Unpopular opinion: concrete is, in fact, beautiful! To better understand how my opinion of concrete fits into the mainstream (my husband thinks I’m “mad”), a couple of weeks ago, I did a quick survey to finally find out and settle the issue.
Based on some initial, (very) informal interviews, I first put together a “test survey” which I sent to friends and family. I limited the test run to ten respondents as it was merely meant to get a general idea of whether my questions made any sense.
A second step consisted then in refining the survey instrument which I sent out to a larger group of people – unrelated to the first group. Here, my daughter Natasha helped me access the huge pool of undergrad students at MIT. She streamlined the original survey instrument to make it college student-friendly, which meant “adding lots of gifs and replacing as much text as possible with pictures <3”. We have received 65 responses so far, which, given the 4000-person strong undergraduate body at MIT, is respectable. (The answers keep trickling in, but the results discussed below reflect only the first 65).
The questionnaire included both qualitative and quantitative questions.
A big THANK YOU to all who took the time to respond! 🙂
Below follows a summary of the results and a discussion of the major insights.
Results and Discussion of the Concrete Survey
The warm-up question: what adjectives do you associate with concrete?
To get a quick overview of the results, I first created a word cloud. In the test survey, six main characteristics were sticking out: cold, hard, rough, versatile, smooth, grey. None of these came as a surprise. While the majority of the most frequently mentioned adjectives have a negative connotation (cold, rough, hard), the remaining two are essentially positive: versatile and smooth.
Of course, I was now pretty curious how the MIT crowd (that is, a group of extremely smart millennials. Natasha agrees) answered the same question. Turns out that they did so in a fairly similar way.
Due to the significantly higher number of responses, the variety of adjectives associated with concrete naturally increased. Arguably, some weren’t technically real words, or adjectives, but they were no less descriptive: raspy, concreto, cavemanny, sidewalk, slabby, jail, mafioso, blocky and potentially hip. The main message here was, however, much more mainstream: similar to the first group (though in slightly different order), the students associated with concrete the four main properties hard, grey, cold and rough. Further, many described it also as industrial, smooth, and strong. Surprisingly — and contrary to my expectations — nobody considered it to be a “versatile” material.
To see whether there are more adjectives that would distinguish between the positive and negative characteristics of concrete, I created the table below. The number of different positive adjectives turned out to be much larger and more diverse than that of the negative ones. It thus appears as though concrete — despite its rather poor reputation — is believed to offer a fair amount of useful design characteristics, some of which may even help to overcome the big negatives mentioned earlier.
What Do you know about the functionality of concrete?
Concrete was quite often likened to rock and its functionality was derived from there: it’s hard, inflexible, durable, extremely strong, sustainable (… really?), holds up well in compression, but needs reinforcing to sustain tension. It was also mentioned that it hardens in water (curing) and is fire resistant.
Some interesting answers, which illustrated some of the misconceptions about concrete, suggested that concrete offers sound protection and helps to deal with humidity. From personal experience, living in a house with solid concrete walls, noisy neighbours and suffering from high humidity levels throughout most of the year, I can attest to the fact that both of these answers are not quite correct (for more on this, read here!) Indeed, the very properties that make it such a great building material — its density and resilience to compression — make it very acoustically permeable. If a concrete wall seems soundproof, it likely has purposefully constructed air pockets or an acoustic insulator built into it. Concrete isn’t great for managing humidity or repelling water. Its porosity makes it susceptible to the penetration by moisture if not properly sealed on both top and bottom surfaces.
Costs were generally considered rather minor
In general, the cost of concrete was considered minor to lower-medium. Below the answers from the MIT questionnaire:
There was only one justification given, and that came from an architect. He noted that the costs of concrete will increase if formwork is required. Other than that, costs of concrete were considered to be on the less expensive side. For more on costs, you may want to take a look here!
Familiarity with the various interior applications of concrete
All respondents were familiar with the use of concrete as a flooring and wall finish. Almost everyone had seen concrete applied in furniture making. The fact that concrete is used to manufacture kitchen countertops, shelving, and fireplace surrounds was also well-known. However, using concrete for other than large, mostly flat, surfaces appears to be less commonly known although it is currently very much in fashion. The fact that concrete can also be used to make kitchen sinks, wash basins, tubs, lamps, house-ware, and similar appears to be less well known. Perhaps it is the cultural context? I have found that Americans prefer the clean whiteness of porcelain when it comes to these things.
The results of the larger survey were similar. Flooring and wall finishes were clearly the most known applications of concrete in interiors. This was followed by ceiling finishes, furniture (table tops, etc.) and fireplace surrounds.
Perceived style versatility
While the interior design industry touts concrete as a versatile material that can be applied to just any style, my survey results suggests that this is a view that may not be commonly shared. Unsurprisingly, minimalist or modern styles are closely associated with the use of concrete as a material for interiors. A lot less so are cosmopolitan, Scandinavian, rustic, mountain and traditional. Any other style, however, does not appear to be perceived as a good match with concrete. I guess here the “House and Gardens” of this world still have some educational work to do …
Getting an overview of what kind of concrete applications were found to be appealing and why
To understand to what extent people like or don’t like using concrete in its various incarnations, I chose a series of twelve pictures featuring different applications including flooring, concrete tubs and sinks, wall finishes, kitchen countertops, and so forth. Further, the pictures showed concrete applied in different interior style contexts (mountain, modern, classic, Asian, etc.). I then asked my respondents to evaluate each of these examples and assign it a value from 1 to 6 (with 1 indicating “I don’t like it” and 6 indicating that they totally loved it).
Asking the MIT students the same questions resulted in similar results, though not precisely the same. They agreed with the test survey participants in that both fireplace surround and tub were very suitable applications for concrete. The concrete staircase, however, ranked lower in their view. Instead they thought the polished flooring was a great example for how to use concrete at home. Further, what the other end of the continuum is concerned, they agreed with the test survey respondents in that using concrete in a classic context is not to their liking (this data point is marked in red).
Overall, the results suggest that there may be two main “potholes” a designer should try to avoid:
- Overdosing with concrete (e.g. using it for both walls and ceilings) and
- Applying it to a style that is commonly not associated with concrete (e.g. a classic interior)
In the first case, the interior may be perceived as too cold, unaccommodating, bare and boring. In the second case, meanwhile, concrete may turn out to be perceived as an eyesore, a design mistake that in the eyes of many should simply be avoided.
The data further point to other potential pitfalls including the usage of concrete in ways that are not faithful to its nature (polishing it instead of finishing it in a natural way or using it for applications that require lighter materials, such as lamp shades).
On the positive side, there also seem to exist some design guidelines to apply concrete safely.
If it is combined with other natural, but warm, materials such as wood, concrete tends to get high ratings. Its usage is also appreciated if the material reinforces its usage. E.g. in the case of the fireplace surround, concrete is perceived as a strong, solid material that promises safety as it effectively confines the fire.
Similarly, using concrete to build stair treads makes good use of its solid character as it conveys a certain level of safety to the user of the staircase.
In the case of the bath tub, it is its organic, pure, and clean nature that makes it work.
The averages of the evaluations above were confirmed when we asked the students directly what applications they liked best.
To complete the picture, we also asked which application was liked the least: here the top three were, the concrete block wall finish, concrete as table top, and the lighting. Unfortunately, I cannot compare these results directly with the test survey as we offered the MIT students less options to look at. (This was done to shorten the questionnaire somewhat).
What kind of application surprised people the most?
This question was an add-on to the one above. As we had learnt earlier, there were some applications that were liked more than others – for all kinds of reasons. Since the answers to the test survey suggested that some of the applications took my respondees off-guard, we asked the MIT student group now directly which application surprised them the most. Interestingly, it was the lighting! In other words, in the opinion of a solid majority of young people (who are very technically inclined!) making light shades out of concrete does not gel all too well with the material.
Admittedly, this result surprised me somewhat. I would have expected a bit more openness and eagerness to experiment. But no! Personally, I have used concrete pendants for my kitchen island at home and don’t think that they are all too different from other pendants made from heavy materials (e.g. glass, etc. ).
So, what kind of implication does that result have for the designer? Is a designer’s clientele on average much more conservative and/or less informed about actual trends and possibilities than we commonly think? The answers to the next question shed a bit of light onto this question.
How do people feel about using concrete in their homes?
I am not a big fan, but maybe I could be convinced!
The question of how people feel about actually using concrete themselves was aimed at coming to terms with concrete’s perceived applicability. The answers spanned a wide spectrum, ranging from “feeling very uncomfortable” or “negative” to “loving it” and even “having successfully used it in the past”. Interestingly, half the respondents were intrigued by its properties and were open to at least give it some thought, if not a real try.
What are the possible implications for the interior designer? It stands to reason that if the concrete question comes up and the designer is capable of answering it in a creative and convincing way, there is a good chance that the design clients may actually be willing to try it. Often all it takes is some education to make the client understand the many things concrete can be used for and how different it can look depending on application and finish. Below a few more comments we received that point into the same direction:
My opinion of concrete is now better than it was before the survey!
I like it more as an interior design material now! Some of those examples were pretty great!
It surprised me today! ☺
In sum, the average respondent’s views on concrete appeared not to be positive, which may simply be due to a lack of understanding of the material. It is thus the designer’s challenge to make his or her client understand that concrete has potential to be much more than simply a drab, grey and cold material.
A final aspect I would like to mention in this context is, the usage of “alternative materials.” This question is a critical one as the production of concrete has less than desirable environmental implications. Apparently, wood – as it is natural, light, warm, and does not cause environmental concerns – is the prime candidate when it comes to thinking about alternative materials.
That said, there are even materials out there that have concrete’s rough look, but are generally associated with completely different styles and are not considered cold, ugly, or environmentally problematic. You may, e.g. want to check out Tadelakt, a waterproof plaster surface used primarily in Moroccan architecture to make baths, sinks, water vessels, interior/exterior walls, ceilings, roofs, and floors. …. ]
So, although I am now thoroughly tempted to start discussing the virtues of Tadelakt, I will rather leave it at that.
Please feel free to add your own view on concrete in the form of a comment to this post (I would love to hear from you!) or maybe you want to take a look at the survey ?
Wishing you all very Happy Holidays!