Material builds on best that concrete has to offer
By Bob Karlovits
Published: Saturday, April 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Concrete countertop makers are finding some comfort being in a hard — really hard — spot.
“Once we came across GFRC, we never went back,” say Brian Sieffert, using the acronym for glass fiber reinforced concrete that flows easily and often from those in the business.
GFRC is helping designers and manufacturers fight off the bad image concrete has. While maintaining concrete's customizeable nature, GFRC gives it greater strength to fight chipping and scarring, lighter weight, and a denser porosity to fight stains.
It has its roots in architectural efforts to reconstruct historic buildings in Russia and Eastern Europe and still is being used on exteriors. It has gained popularity in all sorts of interior projects as well, from floors and hearth enclosures to sinks and planters.
“The longevity of the product is maybe the most important thing,” says Sieffert, president of Concrete Zen, a company that makes its products at a facility on the South Side Slopes and markets it through business partner Artemis Environmental in Lawrenceville.
Rich Hoadley from Hoadley Surfaces in Butler County agrees.
“It is a different surface and can be totally customized,” he says. “Plus, it is a green product, getting most of its strength from recycled products.”
He says GFRC can be made in any color desired, similar to picking a color in a paint store, and it can be designed in any shape, with any type of edge, and rocks or recycled glass chips can be used to create ornate design.
Concrete is made of cement, aggregate such as sand and rocks, and water, while GFRC has glass fiber, acrylics and polymers thrown into the mix, giving the finished product a strength that can exist without the steel reinforcement often added to other concrete jobs.
It is a solidity that gives GFRC an importance that goes far beyond countertops, says Hiram Ball, a Mars, Butler County, native who was an early developer of the material. He is an advocate of its architectural use in cornices, building facades and other aspects of design.
Ball lives in Massachusetts and serves as a consultant for the Northampton County mold-making and casting firm that bought his Ball Consulting in 2012.
While it is easy to understand how the material can help sidestep countertop problems, its architectural use is even more beneficial, Ball says.
In presentations he has made on GFRC, countertops usually come out last because his thinks GFRC is stronger as a material for facades and decorative functions such as terra cotta replacements.
The reasons are simple, he says: GFRC is perhaps a third of the weight of normal concrete, and because it can be molded in any shape, the design can be exactly what a client or builder wants. Then, it can be taken to a building and installed with far less need for reinforcing steel.
Architects Gerald Lee Morosco from the South Side and Lee Calisti from Greensburg have used GFRC for exactly those reasons. Morosco says he created a terra cotta-like finish for a storefront, and Calisti used it for a cornice on a library. Both are pleased with the outcome and say its lightness and durability are its big advantages.
That durability is making strides in home use as well.
Sieffert says it is a great substance for use in countertops as well as outdoor design such as fountains, kitchen and vessel sinks and even flooring and walls.
But he and Paul Kubis, co-owner of Outlaw Concrete in the Strip District, agree there is another key aspect in the broader use of GFRC: sealants that keep it from staining. While GFRC will not stain as quickly as wet-mix concrete, it is weaker than other surface products and needs a good sealant.
But he, Sieffert and Hoadley all say sealants have improved so much in the past three to five years that indoor sealing needs to be done only once, unlike outdoor projects that need yearly applications.
Kubis, as a matter of fact, says it is possible to do many jobs with traditional wet-mix concrete because sealants are so effective.
The decision about one type of concrete or another can be a tricky one.
Kubis says the construction of a wet-mix object is simpler and for some jobs might be less expensive. But, he adds, large sections of wet-mix need reinforcement bars, which adds to the already-greater weight.
That weight can make wet-mix projects difficult to construct, handle and install, and sometimes even make it totally impractical.
Cost also is a tricky issue.
Hoadley says $80 a square foot is an expected price “to get you in the door” for a GFRC countertop, which “makes it competitive with quartz,” a surface known for its strength and non-porosity. Sieffert says he is more comfortable with a $75- to $100-a-square-foot range, and Kubis says he leans more to $100 to $150.
They all caution, though, that design, construction and installation are the elements that create final cost and square-foot pricing can be deceptive.
Kubis, for instance, says wet-mix projects can go up in price simply because the weight will contribute to the cost of labor for handling in the plant and at the installation site.
For such reasons and because of the established role of other surfaces, GFRC seems still in early days of its inroads for residential use. Architects Morosco and Castili, for instance, say the interest they have found has been in more commercial jobs than residential.
Morosco still doubts the porosity issue with any form of concrete and says he would recommend using natural materials such as the volcanic-ash kirkstone before concrete.
Ed Vangura, head of Vangura Surfacing Products in North Huntingdon, says he has seen “little, if any” interest in GFRC. But he admits that could be because his clientele knows he specializes in quartz and other surfaces.
Robert Vertes, Vangura's vice president of sales and marketing, says that low interest is because the doubts about concrete remain and “we are in the Corian age,” mentioning low-care, stain-resistant synthetic from DuPont.
The difference between Corian-like products and any form of concrete is a huge one, Sieffert says.
“Anyone who likes patina is going to like granite, marble or concrete,” he says. “If you don't, you go to Formica or Corian.”
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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