The market is slow, and you’re trying to cut costs while differentiating your homes. You’re also probably searching for new revenue streams. One of the country’s top architectural designers has a simple way that will help you do all of the above without spending a bundle of money. What is it? Concrete countertops—more specifically, do-it-yourself concrete countertops.
“I think it’s a very viable idea and it gives [builders] something that offers much more customization than granite or solid surface,” says Berkeley, Calif.-based Fu-Tung Cheng, a classic multitasker who heads CHENG Design, the product design outfit CHENG Products, and the award-winning concrete fabrication studio, CHENG Concrete.
Cheng knows what he’s talking about. He started working with concrete more than 25 years ago and has perfected the art of fabrication and design in a portfolio of work that includes full-scale homes, kitchen and bath renovations, hospitality, commercial, and retail store design, and a gaggle of other applications such as outdoor products, fireplaces, and the like. Now, he’s on a mission to pass on to others what took him years to perfect.
At a recent presentation at the International Builders Show in Las Vegas, builders sat with rapt attention as Cheng and his cohorts went through their spiel. Clearly he had struck a nerve in builders looking to capitalize—either immediately or when the market returns—on the potential of concrete.
In addition to two books, a DVD, and his own CHENG Concrete Countertop product line of proprietary mix, tools, and accessories, Cheng launched the Concrete Training Academy in 2003 in response to demand from contractors who read his best-selling first book, Concrete Countertops (Taunton Press, 2002). He also also written a second book, Concrete Countertops Made Simple (Taunton Press, 2008).
The education program offers hands-on workshops and programs across the country where attendees learn the ins and outs of concrete techniques and design principles. He offers three of these classes—one-, three-, and five-day training sessions—for novices and professionals.
Though the beginning classes would be enough to get the basics, Cheng believes builders would realize the most benefits from the five-day course. “In that short week a person would know not only technically how to set up a mobile pouring table, but that person would know about design and how to make each installation special, instantly leveraging a lot of value to a project,” explains Cheng, whose program has trained almost 2,500 students. Available workshops teach everything from introductory concrete countertop concepts to advanced training in glass fiber-reinforced concrete, fireplaces, counters, and walls, according to the founder.
Such skills and knowledge could prove valuable to builders in this difficult housing market, where the competition is considerable and buyers are budget-conscious. Fabricating your own countertops is extremely cost-effective, Cheng says, requiring minimal capital investment and high potential profit.
How minimal? When announcing its recent Circle of Distinction Design Challenge winners, CHENG Concrete co-president Mike Heidebrink told attendees at the World of Concrete trade show that the raw material cost for the projects were as low as $7.71 per square foot. “Of course there is plenty of design and construction labor necessary to achieve these advanced projects, but more and more contractors are finding themselves with extra time on their hands and concrete projects of this caliber offer a high return,” Heidebrink said in February.
(The World of Concrete show is owned by BUILDER's parent company, Hanley Wood.)
But that is probably on the low end. According to Cheng, a more realistic price range for typical concrete tops that builders would do would run between $8 and $16 per square foot, depending on the complexity of the pour, the size, and the embedded objects. Home buyers might pay $120 per square foot and up for such a countertop.
Ready to start? Training for Cheng’s 5-day class is $3,000. Builders will need a few other materials too: a typical countertop includes cement (which you likely already have on the job site), Cheng’s Pro Formula additive with all the colors, wax, sealer, and melamine (which is reusable) for your pour tables, and tools to build your molds. “They can be up and running in a day to make countertops that are simple,” Cheng assures.