The possibilities are endless when it comes to using concrete to create a one-of-a-kind outdoor space. Concrete is a beautiful, versatile, and functional option for outdoor applications. At Sundial Designs we often use concrete in patios, pathways, stairs, seat walls, benches, retaining walls, fire pits, kitchen structures, and water features. Experience has taught us the ins and outs of using concrete in residential landscape projects and there are important considerations to note before you get started.
PRO-TIP: When it comes to concrete it’s all about the contractor. Make sure you hire a reputable contractor who knows how to properly prep, reinforce, pour, and finish your new pad or concrete structure within your landscape. A contractor should stand by their product for at least a year’s time. For this reason, at Sundial Designs we have built exclusive relationships with some of the best and most reliable concrete specialists in the industry. These specialists are absolute key members of our installation team.
Concrete is one of the most affordable options for outdoor flooring. We often hear clients say they are concerned about the overall appearance of using concrete for their patio, fearing it will look cheap or similar to the sidewalk in front of their house. What we tell our clients is when it is poured and finished in a more refined way, concrete can create an upscale and high-impact finish! In a section below, we have outlined some of the ways to ensure you get a high-quality finish that is modern and unique.
When vertical structures are created using concrete they give a clean, modern feel that is unmatched by any other material. From a budget perspective, vertical structures such as seats, retaining walls, or fire pits cost more than simple flat patios. There is a lot more work in the preparation of the forms for vertical structures because they need to be extra reinforced to withstand the pressure of the initial wet concrete slurry that pushes outward against the forms. Despite the additional work and cost, if your budget can allow for it, we do love using concrete for vertical structures as it creates bold, beautiful and long-lasting structures for your outdoor space.
Important Considerations for Using Concrete in Outdoor Projects:
Concrete flooring can be beautiful, but for the biggest impact pay attention to the finish. The sidewalk in front of your house has a standard broom finish to prevent slipping. When considering concrete for your patio flooring or hardscaping, you have the option for a smoother surface. An experienced concrete specialist uses a trowel to create a smooth surface, bringing the “cream” to the surface. This texture is similar to the smooth finish found on a garage floor. We love this look because it creates a sleek and finished feel.
PROTIP: “Trowel Finish” patios are gorgeous, but to prevent slipping you must add a sealer with an anti-slip gripping agent at least one month after the patio has been poured. The patio needs this time to cure and have the moisture evaporate. If sealing is done too soon, it can peel or bubble.
Your concrete flooring will need joint lines to prevent cracking, but who says they can’t be amazing? The width of joint lines can make a significant impact on the look and feel of concrete flooring. Very thin lines created with a saw equipped with a diamond blade look precise and custom. Requesting saw cut joints can cost a bit more in some cases, but the finished product is well worth it. Otherwise, the conventional way to create joints is to use a hand tool called a “groover” which creates joints that are a bit wider, but still attractive. Both of these methods prevent cracking over the lifetime of the concrete pad.
PRO-TIP: Consider creating a pattern with joint lines. A subtle design can create a custom one-of-a-kind patio.
Concrete doesn’t have to be the same standard light gray. You can get a completely different look and feel with a different natural color. Powdered color can be integrated directly into the wet slurry before the pour to add a unique twist to the end product. These colors can be as subtle or as deep as you’d like. We are fans of more subtle, natural color palettes such as buffs and darker grays.
Forms are critical when it comes to working with concrete. The forms create the container that the concrete slurry will be poured into to create your structures. They are removed shortly after the concrete has been poured and partially set. Forms determine the slope and therefore proper drainage of a pad which is critical to the functionality and longevity of your patio. In most cases, you want to target a 2% slope, which is effective but almost imperceptible to the eye. After the forms are set and before the pour, in most cases a layer of road base will be applied and compacted. Wire mesh will be laid down horizontally within the forms to ensure structural integrity. Rebar may be inserted into an existing foundation or slab which helps join and secure the new pad to an existing structure. All of these details will help to avoid cracking or pulling away from a new pad in the future.
PRO-TIP: One of the most valuable services that an experienced landscape designer or architect can provide, is sanity-checking forms on site prior to a pour. Of course, your designer needs to be experienced to know what to look for, but we cannot tell you how many times we have caught issues with forms that look insignificant but would have created big problems or workarounds down the road. The concrete is the literal foundation for everything within the hardscape in the majority of cases.
Lighting is an easy way to add some glam to your concrete project. If you’re considering low voltage lighting in steps or concrete structures this must be well planned in advance to forming and pouring the concrete. In the case of step lights, the boxes to house the electronics of the lights must be affixed to the forms prior to the pour. All of the wiring must also be run in conduit in this preparation phase as well.
Another way to elevate the look of your concrete patio is to add a decorative border. Consider creating a border with stone, brick, or porcelain around the perimeter of your patio.
PROTIP: When doing a decorative border, it is critical that the concrete specialist understands how to calculate measurements in anticipation of the stone application by the mason. It is not just the size and depth of the stone or brick that needs to be considered, but also the layer of mortar that the stone or brick needs to float on when applied. This can be the difference between integrating a border seamlessly or creating an uneven trip hazard! Again, this is something an experienced designer would help ensure is done properly.
If you are phasing a project for budgetary reasons and plan to add future structures to your outdoor patio such as pergola posts, outdoor kitchens, or fire pits, it is crucial that the new patio pad is poured with all of the reinforcements below surface grade to support those future structures. Your master landscape plan will dictate the locations of future structures. Footers (or thicker sections of concrete that support structures above ground) can be integrated into the patio. Footers are invisible on the surface but are critical if for example, you plan to add posts to the pad later to support a pergola or masonry kitchen in the future.
If we haven’t made it clear yet, we absolutely LOVE concrete as an option for hardscaping because of its beauty, versatility, and durability. Take a look at our projects to get an idea of how you can integrate concrete and other materials into your outdoor space. We love being creative when it comes to specifying all sorts hardscaping mediums, but concrete holds a special place in our hearts when wanting to create a wonderful and affordable outdoor space that you can enjoy year-round, for years to come.
Learn more about how our landscape designers tailor your space to fit your design aesthetic through our design process.
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