeowner who doesn’t understand the product well. But this too can be overcome by educating yourself beforehand about the wide array of outdoor projects concrete plays a role in. For example, many homeowners may not realize that concrete is in a hole holding up a lamp, light post or gazebo post. They don’t see the structure underneath a stone veneer wall or the concrete foundation beneath a pathway.
Once your client understands how critical concrete is to their yards, driveways and walkways, you might start discussing aesthetically minded features that incorporate concrete. There are lots of opportunities for birdbaths or koi ponds, for example. A creek bed can be finished with concrete and overlaid with rocks, which prevents erosion more effectively than simply placing rocks on a mud or dirt bed.
A big benefit for any contractor is the speed at which concrete dries. Most concrete is set in about eight hours, can be walked on in 24 hours, and can be driven on in 48 hours. The compressed timeframe can hold big appeal for homeowners who want to wrap up work quickly. Contractors can advertise weekend projects as a real possibility.
One cost-saving option that makes outdoor living spaces more visually attractive is using concrete mix in place of pavers, which can then be stenciled and stamped to create the look of brick.
No matter what kind of project you’re working on, it can be helpful for beginners to keep a few fundamentals in mind. One important element that sometimes gets overlooked is where rainwater and stormwater will flow. If a feature such as a driveway or sidewalk goes toward the home on a property, it should have a pitch that pitches water away from the building. Sometimes people assume that flat or level is ideal for these features, but a pitch is necessary to protect a home, and all plans should be based around that.
Concerns like this can make concrete seem intimidating to work with, but with a little education and practice, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable using concrete products. While concrete itself may not be very pretty, it’s a key ingredient in plenty of outdoor-beautification projects, and developing expertise with it can add significantly to your business. It’s durable enough for projects large and small, can be used for multiple repair types, and always stands the test of time.
Cory Olson is senior vice president, Sakrete of North America at Oldcastle. Sakrete was founded in 1936 as North America’s original dry cement mix brand and is a leader in concrete and concrete-related products. Contractors and do-it-yourselfers rely on the quality, consistency and proven performance of Sakrete’s products, along with the company’s expert technical and customer support. For more information, visit www.sakrete.com.