Simplicity of line and concrete building material creates an almost stately structure. Plantings, lighting, and decorative steel doors offset the crisp abstract shapes.
Simplicity of line and concrete building material creates an almost stately structure. Plantings, lighting, and decorative steel doors offset the crisp abstract shapes.

When a well-heeled El Paso, Texas, client presented him with the idea of building a cast-in-place concrete house, architect Jon Anderson hesitated for a moment. “I was a little leery of it,” he admits. This was not due to any fault in the material itself but because he did not know a residential concrete contractor who could produce the quality of work the project would require. “It's hard to get good looking concrete in the residential realm,” says Anderson, who turned instead to an industrial subcontractor, Albuquerque, N.M.-based Cambro Construction. Not only could the company turn out first-rate architectural concrete work, it also happened to have a crew of 75 in town—building a sewage-treatment plant.

The project gave them a work-out. “All the bearing walls, including a lot of interior walls, are concrete,” Anderson says. “Some of these walls are 24 feet tall, and there are no horizontal cold joints.” Exterior walls, 12 inches thick, were cast around a 3-inch layer of rigid foam insulation. “All the electrical work had to be done,” Anderson adds. “It was cast inside those walls.” In this no-redo scenario, a quality result depended on “the joinery on your forms and the cleanliness of your forms and making sure the placement and vibration are done right.” Getting the right mix, the right reveals, and the right pattern of snap ties was essential, too. “We did eight onsite samples before we poured any concrete on that house.” Pouring the walls alone took 12 weeks.

Steel, glass, and wood finish materials contrast with the natural color of concrete.
Steel, glass, and wood finish materials contrast with the natural color of concrete.

Underfoot is a post-tensioned concrete slab (overbuilt for the bearing conditions but almost impervious to shrinkage cracking) with 10 zones of hydronic heat. Where the slab was left exposed, the concrete was polished, stained, treated with an acrylic sealer, and waxed. Ceilings and furred-out interior walls are pigmented plaster with a diamond finish that looks like machined stone. “The finishes are very simple inside,” Anderson says. “The concrete comes right down and hits the floor.” Against this monolithic backdrop, accent materials stand out in bold contrast: agave plants in a stepped planter near the entry, polished stainless steel doors at the courtyard gate and entry, a 10-foot-high water wall of saw-kerfed black granite, and a cherry paneled den. But none of them steals the show; in this 4600-square-foot house, concrete is the main attraction

Bruce D. Snider, in “Dress Grays,” an excerpt from “Concrete Inspires a Different Kind of Custom Home” in Custom Home, March 2005, says that concrete block works well with the bleaching sunlight and hungry termites of the desert Southwest. In the earthquake-prone Pacific Northwest and hurricane-lashed south Florida, reinforced concrete structures stand the best chance of surviving nature's wrath. But each use is more than practical, taking advantage of concrete's unique visual and tactile qualities and nearly infinite flexibility. Poured or stacked, board-formed or smooth, painted, dyed, waxed, or left untouched, the concrete shows its vast range of expression.