Pros and Cons of Exposed Concrete Flooring
Concrete is enjoying a new life as a stylish element of interior design. You already appreciate its strength and durability, but don’t overlook its aesthetic value.
In this article, I’ll dive into the pros and cons of using exposed concrete floors as a design element. There are a lot of “pros” but also a few “cons” to know. Then I’ll get into what areas in a residential home are well-suited for exposed concrete and those that involve a few trade-offs and some consideration.
8 Reasons People Want Exposed Concrete Flooring in Their Home
#1 The design options are unlimited.
A concrete floor doesn’t have to have the grey, brutalist feel anymore. It can if that’s what the client wants. New techniques and treatments have opened wide the design possibilities for concrete floors.
- Hyper-polish: Concrete can be smoothed to a glassy finish before the sealant is applied.
- Colorizing: Concrete can hold different colors, whether through an acid stain or by dyeing it for an opaque wash of color. Multiple colors on the same floor create a more detailed or impactful design. Using stencils and airbrushes, the designs can get pretty artistic.
- Textured or stamped: Instead of finishing the concrete to a smooth surface, rubber stamps are used to create texture on the surface. This process is one way you can make a concrete floor look like stone, brick, tile, or other material. You can also etch a design in the wet concrete and then stain the floor, which is a more budget-friendly way to get some texture into the concrete.
Almost any design style can support an exposed concrete floor with the right treatment. A floor that’s clearly concrete will work with any modernist or contemporary style. More traditional styles can still work with an exposed concrete floor that’s treated to look like a more traditional material, like wood or tile.
#2 Works with any budget.
That’s always the second question, right? It may look good, but who can afford it? As with most things, the design options for exposed concrete cover a wide range. The cost can run anywhere from $2-$30 per square foot installed, depending on location and degree of complexity. Here’s a simplified breakdown of what the price ranges will get you:
- Lower-range: single color stains and dyes
- Mid-range: multi-color stain or dyeing process
- High-range: any texturing, stamping, or patterned design
#3 An exposed concrete floor can last for decades.
Concrete’s natural strength and durability can handle a lot of wear and tear. That’s why it’s a common flooring choice for commercial spaces, parking garages, and even residential garages.
An exposed concrete floor in a residential area with high foot traffic will show little wear over a long period. It doesn’t matter how big your family is. You also don’t need to protect it from furniture legs and shoe scuffs. The general recommendation is that an exposed concrete floor should get resealed over time, but that’s it.
#4 It’s easy to clean and maintain.
A well-sealed concrete floor cleans up easily. Regular sweeping or vacuuming, followed by mopping with a suitable cleaning solution, will get the job done. You need to select the right cleaning solution. Avoid acidic cleaning agents, as they can eat away at the sealant.
Which makes a sealed concrete floor…
#5 Pet friendly.
Cleaning up after pets (and kids) is easy on a sealed concrete floor. You also don’t have to worry about the pet tearing the concrete up, leading to repair or replacement costs.
#6 No VOCs (volatile organic compounds)
More people want to limit the amount of VOCs in their homes, if not eliminate them entirely. VOCs can cause several negative physical effects, including dizziness, throat irritation, and nausea. Because many of the new treatments for concrete, including sealants, do not include VOCs, they make a good choice for protecting air quality within the home.
#7 Concrete is a great conduit for radiant-heated floors.
Concrete holds heat really well. That’s good news for people who want to lower their heating bills by having a radiant-heated floor installed. Homeowners can usually keep thermostats on lower settings with concrete radiant-heated floors.
Concrete floors can handle both electric and hydronic radiant-heat systems. As the concrete floor heats up, it releases some of the heat into the room. It creates a cozy, warm feeling underfoot and allows for an even heat distribution that a forced-air system can’t achieve.
#8 May help when it’s time to sell.
Because a concrete floor can last for decades, you can easily keep it in good condition when you decide to sell the house. Having an exposed concrete floor could also help protect your asking price. Buyers who want one type of flooring, but see another in the house are thinking about the costs of replacing the floor. They’re going to want to knock those costs off the purchase price. If the floor is concrete, they can install whatever they’d like above it, for much less cost.
6 Reasons Concrete Floors Can Be Challenging
#1 Excess moisture within the slab can cause many problems.
You may know all the ugly, risky ways that moisture-related damage can ruin concrete. When it’s a garage or unfinished basement, the aesthetics matter less. The potential for mold growth, dangerous, unsightly cracks, and other signs of moisture damage are always a concern. It doesn’t matter where the concrete slab is.
If you’re having a new concrete slab or overlay poured, the contractor should conduct an in-situ relative humidity (RH) test to get a reading on the slab’s moisture condition after it’s dried and before adding the finish. An RH test measures moisture below the surface, which gives you the most reliable measurement of the concrete’s moisture condition.
It’s also a good idea to have the flooring contractor run RH tests prior to applying the decorative finish on an existing concrete slab you’re treating to turn it into a good-looking, exposed concrete floor. Even concrete slabs poured years ago can have excess moisture in some areas.
If the concrete slab is holding excess moisture, you need to make some decisions before adding the design treatment. You can try to force the concrete to dry more. You might also consider installing a vapor retarder and pouring a shallow overlay over the existing slab.
Sealing a concrete floor that still has too much moisture below the surface is a recipe for flooring failure.
#2 Need to reseal the floor periodically.
Resealing a concrete floor periodically is smart to protect it from the elements and physical damage. This includes any moisture or standing water that may be absorbed where the seal has weakened.
Resealing an exposed concrete floor doesn’t require any changes or upkeep to the stain or design. Regularly resealing the exposed concrete floor is how you protect its design.
#3 Cracks can develop.
Cracks can appear in concrete for a variety of reasons. Two common reasons are a settling foundation or excess moisture when the concrete was poured. The water-to-cement (w/c) ratio may have been high. The flooring installer may have sealed the slab before it had enough time to dry.
If you’re working with an existing slab and the cracks are large, you probably want to call a flooring contractor to repair it.
If you’re having new concrete poured, it’s always a good practice to make sure the contractor conducts RH testing of the moisture condition of the concrete as it dries and before it’s sealed with a decorative finish. Keep in mind, however, that if the proper w/c ratio isn’t used initially, cracks may develop later on.
#4 Concrete is hard and cold.
Hard and cold isn’t a nice place to stand, but you can remedy this. Of course, installing radiant heat below the floor will take care of the cold problem. Concrete’s hardness makes it a not-so-great choice where there are people who may fall, like kids or the elderly.
It’s also a challenge in rooms where people will mostly be standing. You can recommend having a small throw rug in an area where people will stand for long periods. For example, the kitchen can be a suitable room for an exposed concrete floor because it’s so easy to clean. However, standing in front of a sink or counter might be uncomfortable. Here, a small, cushioned mat may work. It creates a more comfortable place to stand while still allowing the overall look of the room to benefit from the exposed concrete.
#5 Environmental concerns about concrete.
Concrete finishes and treatments may be free of VOCs, but the concrete itself may raise some environmental concerns. The processes from quarrying to preparing to transporting concrete all come with a high carbon footprint. For some, that cost is too high.
Refinishing concrete that’s already installed will have a lower environmental impact than ripping it out and transporting it somewhere else for its end-of-life use.
#6 Concrete can get slippery.
List this under another safety concern to consider. Who is using the room and for what purpose?
Exposed concrete floors that are highly polished, have a high-gloss finish, or have standing water have the highest risk of getting dangerously slippery.
Where Exposed Concrete Floors Work Best
No hard-and-fast rules exist about which rooms should or should not have an exposed concrete floor. Here are some pros and cons about individual rooms.
Entryway or Mudroom
These can be great spaces for an exposed concrete floor because they can handle the traffic, but they aren’t places people congregate. They are places that can get wet and slippery. Selecting a finish that replicates stone or brick, rather than a high-gloss tile, can mitigate that risk.
The kitchen is one of the most used rooms in a house. The durability of concrete certainly makes sense here. As noted already, kitchens could experience some moisture and hardness issues. You can test for moisture before finishing the floor, which can help avoid moisture-related issues due to excess moisture within the concrete. Regularly cleaning and resealing the floor can help minimize the risk of water damage due to a leaky dishwasher or refrigerator.
Exposed concrete floors in bathrooms pose the same benefits and issues as they do for kitchens. Showers and baths are even more likely to result in a slippery floor than a broken kitchen appliance. The age and agility of the people who will use the bathroom is a key consideration.
Here, a sealed, exposed concrete floor is your best option for handling moisture that seeps into basements. If you’re finishing the basement as a playroom, don’t immediately eliminate exposed concrete as a flooring option. Sure, there’s some risk to the kids, especially young kids. Yet, for older kids, consider that having a hockey zone stenciled onto the concrete could be fun.
Is Exposed Concrete Right for Your Home?
Exposed concrete flooring can be a superb choice, whether you’re building new or want to freshen up a room with an existing slab foundation. Consider your design options and use of the space to decide whether it will make sense for a specific room.
Opting for an exposed concrete floor can keep initial and long-term costs down. Flooring installed above concrete is more prone to damage and wear, leading to eventual replacement costs. Consider each of the issues outlined here as you decide. Never forget, one of the greatest “pros” of having an exposed concrete floor is that it can make your home look beautiful.
Jason has 20+ years’ experience in sales and sales management in a spectrum of industries and has successfully launched a variety of products to the market, including the original Rapid RH® concrete moisture tests. He currently works with Wagner Meters as our Rapid RH® product sales manager.
Last updated on December 13th, 2021