Homeowners are demanding more when they replace their driveways. In turn, finish options are expanding, with a wider range of styles and colors offered. Staying current with customer needs and new techniques can boost sales on this fast and easy project.
“People are looking to boost the curb appeal of their homes,” says Ray Brooks, president of Brooks Construction Services, Sioux Falls, S.D. “It’s the first impression visitors have, and homeowners want to ensure it looks nice.” Concrete’s capabilities in aesthetic versatility, durability, and low maintenance make upgrading the driveway a popular choice for improving a home’s overall aesthetic.
The housing slowdown has affected new driveway projects, says Chris McDaniel, president of McD Construction Enterprises, Alexandria, Ky. “The decline in residential construction has been so drastic that most work is replacement.” Ironically, the slow economy has aided replacement projects in several ways, he notes. “People who have decided they won’t be moving for a while want to upgrade to add value and make their home look nicer, while those who have to get out of their homes want to find a way to stand out in the crowd.”
But homeowners are looking for the most value possible, which means keeping prices tight, comments Luisa Dittmann, vice president at Greystone Masonry, Stafford, Va. “Customers are looking at all of their options. They still want an attractive look, but they want it to cost less. We’re definitely doing fewer driveways than in 2006.”
Concrete projects are being aided by the rise in asphalt prices, which has impacted oil products of all types. “Asphalt has a lot more issues than concrete, so when the prices are competitive, customers choose concrete more often,” says Joe Swederski, vice president of Swederski Concrete Construction, Spring Grove, Ill. “On larger projects, concrete can beat asphalt even on initial costs. When figuring total life-cycle costs, concrete almost always wins.” Concrete also can be poured year-round, which expands the window of opportunity, he notes.
Contractors can’t assume customers are aware of the benefits or requirements for maintaining concrete driveways. “The most challenging part of any project is dealing with the homeowner,” says McDaniel. “They use these products a couple of times in their lives, and there can be expectations that are unrealistic. There’s an education process that’s not there when we do commercial jobs.”
Swederski agrees. “We have to educate them about every aspect of concrete before we place it. We teach them what can go wrong, the difference between a perfect and an imperfect job, and the various finishes that are available. We explain that some contractors can do a driveway that looks beautiful, but it will fall apart after the first winter, due to water content and surface damage. We stress that we create a good structural driveway.”
For that reason, Swederski emphasizes the importance of certification by the American Concrete Institute, Farmington Hills, Mich. “When our guys finish those classes, they know all the properties and what they’re dealing with. Ready-mix suppliers should sell only to certified contractors, so we don’t bring a bad name to their concrete.”
Creating a uniform finish
Achieving a high-quality, uniform finish begins with site preparation. In a replacement project, the top layer is removed and the gravel base is reused. If a thin asphalt driveway is being replaced, some base must be removed to accommodate the thicker concrete layer, according to the Portland Cement Association (PCA), Skokie, Ill. The gravel should be compacted with a vibratory plate compactor and lumber side forms are placed and staked, with stakes supporting each joint of the forming lumber.
Swederski creates a prejoint layout, which is approved prior to the pour. “That way we can ensure the sawcutters do their jobs efficiently,” he says. In new homes, backfill around the driveway typically is the last activity before finishing the home, so it often hasn’t settled when concrete is poured. It’s vital to use well-compacted stone around the garage door, he says, and provide sawcuts about 5 feet from the door to ensure any cracks created by settling occur where desired.
To finish the concrete, PCA suggests delivering and discharging ready-mix concrete in 1 to 11/2 hours. The forms should be coated with form oil and the subgrade moistened with water. The concrete should be placed as closely to its finish position as possible, and it should be struck off with a straight piece of lumber to smooth the surface and bring the slab to its proper elevation.
Bull floats and channel floats are used to remove any irregularities in the surface. Swederski works the concrete as little as possible, he notes, as overworking it can bring smaller aggregates to the surface, creating problems with creating a smooth surface. “You want to get the best aggregates possible to prevent deleterious materials.” He avoids mined river rock and works with concrete suppliers to ensure he knows what aggregates are delivered. He also uses about 20% fly ash in his 550-pound cement mix due to its workability, higher strength, and ability to reduce cement content, and thereby the water-cement ratio.
Most contractors apply a broom finish, as it provides the necessary slip resistance. Swederski creates a signature look by using a 10-foot broom with ropes on each side, so it can be pulled across the concrete. The company also provides a picture frame appearance by adding a separate 2-foot broom finish parallel along the border to remove imperfections.
Other finish options are available. Increte of Albany, Albany, N.Y., uses a magnesium (mag) float. “It creates a better texture, and top granules of sand don’t wear away so quickly,” explains Rick George, president. The city of Albany requires a mag-float finish for its sidewalks, which encourages others to use that finish. “Some of the projects are now 8 years old, and they hold up very well.”
McD uses a swirl finish as well as a broom finish, McDaniel says. “In many cases, we do different finishes for the border and interior. Customers like the contrast.” He also does some stamped concrete, most often using an ashlar-slate texture for either the border or interior.
Ashlar-slate texture is popular for Edwards Concrete, Winter Garden, Fla., as is a curving fish-scale pattern, says project manager Steve Whitmore. “We have a lot of retirement communities, and homeowners take a lot of pride of ownership—and in outdoing their neighbors.”
Brooks Construction Services takes its cue from the home’s exterior style and landscaping. “If they have a brick exterior, we try to provide a less-detailed texture, like a feathered-edge look” explains Brooks. “Otherwise, it gets too busy.” Brooks also uses an Engrave-A-Crete system to cut circular patterns, which has become popular. “When you get into more detailed patterns, you need to have a good designer on staff and photo books to show examples.”
“A perfect finish is achievable, but everything and everyone has to work together,” Swederski says. “We warn the customer that our priority is structural quality followed by cosmetics. We would rather see a few surface flaws from rough broom marks than future scaling or delamination after the first winter due to poor mixes, adding too much water, or overworking the surface.”
Stamped concrete popularity
Stamped and colored concrete are gaining popularity, as homeowners look to make their homes stand out. “For years, we did mostly regular concrete, but now stamped concrete is a big part of our business,” says Brooks. “There’s a real push to add interest and to coordinate the driveway with the stoop and walk so it all flows together and works with the landscaping.”
Increte’s George agrees that stamped concrete is growing. “I’m doing three times as many stamped designs this year.” That’s also true in the south, says Whitmore. “We’ll do one stamped Bomanite project for a homeowner, and then the whole neighborhood calls to find out about it.”
Earthtones are most popular, usually to match the stone pattern of the stamp. Greystone Masonry uses color hardeners with its treatments. “They provide more control over uniformity of color and offer a clean, crisp impression,” says Dittmann. Integral color works best, she notes, to avoid any white marks from chipping.
Contrasting colors for accents also are gaining popularity, notes George. “Everybody is on the decorative bandwagon. Before, everyone wanted a broom finish. Now, they want decorative designs. Even if they have a broom finish, they want decorative borders so it doesn’t look plain.”
With the economy depressed, resurfacing driveways rather than replacing them has emerged, George adds. “It’s a green solution, because you don’t have to dig out the old concrete and pour new.” He pressure-washes the concrete with a solution of muriatic acid, applies a polymer coating, and stamps the concrete.
Using decorative treatments to encourage driveway projects and finding ways to fit them into the homeowner’s budget can lead to more business. “We really fight and push for driveway projects to go forward when we do estimates,” says Dittmann. “They’re so easy to install—you’re in and out and the concrete goes right off the truck with no wheelbarrows needed. It’s an easy job.”
Craig A. Shutt is contributing editor for James O. Ahtes Inc., Chicago.