architect’s pet peeve no. 14 – concrete vs. cement

Concrete is all around us. Used since ancient Rome, it is amazingly versatile and relatively inexpensive. And it is hard and strong and ubiquitous.

But that is concrete, not cement. It seems like everyone mistakenly calls concrete “cement”. I’m sure this goes back further than Jed Clampett calling his concrete pool the “cement pond”. So, since we all seem to know what concrete is, then exactly what is the distinction between this and cement?

Portland cement, bagged for mixing

Cement is one of the ingredients that go into the mix of water and aggregates (sand and rocks), as the binding agent, that makes concrete. Mixed with water, cement creates a chemical reaction, producing heat, and hardening into concrete. The aggregates can vary widely in size, color, etc., allowing for a great variety in what concrete looks like and performs,  not to mention all the other stuff you can throw into the mix – dyes, colorants, plasticizers, etc.   You use cement to make concrete, but concrete is not cement alone. Like the bacon in a BLT – its gotta be there, but on its own it ain’t no sandwich.

architect's pet peeve no. 14 – concrete vs. cement

Concrete is all around us. Used since ancient Rome, it is amazingly versatile and relatively inexpensive. And it is hard and strong and ubiquitous.

But that is concrete, not cement. It seems like everyone mistakenly calls concrete “cement”. I’m sure this goes back further than Jed Clampett calling his concrete pool the “cement pond”. So, since we all seem to know what concrete is, then exactly what is the distinction between this and cement?

Portland cement, bagged for mixing

Cement is one of the ingredients that go into the mix of water and aggregates (sand and rocks), as the binding agent, that makes concrete. Mixed with water, cement creates a chemical reaction, producing heat, and hardening into concrete. The aggregates can vary widely in size, color, etc., allowing for a great variety in what concrete looks like and performs,  not to mention all the other stuff you can throw into the mix – dyes, colorants, plasticizers, etc.   You use cement to make concrete, but concrete is not cement alone. Like the bacon in a BLT – its gotta be there, but on its own it ain’t no sandwich.

Cherryvale Road, Boulder, Colorado

some colors and textures of simple buildings located along rural Cherryvale Road in Boulder, Colorado between Marshall Road and South Boulder Road.  Above, asphalt shingles above rubble sandstone wall.

corrugated metal roofing above red painted clapboard siding (red paint was often used on utility buildings and occasionally rural schools because it was the cheapest to make.  The idea that different colors cost different amounts is quite foreign now.)

rusted corrugated metal roofing above rough formed concrete

composite shingles painted white and green

corrugated metal roofing over raw pine siding

rusted corrugated metal roofing over rough cut stone, heavily parged

material phenomenology

In all of our projects we go through an extensive process of trying to choose materials for interior finishes.  there are an almost infinite number of choices available for tile, wall and ceiling colors, flooring, etc.   The final selection should reinforce the ideas of the design as well as meet the technical and practical uses of each location.  so, beyond simply making aesthetic solutions based on the ‘style’ of the building or interior, we make selections to reinforce the spatial ideas of the project.

With this said, the challenge often comes not in the selection of any given material, but the coordination and synthesis of dozens of selections.  Beyond style and color, one of my guiding ideas for choosing materials is the relative level of abstraction that the material exhibits in relation to its ‘natural’ state.

level one

These images above are very different in terms of style and feeling, but they both are utilizing materials with little or no manufactured refinement, a single level of abstraction.  Rough stone, waxed cork, stained douglas fir beams, oiled shoji screen tracks are all quite close to the stone or wood as found in nature and sympathetic to each other because of that similar level of abstraction.

level two

whether traditional or modern, the sympathies of the materials to each other is reinforced by a similar distance from the raw material.  Taken in reverse, you might say this is the relative level of refinement of the material.  In the images above, marble mosaic tile, wrought iron and painted and stained treads and risers work together.  On the right, painted trim, honed travertine tile, clear tempered glass harmonize with each other, a second level of abstraction.

level three

In these images (one a computer rendering of a project under construction), a use of more refined materials – polished granite and book-matched polished wood cabinets in a traditional design on the left and resin panels, engineered flooring, stainless steel and birch veneer over MDF on the right in a modern kitchen interior.  This is a third level of abstraction, a combination of materials extracted, machined, polished, and further transformed.

While each material has a history of its use imbedded within it, they also exhibit a kind of phenomenology of their immediate history – a roadmap from tree to lumber mill to carpenter to finisher.  Some paths are longer than others and final destination is exquisite but hard won, some paths are short and there is  pleasure in the journey.