Alexander Kitchin wants to get your mind off the floor. “Most people are stuck down there,” he said.
He’s referring to the common perception of how concrete is used in architecture. A UVA grad with a master’s degree in the discipline, Kitchin has devoted his 20-plus-year career to elevating the art of concrete design. Today, he and his partner, Nicole Sherman, operate Fine Concrete, a custom concrete casting shop from which they produce intricate bathroom vanities, sinks, bathtubs, fireplaces, countertops, and furniture.
“All of our clients are looking for an alternative to granite or similar materials,” Kitchin said.
The biggest advantage concrete has over “slab” materials like granite or marble is that artisans like Kitchin can make in one piece what other craftsman would have to assemble out of multiple pieces. Because concrete starts as a liquid, it can be poured into a mold and hardened to any desired shape—think geometric countertops with sinks cast directly in or one-piece patio furniture with supple lines.
“Concrete has a fleshy, sexy nature,” Kitchin said. “We want to create stuff that is sexy and mysterious and make it with a material that is natural and raw.”
Concrete designers can achieve any level of thickness their customers desire, with precision down to a 16th of an inch, and the range of colors that can be produced are “infinite,” Kitchin said. Using dry or liquid pigments introduced into the concrete mix prior to casting, the concrete forms come out of the mold with integrated colors tailored to a tight range. There is some variation from piece to piece, but according to Kitchin, that’s one of the things customers are drawn to.
Unlike most stone building materials, concrete can deliver unique physical properties depending on its chemistry, Kitchin said. Fine Concrete, for example, is one of only a handful of shops in the U.S. that offers ultra-high performance concrete, a licensed material that delivers 10 times the strength of traditional concrete.
“Material sciences are a huge field, and concrete is the most used material on the planet, other than water,” Kitchin said. “So you can imagine the money companies are putting into this.”
As for cost, Kitchin said it’s comparable to stone on a one-to-one basis. But the comparison can be a tricky one, because most of the price of concrete comes from the man-hours required to build the formwork, or molds—“made like furniture, a surfboard, and a car body,” Kitchin said.
It’s that attention to detail customers pay for, according to Sherman.
“We’re not just fabricators, we’re designers,” she said. “Our customers are mostly people that are interested in finding a creative moment in their home, something that is unique and expressive of their lifestyle.”
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Talk the talk
Be a part of the conversation. Here are some phrases you’ll hear if you’re planning a project with a concrete craftsman.
Aggregate: The material held together by cement to make concrete. The most popular aggregates today are different types of sand, but small pebbles may also be used.
Formwork: The mold around which concrete is poured to form a desired shape.
Integral pigment: Color cast directly into a concrete design.
Precast concrete: A building material created by curing an aggregate (usually sand) with cement. Custom concrete pieces come “precast” as they will appear in the home.
Retarders, plasticizers, accelerators: Materials that can be added to a concrete mixture to make it behave differently prior to being cast or during casting.
Ultra-high performance concrete: A material with 10 times the strength of traditional concrete and better flow characteristics, making it easier to cast into intricate shapes.
Working time: The time it takes concrete to set once it has been mixed.