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A concrete example

They drive on it to work. They walk on it to visit their neighbors in Lake Oswego. They surround themselves with the substance when parking downtown Portland.

And now, Lynn and Roger Hennagin incorporate the stone-like material into their meal preparation at home. Yes concrete, one of the most common man-made materials in the world, has found its way into the couple's kitchen - and they couldn't be happier with the hearty look and craftsmanship installed by Eric Butler.

When remodeling their kitchen, the couple was inspired by their new dining room table Butler made of cement.

'I like that Eric combines woods, glass and cement into a really nice, clean look,' Lynn Hennagin said.

The Hennagins enjoy entertaining, and after living in their home more than a decade, they were ready for an updated look. White Formica countertops and oak cabinets were replaced by concrete and Kaya African mahogany cabinets within the same footprint.

'A lot of people try to cram things in, but I like to take things away,' said Butler of his design/build company Eric Butler Design in Portland. 'If I use three materials, that's fine. The more you add the more confused (the design) gets. Here we used concrete, wood, glass and steel.'

And it fulfilled Hennagin's hope for the space: zen. The contemporary couple - she's an experienced filmmaker, he's a lawyer and Lake Oswego city councilman - were ready to update their kitchen to fit with their busy/peaceful lives. And Butler chose what he calls a 'warm modern' design.

'For me, modern isn't about something that's really shiny and brassy. … I'm trying to do a handmade modern. The materials are warm,' he said, compared to a shiny granite countertop.

And when he says handmade he isn't kidding. While no walls were removed during the remodel, Butler sculpted two-inch slabs of concrete at his showroom/shop and transported them to the home. Then the concrete was pieced together and surrounded by cabinets and stainless steel hardware.

But, concrete and Butler's services, Hennagin said smiling, aren't for everyone.

'He's a true artist,' she said. 'With Eric you don't get blueprints. You get sketches. And I've never seen something he's done that I haven't liked.'

Because Butler doesn't have to communicate to an installation crew, he 'knows what the details are in his head,' he said. And the Hennagins kitchen was a blank canvas for the artist.

Design details

The kitchen consists of an L-shaped counter, no island and plenty of cabinetry along the low wall overlooking the living and dining room. Creating the design included revamping these areas also.

'The challenge was to have the kitchen flow into the other room,' Butler said. 'I couldn't design one without the other.'

And art takes center stage in both areas.

Several alcoves within the design allow for artwork to be displayed. One nook is within tall cabinetry. The two cabinet doors were cut to surround this opening, displaying a brightly colored piece.

'Just look at this detail,' Hennagin said, pointing to the self-closing drawers that feature long, stainless steel pulls. These handles stretch the entire length of the cabinet drawer and add a soft metal horizontal line as a design element. When all drawers are closed these lines run parallel to one another and add interest to the space.

The drawers and cabinets were very deliberate.

'It's not cabinet boxes with counters on top,' Butler said, preferring not to work with cabinet makers because, 'there could be a lot of details lost.'

Details such as the spot for syrups and coffee. And the built-in scale near the stove to weigh ingredients.

'It's great if you need an ounce of this and three ounces of that,' Hennagin said. 'I also use it as a hot plate.'

Setting hot dishes and pans on the concrete can damage the sealer. Also, one must avoid using the surface as a cutting board.

A covered garbage can is flush with the concrete counter near the sink so debris can just be swiped away. Flowers grow out of the low counter between the kitchen and living room. A hole was created in the cement to hide a vase and give the illusion that a bouquet of flowers was sprouting from the counter.

Caring for concrete

Butler said that maintaining concrete countertops is different than caring for tile or granite.

'These have a sealer followed by a wax on top of it,' he said. 'It's soap and water cleaning and keeping off oils and acids.'

A sealer makes the surface more resistance to damage from substances. A penetrating sealer seeps into the concrete's pores and seals them. An additional sealer leaves a film on top of the concrete to create a protective barrier.

Concrete is a porous material that absorbs liquid. When a liquid is poured onto the surface and it no longer beads up, it's time to re-seal the counter.

When in contact with the counter, citrus juices and vinegar can create light spots. Red wine, berries and cooking oils leave dark stains.

'If you spill your wine and clean it up you're fine,' Butler said. 'If you have a wine bottle that has wine around the (outside edge of the) bottle and it sits in one place long enough you'll get a ring. There's no permanent sealer; they just buy you time. Reseal around the sink and stove once a year.'

Butler said that since starting his company in 1995 he's only had to step in and buff out a concrete countertop once after a martini party that left damaging rings all over the concrete surface. But those installing concrete must understand that the surface acquires a patina over time. The way they look when installed isn't the way they'll look in a few years.

Often, these counters can get hairline cracks - tiny cracks that are susceptible to absorbing liquid and should be sealed more often.

'I'm excited to see what it's going to look like someday,' Hennagin said. She chose a slight green tint to the surface to give it warmth. Different colors and different sealers can change the appearance of the concrete.

So, who are people who shouldn't buy concrete?

'People who are really fussy,' Hennagin said. 'Someone who sees a stain on the counter and it's going to drive them crazy.'

Knowing the proper way to care for concrete counters and embracing their changing appearance ensures that both the homeowner and countertop will be happy over time.

'I know I will,' Hennagin said.

For more information about Eric Butler Design, visit www.ericbutlerdesign.com .