Things to Consider

Polished Concrete Flooring in Sacred Spaces

March 30, 2007

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There are many alternatives to consider for the selection of the finished floor in a new or renovated worship space:  stone, terrazzo and carpet, to name a few.  Another option is polished concrete.

The selected floor finish in the nave, gathering space, fellowship area, and other spaces must perform well against several criteria: acoustics, beauty, appropriateness, environmental stewardship, durability, safety, economic goals, and ease of maintenance.  Polished concrete flooring scores high in all of these areas.

Acoustics.  The acoustical consultant on the design team will usually recommend that a large percentage, if not all, of the flooring in the nave be acoustically hard.  Concrete, stone and terrazzo are examples of flooring options that are acoustically hard.

Beauty.  The choice of flooring in all church spaces, and especially the nave, must be deemed beautiful by the parish.  Parish building committee members often first associate polished concrete flooring with what is found in stores such as Lowe's, Home Depot and Old Navy.  However, after seeing images and visiting installations, committee members often realize that polished concrete is very different than the concrete they are used to seeing in standard commercial applications.

Polished concrete flooring has a smooth glossy finish that reflects light.  Its mottled appearance adds movement, visual interest and a hand-crafted quality.  Some have referred to polished concrete as liquid stone because it resembles the appearance of water in various lighting conditions.  The polished finish adds a dynamic to the space as it change with the changing natural light.  Together, these qualities contribute to achieving a sense of mystery, appropriate for a sacred space.
Natural finish polished concrete was specified throughout the nave, baptistery and commons at St. Bede Catholic Church in Williamsburg, Virginia, which was completed in 2003.  The building committee chairperson reports that the most frequently asked questions about the floor are, "What is it" or "Why did you put in that kind of floor?"  The answers are usually along the lines of "our acoustic demands required a hard surface floor and this was the most economical floor we found."  The most frequent comments after people find out that it is not marble or some secrete polymer finish are, "Oh, it's so beautiful" or "How did you get it to be such a uniform color?"  Still, some don't believe it is concrete even after being told.  This sense of mystery and ambiguity helps distinguish a sacred space from a secular space.                             Concrete Flooring

Appropriateness.  The selection of floor finish should be appropriate for the particular project and client.  The selection should be made in the context of an overall design concept for the space, not in isolation.  Polished concrete can have a natural finish, or it can have color and pattern.  The natural finish will result from the actual local materials used to make the concrete and is usually neutral in appearance.  The selection of color and pattern should be made in the context of other finishes and colors in the space.  Building committee members should visit completed installations prior to making a decision.  The contractor should be required to provide mock-ups during construction to allow for final adjustments to the finish and color by the owner and architect.

Environmental Stewardship.  The selection of polished concrete is an environmentally sensitive choice.  Together with natural light, its reflectivity can reduce artificial lighting loads.  Concrete can reduce heating and air conditioning loads and thus, save energy.  It is free of VOC emissions and thus improves indoor air quality.  A polished concrete finish allows the structural concrete slab to serve as the floor finish, thus reducing material use.  It consumes fewer resources to produce and maintain than other floor finish materials that are added to the structural slab.

Concrete Flooring Economy.
  The polished concrete finish is very economical in terms of first costs and life-cycle costs.  It is less expensive than stone, terrazzo and most carpets.  It further conserves resources by not having to add a material (e.g., tile or carpet) on top of the structural slab.  If designed, specified and installed well, polished concrete finish will last for quite a long time.

In sum, polished concrete is a functional, beautiful, long lasting finish that is economical and environmentally friendly.  Its reflective, changing character makes is a good choice for a sacred space.  Polished concrete is certainly a floor finish parishes will want to consider for new and renovated worship spaces.

Sean Reilly, AIA, LEED, AP is a Principal with Kerns Group Architects. Arlington, VA.  Sean specializes in the planning and design of religious facilities.


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