Engineered Concrete Flooring (ECF)

Overview

Engineered Concrete Flooring is a flooring technology that changes the state of horizontal concrete surfaces to one that is similar in appearance to another materials, while exhibiting similar or improved performance characteristics. Such floors are called Engineered Concrete Floors.

 

Concrete Floor Engineering is a Manufacturing Engineering discipline that occupies itself with the development of manufacturing practices and the research and development of systems, processes, machines, tools and equipment related to Engineered Concrete Floors.

Most commonly, Engineered Concrete Floors look and feel like natural flagstones, natural stone tile, ceramic tile or similar materials. Commonly, outdoor concrete floor surfaces such as pool decks, patios, walkways are changed to the look and feel of natural flagstones, while indoor concrete surfaces are changed to the look and feel of natural stone tiles, ceramic tiles or similar flooring surfaces.

Engineered Concrete Floors are installed using both, specialized equipment and technologies that are unique to ECF, as well as equipment and technologies that are known in other industries. ECF is a technology that is related to masonry, to concrete polishing, to tiling, and to others. 

Engineered Concrete Flooring  is a sustainable design flooring as it is using an already existing material instead of a newly installed material.

The Best Way to Resurface Your Concrete Floors

Typical Engineered Concrete Floor

Typical Engineered Concrete Floor

Background


Concrete is widely known for its high compressive strength, for its ease of availability and for its relatively low cost. In the vast majority of modern commercial buildings, concrete floors are required to be used on all floors due to the improved fire rating, strength and longevity of concrete compared to other materials. In addition, horizontal concrete is typically used in basement or first floor slab installations of residential, commercial and mixed-use buildings all over the world.
There are many different types of concrete and concrete surfaces, including but not limited to

 

  • Standard Concrete (typical mixture of Portland cement, aggregate, and water)

  • High-Strength Concrete (over 6,000psi compressive strength per American Concrete Institute)

  • Broom-finished concrete (frequently used outdoors for walkways, patios etc)

  • Power-troweled concrete (frequently used in warehouses to improve surface strength of the surface)

  • and many others more

 

Historically, cured concrete surfaces were not considered to be decorative enough for use as a finished surface. Poured concrete slabs were always covered with some sort of covering, like carpet, tiles, hardwood, or even paint.

Two developments made a rethinking of concrete as a finished surface possible:

  • Increased desire for sustainable designs and materials in building construction, and

  • Increased quality of horizontal concrete slabs regarding flatness, strength and crack resistance.​


With the help of modern technologies, the adaptation of centuries-old techniques on concrete surfaces has become possible. ECF can be applied indoors and outdoors, and it can be adapted to the conditions of the existing concrete and the vision of the owner.

Typical Concrete Slab

Advantages

Engineered Concrete Floors (ECF) offer a number of significant advantages over all other flooring materials and technologies:

  • Higher sheen - compared to tiles, including vinyl-composite tiles (VCT)

  • More sustainable - compared to tiles, resilient flooring, hardwood and carpet

  • More durable - compared to carpet, resilient flooring, hardwood

  • Suitable if floor lacks flatness - compared to polished concrete and tile

  • Less maintenance - compared to carpet, hardwood

  • More cost effective - compared to tiles, resilient flooring

  • Upgraded look and feel - compared to polished concrete

Typical High-sheen Engineered Concrete Floor

Principles


Subject to the owners design vision, the anticipated use, the location (indoor vs outdoor) and other factors, engineered concrete floors are installed in various ways. Equipment, materials and processes are adapted to the specifications that are developed for the particular installation. Built on the principles of sculpture - a branch of the visual arts that operates in three dimensions and that has included since ancient times the removal of material and the application of color - Concrete Floor Engineering changes both the shape and the color or the concrete surface. 

In no particular order, Concrete Floor Engineering involves these main disciplines

  • Removal of excess material to create desired shape

  • Selective infusion of coloring agents, dyes, stains or similar into surface pores

  • Optional use of mortar, grout or similar kerf filler material

These disciplines are modified in their order and in their scope, depending on the specific requirements of each final product.

In select cases, and subject to the product specifications, ECF can include aspects of concrete polishing. Concrete polishing is a method to refine the surface of concrete “through a series of mechanically ground "polishing/grinding" steps similar to the production of terrazzo.” (Wikipedia). Similar to sandpaper, the grinding tools are used in several steps, starting with the roughest to the finest. The tools used for grinding or polishing concrete are metal, resin or hybrid pads that hold small diamonds. Depending on the the size and number of diamonds per square inch, these pads are measured in grit. A rough grinding pad can be approximately 5 grit, while a very fine pad can be 3000 grit or more. 

Coloring agents, dyes or stains are used to change the color or the surface in various ways. Depending on the chosen product, the coloring agents can be applied so that they resemble the colors, patterns and texture of natural stone or tile. Specialized tools, equipment and processes allow for the result to be repeatable and predictable.

Sculpting has since ancient times involved the removal of excess material to create a desired shape, usually with manual tools such as hammers and chisels. Modern, specialized equipment is used now to facilitate efficient and accurate results that are much less labor intensive. Different equipment is used for different types of products, such as flagstones vs. square tiles etc. Ease of use, quick setup and - most of all - accuracy are hallmarks of this new equipment.

Depending on the product specifications, specialized mortar and grout products of different hues can be installed in the gaps between stones and tiles to enhance the authentic look of the final product.

Typical Polished Concrete Floor

Suitability

Engineered concrete floors can be installed in environments with concrete of nearly any age, starting 28 days after the initial pour. There is virtually no limit to the age of the concrete where ECF can be installed. Depending on the vision of the owner, architect or designer, some ECF products can even be used on old and distressed slabs, including after a previous floor installation has been removed. 


Engineered concrete floors can be installed in residential and commercial applications, they are suitable for low traffic and high traffic areas, and they are suitable where the risk of dropping objects exists.

Applications

ECF floors are preferred over other flooring types for aesthetic and performance reasons. 

As a substitution for tiles:

Natural stone, ceramic or porcelain tiles are available in a large variety of sizes, textures, colors, and levels of durability. They are oftentimes considered the premier choice for flooring but have certain limitations which cause building owners and managers to seek alternatives. Ceramic and natural stone tiles are prone to cracking, they have limited sheen and they are costly to install. In addition, tiles require a very flat floor substrate to avoid the risk of cracking after installation. If the subfloors exhibits divots, hills or valleys that reduce its flatness, costly subfloor preparation has to precede the tile installation. While high sheen contributes significantly to a perception of freshness, cleanliness and newness, most tiles are very limited in their ability to provide high sheen.

 

As a substitution for polished concrete:

Polished concrete provides existing concrete with a very high sheen surface that is very durable. It is frequently used in offices, lobbies, hallways, warehouses and other commercial buildings. Even some residential applications exist where owners decide to polish their basement or first floor concrete slab. However, the concrete polishing process can only create acceptable results if the slab has a minimum flatness (according to the Global Concrete Polishing Institute, a floor flatness level of 50 or higher is required). Concrete polishing also has severe design limitations due to homogeneous surfaces it typically results in. Even with the application of colors, many designers and building owners object to the large slab sizes areas. Considered a cost sensitive upgrade to polished concrete, ECF provides similar durability characteristics while also providing a more refined and interesting visual appeal.

As a substitution for carpet:
In commercial and residential flooring, carpet is a widely accepted flooring material. However, even advanced carpet materials have a very limited lifetime due to wear. Another disadvantage of carpets is that they do not perform well in any environment that is prone to moisture and humidity. Carpets are hard and sometimes even impossible to clean, leading many commercial buildings to switch to a hard-surface floor. In these cases, ECF is a frequent alternative due to its ability to be installed after the carpet has been removed, due to is ease of maintenance and due to its relatively low cost.  

As a substitution for VCT:
Vinyl-Composition Tile (VCT) is a widely accepted flooring choice in many commercial applications. VCT is frequently seen in supermarkets, schools, medical facilities and more. VCT is known for its somewhat limited visual appeal, for the significant maintenance it needs by stripping and waxing. The relatively low cost of VCT reflect in the aesthetics of the product. When compared to VCT, Engineered Concrete Floors provide a more high-end look, higher sheen, longer durability and a more authentic representation of ceramic or natural stone tile.

Typical Engineered Concrete Floor

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Environmental Impact

Similar to polished concrete, engineered concrete floors are considered a green building product since they utilize an already existing material. 

Embodied Energy

Comparison to ceramic tiles: Costly tile materials do not have to be produced and transported. According to the Tile Council of America, the consumption of ceramic tile in the US in 2017 was approx 3,000,000,000 sft feet. http://www.tcnatile.com/component/content/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=321

 

According to G.P.Hammond and C.I.Jones (2006) Embodied energy and carbon footprint database, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Bath, United Kingdom, http://www.circularecology.com/embodied-energy-and-carbon-footprint-database.html , the average energy footprint for ceramic tile is approx 12MJ/kg

 

Assuming an average weight of ceramic tile of 1.5kg per square foot, the total embodied energy for all ceramic tile consumed in the US in 2017 was 15,000,000 MWh. As a comparison, the energy output of a typical nuclear power plant in the US is approx 2,500 MW. Therefore, the energy footprint of all consumed ceramic tiles in the US in 2017 equates the annual energy output of a typical nuclear power plant in US.

LEED Points Comparison

Another way to compare the environmental impact of a building product or method is to compare available LEED points for their use in applicable buildings. Developed by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC), LEED is a point-based rating system that aims to help building owners and operators be environmentally responsible and use resources efficiently (Wikipedia).


Engineered Concrete Floors are eligible to receive 1 Prerequisite and 9 LEED Points in the Building Design and Construction category:

Conclusion

Engineered Concrete Floors are a new - but also not-so-new - technology for concrete floor upgrades. It is based on techniques that have been in use over many centuries and has been perfected using modern equipment and processes. Engineered Concrete Flooring will continue to evolve and further improve, offering building owners even more design options. Offering a number of critical advantages such as sustainability, cost, design and installation speed, Engineered Concrete Flooring is one more option in the toolbox of commercial and even residential property owners and managers.