It all started in 2001 when Chris Swanson, his father Jim, and his friend Jamie Schneider decided to purchase, remodel, and resell a fixer-upper in the area. Swanson wanted to include concrete countertops in the kitchen reconstruction. After showing pictures to his partners, they agreed. He says the house was an eyesore, so neighbors were interested in the changes, frequently stopping by to see what was going on. The concrete countertop inspired one neighbor to ask if they would acid stain his garage floor, leading to another job. After that, referrals started coming in. The partners' developing interest in decorative concrete led them to call their company Colour, using the European spelling to emphasize their use of color as the most important element of their work.

The next phase for Colour came when the partners took a class to learn more about overlay cement applications. Taught by Gary Jones from Colormaker Floors, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, the class was held at their local construction supply house, Spec West in Sacramento, Calif. Jones influenced the direction of their company and Randy Sanford, the owner of Spec West, became their friend. When Sanford remodeled his facility, they helped him install the new showroom floor. With knowledge of how to install overlay cement, the company focus shifted to floor installations, though Swanson says he continued to do some concrete countertops on the side.

Three years ago, Colour shifted its focus again, this time to polished concrete floor work. The company bought diamond polishing equipment and today Swanson says that 95% of their work is polished concrete and dye staining, shifting away from overlay cement and acid-stain installations. The move to polished concrete helped to avoid moisture vapor transmission problems in finished products, but the partners also really liked the look of polished concrete.

It's all about relationships

The three partners have strong feelings about the value of relationships with clients and vendors, as well as in their personal lives. They don't do any formal marketing, preferring instead to spend time developing trust with clients and potential clients before a project begins. They spend time with prospective clients to explore ideas and work on designs as part of the trust-building process. As a result, they develop personal relationships and get strong references for future work.

Colour believes in treating its vendors the same way it treats its customers. The company remains loyal to suppliers and is willing to pay a little more for better products. The partners maintain good friendships with the supply company owners and the sales representatives who serve them.

The flower of life

This year's Decorative Concrete Project of the Year is Flor De Vida, which means “the flower of life” in Spanish. When a homeowner in Placerville, Calif., decided to add a studio/gallery to his house, his friends recommended Colour's services. He invited the partners to provide a design and install a decorative finish on a 650-square-foot slab that had already been placed by another contractor. Impressed with Colour's design, he told them to proceed with the work.

Working together, the three partners started by diamond grinding the floor to a 400-grit finish. The work was completed before drywall was installed but after wood framing. After the beginning polishing steps were complete, Swanson stayed behind to execute the pattern layout, engraving, and dye coloring. Because the design was complicated, only small amounts of pattern could be chalked on the floor at any one time and then cut to a 1/8-inch-wide track using a small angle grinder with a diamond blade.

The color-burst pattern in the center of the room was the most difficult part of the project. Swanson could only chalk three or four arcs at a time, cut them, remove the dust, and lay out the next lines—which was time-consuming. In all, it took three and a half days to complete the engraving process for the entire floor.

After careful cleaning, Swanson worked on the main body of the floor by masking each element and then applying dye stains, leaving the color burst in the center for last. Colour uses Ameripolish dyes with acetone as the solvent, but Swanson says they have developed ways to increase the length of time the dyes remain puddled on the surface (dyes in acetone dry almost instantly), providing time needed to bleed second colors into the work. He used a low-pressure pump-up sprayer to apply primary colors for each section and hand-spray bottles to bleed additional colors on all parts of the floor. As many as four different colors were introduced into individual elements of the design. He finished his work by adding gray shadowing to some features with a spray cup gun.

The trickiest part of the job was coloring the burst area in the center of the room. Using paint brushes to mix dyes in each diamond shape, Swanson and his wife Amy worked together, starting at the center and working out to the outer edge of the burst. Each radius of diamond elements around the circle was colored with the same colors, starting with black at the center that bleeds toward deep red and then to gold at the outside diameter. Each engraved diamond shape contains color from the preceding radius diamond as well as the next color, so the original color bleeds into a new color on the outside point of every diamond. This provides a seamless transition of coloring with no one solid color in any diamond segment.

When the coloring was complete, the Swansons spent an additional day squirting brown grout from ketchup bottles to fill the engraved diamond-pattern cuts in the floor. Then the remaining polishing steps were completed, bringing the floor up to a 1500-grit finish. They densified the floor with a lithium silicate product by Versa Flex, Kansas City, Kan., after the 150-grit step and again at the completion of the polishing process. For the final step, they burnished the work with Twister Pads sold by HTC, Knoxville, Tenn., completing the work with an application of a penetrating stain guard product made by Versa Flex.

White-knuckle work

Once dye is applied to concrete, it's difficult to make changes, since the results tend to highlight the error. Knowing he had just one shot to do it right, Swanson felt a high level of stress during the coloring process. “I was sweating bullets,” he says. “You don't really know what something will look like until it's done and then it's too late. One bad color can ruin your work.” But nothing went wrong and he was amazed with the result. His partners jokingly say when things go right on a project it's a construction miracle; this job became one of their miracles.

The partners like the multicolor, textured appearance of real stone so they incorporate that look in their work. A person who sells stone products saw the job and complimented them on the fine stonework, having no idea that he was looking at concrete.

What's next for Colour?

Swanson says the company, financially, has always been in survival mode, and this year's dwindling economy has pushed it into survival-plus mode. Yet the company also is becoming more widely recognized. Some local decorative contractors have been forced out of business, and Colour has benefited by taking on the resulting additional work. Swanson, who does most of Colour's design and estimating work, is seeing more consulting invitations from architects and contractors. Traditionally, most of the company's work occurs within a three-hour driving radius of Rescue, which includes both the San Francisco and Sacramento areas. But the partners recently landed an out-of-state job in San Antonio, and are beginning to receive calls from other parts of the country.

If Colour is provided with the opportunity to work on more projects such as Flor De Vida, the partners might quickly find themselves moving out of the survival-plus mode.

Designer's Perspective

This room was originally going to be a garage/shop in a custom home in the foothills. The floor was a little too artsy for a garage, so the owners decided to change it into a studio for displaying custom art pieces and furniture. Colour, Placerville, Calif., began with the original garage floor and ground it with 40 grit resin diamonds to expose some aggregate. Grinding continued through 150 grit metals, and the floor then was densified with VersaFlex's lithium densifier. Next the floor was polished with 100, 200, and 400 grit resin diamonds. The floor was cleaned and the design layout began. The intricate pattern took three eight-hour days and a lot of geometry to lay out and score. The lines had to be chalked and scored a few at a time with a 4 1/2-inch grinder and diamond blade. After the design was completely scored, the floor was cleaned again and the design was masked off so that coloring could begin using AmeriPolish acetone dyes. Every color on the floor was a custom mix made with stock colors. The main body of the floor is made up of five different colors applied together so they bled and melted to create a mottled, natural stone effect. Several colors were layered on top of one another to create the deep burgundy band that weaves with the natural gray bands. Certain areas also were shaded to give the design depth. In total, the floor has 15 custom blended colors, plus natural gray concrete. After coloring was complete, the joints were grouted with a dark brown grout and the floor was polished. Two coats of VersaFlex's guard were applied, and the floor was burnished with HTC diamond impregnated Twister pads.