Awood ceiling and a light wood floor give the living room a rustic look, but the focal point is a custom-designed fireplace. A brightly burning flame is framed by material that appears to be just another version of the wooden details found throughout the home – but, in fact, it’s something completely different: It’s concrete.
Grooves and colour variations create a texture mimicking wood, thanks to Matt Heide’s handiwork. Heide has been crafting concrete items – from large pieces of furniture for commercial use to decorative accents in the home – since 2007 through his company, Concrete Cat. “Look around the city – what is most of the city made of?” says Heide. “And the concrete that we’re using is an ultra-high performance concrete so, compared to concrete that’s making up your foundation or steps or sidewalks, we’re using a concrete that’s four times stronger.”
While concrete has long been used as a building material, designers have only recently begun to think of it as decorative, with many now using it to craft high-end furniture, countertops, fireplaces, walls, tiles, exterior panelling and even flooring for the whole home.
It can be cast in another location and brought into the home to create a fireplace that looks like it was poured at the same time as your foundation. It’s versatile, rustic and, if you treat it right, it’ll outlast you. That indestructability is usually equated with a solid, heavy product. But just because it’s strong doesn’t mean it’s always heavy. Urban Concrete Countertops, a company that began in Edmonton and now manufactures out of British Columbia, creates concrete pieces that are surprisingly lightweight because of how the concrete is made.
Co-owner Kimberly Fenske says their concrete is mixed with glass fibre, meaning a modestly sized table could be 250 pounds – about four times lighter than regular concrete. Meanwhile, Heide also says he can create a lighter product, and often does so by mixing other materials into the concrete or changing its fibre content. But he also has clients who really appreciate the authenticity that can come from a solid, heavy piece. He has built a kitchen table that weighed over 4,000 pounds, for example. Some clients are drawn to very heavy concrete because of its higher thermal mass, its resonance and what he calls “hand feel,” or just the knowledge that it looks and feels like the real thing. Moving a 4,000-pound table isn’t an easy task, though, and it might deter some from wanting such a piece. But for others, the effort is worth it. Funk’s Moving and Storage, a local company, says it will even contract out the lifting of solid pieces like the table in question to industrial-moving heavyweights at Wingenback.
Chris Cote, general manager of Wingenback’s sales and moving department, says the company will use tools like dollies, pallet jacks and lifting devices when moving heavy pieces like safes and concrete furniture. The number of people and hours involved in the move depends on the size of the job, as does the cost – which often reaches into the thousands of dollars – but extra hours may be needed in some cases to shore up structures like stairs to handle the weight of the piece and to ensure other parts of the building aren’t damaged.
But for homeowners who decide on concrete – whether it be a concrete couch (yes, those exist), table or countertop – having a heavy piece in their home is rarely, if ever, a flippant decision. While the price points can sometimes rival granite or quartz, the end products are often heirloom quality that can serve as a permanent fixtures in their homes. A concrete piece can add tons of character and create a specific look when paired with steel or exotic woods, says Megan Martin, senior design consultant for Jostar Interiors. But Martin is especially impressed by the textures that can be created with concrete. Urban Concrete Countertops, she says, produced a tabletop that looked like it had a tablecloth on it, but the entire piece was concrete. “They’re incredible artists, almost like mad scientists,” says Martin of those who craft concrete decor items.
Heide spends hours creating unique items that reproduce textures like leather, wood and paper. His Instagram feed is full of incredible concrete art pieces with unique swirls of texture and colour throughout. One photo shows a concrete sculpture of a camera with every detail replicated, from the tiny screws to the grooves in the lens. “We’ve even reproduced textures from soft tissues or leaves, dirt and rocks; we’ve been experimenting with a lot of different things,” he says. He has crafted large planters with a bark texture that ended up in a residential condo unit in Miami salvaging bark from deadfall to created the decorative pieces. And he once crafted a series of sculptures cast from polypore fungi, like mushrooms; normally, the fungus caps would jut out from a tree, but the concrete versions can extend from a wall, creating a shelf inspired by nature.
These concrete pieces are the opposite of what’s found on basement floors across the city; it’s a medium that can be moulded into nearly any form, creating endless possibilities. “Our design capabilities really are limitless. We don’t have a lot of restrictions, because concrete is lightweight and can be used in many applications,” says Fenske.