Concrete a Rare Medium

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The Refinery proves concrete can be beautiful and green

When starting a business during an economic recession, finding the right niche is just as important as selling an eye-catching product. Patrick and Kate Simons, owners of the Refinery Concrete in Seabrook, New Hampshire, figured out a way to accomplish both. Launched in 2010, the company specializes in custom concrete countertops, sinks, fireplaces, and myriad other home décor items. And while the couple’s designs are as unique as the homes in which they are installed, one thread unites them all: a singular combination of green design and materials that offers something a cut above the competition.

The couple met while attending the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York—the Pennsylvania-born Patrick for industrial design, and New Hampshire native Kate for graphic arts. Finding themselves in need of a post-graduation scenery change, the two spent most of the next decade living and working outside Denver, Colorado. Finding work chiefly as a carpenter, Patrick Simons began experimenting with concrete as a medium for everything from countertops to furniture, taking inspirational cues from San Francisco-based concrete designers Buddy Rhodes and Fu-Tung Cheng. It was slow going at first, but it did not take long for Patrick to realize he was on to something.

Honing their craft, the couple became more and more excited by the prospects of the still-infant medium. Indeed, the idea of transforming rough and raw materials into something at once beautiful and highly detailed enticed them.  “Concrete lends itself well to graceful contours and organically inspired designs,” Simons explains. “Combined with the wide palette of colors and applications, the possibilities are pretty much limitless.”

With numerous artists around Denver already working with many of the same techniques and materials, Patrick and Kate were not alone in their enthusiasm. “As with a lot of artistic trends, what was happening in California with this industry was making its way eastward, so there was definitely some competition in Colorado,” he says.

In late 2009, the couple decided to take their burgeoning craft to the Seacoast. While the move meant that both could be closer to their families—Kate grew up in nearby Bedford, New Hampshire, while Patrick was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania—it also afforded a comparatively wide-open market for their rapidly improving concrete production methods.

“Out in Colorado, we realized that the few companies working with concrete could only reach about 4 million people,” Kate Simons notes. “But in the Northeast, there really isn’t much competition, even though the market is closer to 14 million people throughout the region.”

In the months and years since, Patrick and Kate have gradually redefined their designs and methods. The result is a product both hyper-modern and nostalgic—a sleek, twenty-first century take on a well-worn process. But the Refinery’s charming spin is not only in the form of their products. It is also in its green function. Specifically, the Refinery uses glass fiber reinforced concrete (GFRC). Unlike traditional concrete, GFRC incorporates glass fibers, cement, and sand in a mixture that is just as strong as traditional concrete but without the internal reinforcement that that would add unnecessary weight.

To create GFRC, Patrick first sprays a thin layer of concrete—known as a “face” or “beauty coat”—in the fabricated form. A sturdier mix, known as a “backer coat,” which contains alkaline-resistant glass fibers, is then laid down by hand to form the sinks or edges. Next, a liquid, self-consolidating mixture containing a plethora of glass fibers and plasticizers is poured inside the mold, giving the sink its “bulk.” After hardening and curing, the resulting piece is then sanded and polished to bring out its unique texture and aggregate. Finally, he uses a light slurry of cement and sand to fill in the tiny surface holes, after which a final sanding, cleaning, and sealing render it ready for installation.

It is a delicate process, and the end result is so sleek, angular, and attractive that you can easily forget about concrete’s rough reputation. At the same time, much of his product’s appeal lies in the nuanced surface itself. Indeed, one look attests that human hands—more than any machine—were the true tools of manufacture.

“Most people don’t see concrete as a good medium for a countertop or sink,” Patrick says. “But it has a great organic quality, and you can make it really sophisticated to the point where they don’t see it as concrete anymore.”

Aside from being sturdier and more aesthetically pleasing than standard concrete, the Refinery’s approach is also far more sustainable. The process incorporates materials like fly ash, slag cement, and VCAS pozzolans—all post-industrial, recycled products, which help strengthen the concrete while not taking away from its uniquely honed look and feel. Whereas 15 years ago factories had to pay people to take GFRC refuse off their hands, the materials are now ground down and shipped out to operations like the Refinery, where the materials account from anywhere between 15 and 50 percent of the finished product.

Beyond the green credentials of the concrete itself, the shop also features all-natural stains and environmentally friendly sealers. Additionally, their sand and cement are both purchased locally, as are the majority of the Refinery’s studio and office products. The couple’s space is a small, energy-efficient shop that consumes minimal water. And because the ingredients in concrete are calculated specifically for each individual job, there is virtually no waste on the manufacturing end, with what little is left over being properly recycled.

Soon after setting up shop on the Seacoast, the Refinery joined Green Alliance, a local green business union that certifies and promotes sustainability-minded companies throughout the region. As part of the organization’s discount program—individuals who purchase an annual membership receive a “Green Card,” which affords them deals at all of the GA’s 90 partnering businesses—the Refinery offers a five percent discount to all Green Alliance members.

For all their genuine desire to render their business as green as possible, Kate and Patrick Simons understand that theirs is a niche where quality and craftsmanship still count for just as much as reducing carbon footprints.

“At the end of the day, you have to be willing to meet and exceed the customer’s expectations,” Patrick says. “At the same time, we’re trying to find that balance and keep our eyes open for new products and methods that will continue to help us both be green and maintain that reliability and quality.”

While the couple remains excited by the idea of growing their business to include a wider variety of designs, approaches, and applications, right now it is all about exposure, Patrick says. “We want people to know that concrete is more than bridges, driveways, and sidewalks. It can be functional, beautiful, home art as well.”

   

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