You need to read less and think more!

This blog is about getting stoked and getting worthwhile things done. There is a sea of useless information bombarding you, and this is a desert island where you beach your boat and build a hut. There are also some clever little construction tricks to be presented.



Sunday, December 4, 2011

Over-build it.

An old carpenter in Llano, Texas once told me "You'll never know if you build it too strong."  I couldn't agree more.  

We all know that not everything has to wear out or go out of style in 5 years.  I mean, is there anyone who hasn't see a cool old car?  Better yet, ever seen a 200 year old building that looks great?  Having seen that, why do we settle for cheap, temporary or trendy?  

Yesterday, an architect in Georgetown, TX referred a friend to me who called because he had just bought a house that had some real funky carpeting that had to come out.  He figured staining the concrete would be cheaper than anything else and was trying to find someone to do cheaply.  I could totally relate.  In fact as I write this, I am wearing a shirt I found at a thrift store for $1 and shoes I found online for $11.  I consider coming up with efficient ways to deliver things to market on the border of spiritual work.  However, I just couldn't roll with his idea of cleaning it up a bit and throwing some translucent paint product over the slab.

The difference is the end-game.  If I engineer a way to stain, chemically harden, seal and diamond polish a floor for $4/sf (We used to have to charge twice this amount, as polishing can be slow and diamond tooling can be expensive), everyone wins.  If someone sells or installs a "concrete stain" that is actually a semi-transparent paint that eventually will flake off at any price, everybody loses.  The difference is that decades later the element7concrete floor is either still looking good or easy to snap back into shape while the painted floor will likely need to be re-done after a couple of years.  Unless the owner waxes their floor regularly, lives in their socks, and is very lucky, a painted floor will chip and scratch in some spots and be very hard to make new again.  Conversely, an element7concrete floor will not wear out nor go out of style. 

Now I'm a little concerned that this sounds like a sales pitch.  I am clearly partial, but it's more an effect of the principles that drive us in business rather than an attempt to use this as a platform to sell more floors.  I assume that you are more interested in ideas than building a home or having your floors re-done.  This mindset has driven my consumption just as it has driven our work.  Our family car is a VW because the old ones still look cool to me.  I have worn the same Levi's (505's bought raw) for 15 years.  I like Apple computers because though the styles have changed, I could see myself happily cranking away on my MacBook 10 years from now.  

So, for goodness sake, when you make something, make it as long lasting as you can.  When you buy something, buy something as long lasting as you can.  Thank you for reading.        

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why it's worth doing.

There are two things that really drive us at element7concrete.  What drives my work for my team is the ethos of rebuilding the artisan class of America.  What drives our artisans' work for our customers (and what we will discuss here now) is making floors that will still be in use and looking good when we all have grandchildren.

This was punctuated for me recently when I read that last year alone, over 4.6 billion pounds of carpeting wound up in landfills.  That is not sustainable.  And by that I don't mean "That doesn't jibe with our idea of sustainable construction".  I mean that is clearly not a pattern we can afford to sustain.





This past week, we tore out carpet and polished and stained a floor in our local fire department's training room.  The waste of the tear out was substantial, but as I reflect on the job now, I thank goodness the cycle was broken.

 Concrete flooring is still a bit of a niche product.  This project was won because the fire chief had stained concrete floors in his last two homes and knew first hand how clean it is, how easy it is to take care of, and how the imperfections and nuances become the best parts over time.  Because of him being savvy, our town will not have to replace that floor again:  not when my kids are paying taxes, maybe not when my grandkids are paying taxes.  I think that is pretty cool.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Why unicorn ranching is hard.

I once heard (and have often repeated) that most folks ask kids what they want to do when they grow up because they are still trying to figure it out themselves.  Some days I feel the same way, but generally I am stoked to be on this silly mission of mine.  I want to share a little about what is confounding about installing concrete flooring here.  Hopefully you can relate, as I am sure my road is pretty similar to anyone else's, and we all need to figure out why to get up and fight most days.  

Concrete flooring is the cleanest, "greenest", most durable and aesthetically timeless floor I can think of.  The floors from 80 years ago still look great to me.  I don't know how one would ever wear out a concrete slab in a home or store.  Flooding is no problem.  One may even be able to burn the structure to the ground and salvage the floor.  When our customers dust mop or "Swiffer" their floors, they are done: no periodic steam cleaning required, no "schmutz" underneath.  Best of all, I think my stuff is gorgeous.  I just love that I can feed my family making stuff I think looks rad.   

Since we started keeping track, we found that on average 19 times out of 20 our customers are extremely happy with their floors.  Why do you suppose it is that Home Depot, Lowes, or any other big player in the construction industry doesn't offer stained concrete flooring, much less market it? This all stems from the fact the perfect concrete floor is like a unicorn:  Although I can imagine it, I have never seen one and have about given up hope.  

So what are we to do?  First off, we have made ourselves world class in dancing with the curve balls concrete slabs throw us.  There is a guy in my town that has been scoring and staining floors longer than I have been alive, and even he once admitted to me that about 1 in 10 will do something in the process he really didn't see coming.  My response is to geek up:  I read as much from the PCA and ACI as I can, do experiments on my warehouse floor, find the engineers at trade shows and pick their brains, and lurk on message boards aimed at decorative concrete contractors.  People are smart.  If you are not the real deal, and you try to explain away the issue on their floor, they will see your B.S. for what it is.  However, if you truly make yourself into an expert, and you are confounded to chalking something up to "well, it gives it character", then it is what it is.  Most importantly, all that we have learned has allowed us to make first class floors (imperfections and all) out of really sub-par slabs.   

The other part of what makes it work for our company is understanding the customer experience.  When we spend money, we usually do it to satisfy our paradoxical desires for certainty/security and uncertainty/variety.  We want to change our world up a little bit, but we want control over the change.  We want 10 restaurants in our mall's food court, but we want the same style of pizza at Sbarro every time we decide on it.  If Sbarro gave us a triple order of Panda Express food for half price, we would still feel ripped off.  We want sort-of-stale-pizza, dammit.  So, managing stained flooring customers is really tricky.  If some of the time we don't totally know what is going to happen, we really have to set the game up differently. We love the builders we work with, and we want the owners they serve to have a lot of fun with the process.  So, we design the deal to be fun.  I still haven't figured out how to produce that result through more than 6 team members to serve more than 5 customers a week, though. 

Until then, the carpet factories will continue churning out rolls that will work their way into a landfill every 5-10 years.  Wood floors will get wet and buckle, and the coolest tile on Earth will 20 years from now...look like 20 year old tile.  Someday, I hope to devise an experience like Mike Miller (The Concretist in Bencia, CA) creates for the masses.  Uphill?  Very much.  But if the going get's easy you may be going downhill.  For goodness' sake, find something very hard to do that would make the world a cooler place and throw yourself into it.  Even if it is as pointless as polishing concrete.  Go. 

Thursday, October 6, 2011

i-n-t-e-r-v-a-l-s

I was reminded again today of the value of working in rhythm.  We human beings are truly designed to create at full throttle, then rest.  Technology and marketing collude to short circuit this, as there is money to be made in grabbing attention, and the coolest tools are best fitted to this task.  However,  we are happiest and most effective when we are not at the effect of that.

Ironically, I am a bit of a fan of both technology and marketing.  I guess I dig it because I value cleverness in general, and those are two arenas where cleverness is attracted and celebrated.  Be on guard, though: we all celebrate Creation or ersatz creation.

A wise protestant once said something to the effect of "all sin is idolatry".  If anyone can make a counterpoint, I will take you out to any extravagant-consumption-based date you can describe.  (Idolators, as a group, like to consume the finer things of this world).  I can't imagine what you have to say.

This is all true but frankly off topic.  My point here is we are to crush it, then sleep.   We are to give it all, then rest.  When we do not do enough or do not rest enough or do not follow the rhythm of do/rest as dictated by Nature, we suffer.  The world suffers.  The ones we love feel the lack of our gifts.  We owe it to ourselves, our best friends and families,  and the world to "bring it".  This cannot happen authentically unless we hide out when it is appropriate.  Nor can it happen when we just reflect without boldness.  It is time to step up or step away.    Thank you.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Against the grain.

About nine months ago, I may have spent an afternoon as the most annoying guy on house slab pour ever. A really neat couple in Llano,TX was building a ranch home with Sammy Lackey, a solid local builder there, and they wanted concrete floors. However, they were adamant that they not be slippery for their dogs' sake (the Bot 3000 COF meter is geared for something other than paw traction).  The saw a picture in my portfolio of a floor we had done with a very rough, hand troweled finish (on the West Coast, I think they call it a sweat finish), and that looked just right to them.  The concrete contractor, on the other hand, had never heard of such a thing.  What's kind of funny is how "unusual things" go over in rural Texas.

Mike, the concrete contractor, is both very competent, and a good guy;  we had worked on a handful of projects together, and I think we started with some mutual respect.

The cast of guys finishing that day was an all-star-team of sorts:  Normally, (as racist as this may sound), there is a fat-ish white guy running the crew, and 3-10 Mexicans doing the actual work.  Since the economy was slow,  almost every "jefe" I had seen in Llano County was working on this job as a finisher.  I don't know what the Mexicans were doing that day.

When I sent the pictures to Mike of the rough finish we were after, and talked to him about it, it was obvious that he wasn't really feeling it.  So, I planned on coming out the day of the pour to teach a clinic on rough, random looking finishing.  When I rolled up, the vibe was pretty tense.  Without exaggerating, there was probably a century of experience finishing concrete between the guys there, and here I come with a bunch of worn-out pool trowels hanging from their handles in a carpenter's box in my truck.  I was going to roll up in a detailed pickup and show these salty old dogs how to finish this slab?  Right.

Two of the guys were acting extra friendly and interested, which indicates that the other 6 were talking crap about me and the Christian within these two was screaming inside about what's right and wrong when folks use there word in a negative way.  Anyway, despite their best intentions, the notion of finishing concrete less than as smooth and tight as you know to do on a "house-slab" was going over like a fart at a funeral.  Hand troweling when there were 3 perfectly good finishing machines on Mike's trailer was equally objectionable.  Ultimately, the job got done, and we may have placed the world's first power-troweled sweat finish.  The local concrete guys were pretty sure that I had ruined the project and that there was not a good chance that the floor was going to look like anything they wanted to be associated with.  However, they knew that I wasn't an idiot or a charlatan, and were therefore curious as to what I was going to do with this terrible slab that I inspired.

Now frankly, when we came back to stain and finish out the floor, it looked rougher than I remember.  The house was framed and dried in and so there was a ton of edge work that had to be done with hand held grinders.   Two days, a couple of sets of diamond tooling and six grinders later, it was really cool looking.  We left the pattern of the "finishing" intact, but we ground off an awful lot of concrete.


We got to finish it out in September, and even got to mimic their ranch brand in a Texas engraving on the front porch.  I really can't wait to pop some Coors Light with the salty old concrete guys in Llano and get their candid opinion about what this project, because (now image this said with a heavy twang "That looks good-I don't care who you are".

Friday, September 16, 2011

driven to dust

The scene:

What element7concrete is all about is taking a lowly material (concrete) and applying as much creativity and raw human energy (spirit) to it as possible.  Sometimes it's researching materials and best practices, sometimes it's just vibrating a form thoroughly and hard troweling the slab. Though countertop fabrication is a tougher place to create value and fans of our company (our countertops are frankly expensive compared to our floors), having complete control allows for a better expression of this.

Yesterday, we found ourselves back out at Land Art on Hwy. 71 just west of Austin.  We had transformed the old funky grey floor months ago, and now it was time to finish out the counter we had poured last week.  Things came to a head though, when the sometimes dirty nature of our work ran against the efforts of the cleaning crew.  They are nearly ready to open, and there we are ready to grind out our slurry, control fibers, and router our edges.  It all came to a head around 11:00am when the owner had about had it.  I was truly sorry for the noise and dust (turns out a $2000 Ermator S26 vacuum isn't completely effective when using handheld tools on vertical edges, etc).  However, I am terribly thankful we were allowed to go on and add to the mess inherent in construction for the same reason I get up and do this everyday:  We have a chance today to make something awesome.

The realization:

That's the whole point.  Take your day, and even though your back hurts, your eyes are burning, and you are developing acne under your dust mask, MAKE SOMETHING AWESOME.  All we ever have is this moment (I would like to have had two more days to make dust in Land Art to really do it like I'd like to) to do our best.  If we relax until something awesome we can make comes to mind, and then doggedly work until it exists, we are pretty happy regardless of our physical conditions.  As soon as we take our eyes off the prize, one point of discomfort after another will pop up until we are miserable.  If you have a Bible and care to read it, check out Hebrews 12:2.  There is a pretty good example of enduring what you don't want "for the glory set" before you.

Monday, August 29, 2011

just because you can, doesn't mean you should

Living and working in a small town has it's advantages:  not fighting traffic too much, forgetting to lock up a truck or your shop rarely bites you, you get to know your kids' friends' folks, and if you dedicate yourself to really mastering a weird niche and are not a jerk, you eventually get a good reputation to enjoy.  Some days, people will even call you and say something like "I'm building a house for a lady who saw______ in a magazine, and I know if anybody can make that out of concrete it's you."  Stuff like that will inflate your head if you are not careful, but it still feels good to hear some times.

Anyway, I got a call today from a builder who was interested in concrete that looked like wood.  Not such a bad idea at first blush for a theme park, a porch in the flood plane, or some other such situation where the look and texture of wood was desirable despite intense food traffic or submersion.  However this was a countertop job.
"Why not just make it out of wood?" I asked.  He didn't rightly know.  Point is, there is something in most of us that is attracted to gimmicks like a largemouth bass to a spinner bait.  Sure, no fish looks like that, but the bass tries to eat it anyhow.

I thought about the project out loud with the builder and told him that if his owner really had her heart set on something really unique that looked like wood, he ought to work with Thom Hunt from bigbamboostudios.net and have him make something out of zoopoxy (an epoxy often used for fake trees and what-not in theme parks and zoos).

After I got off the phone I started thinking about where was an appropriate place for fake wood.  Disney World made sense, as the fakeness of the whole deal is part of the fun, I think.  The more I thought about it, the firmer I became in my conviction.  John Ruskin was right:

When we build, let us think that we build forever.
Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone.
Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for;
and let us think, as we lay stone on stone,
that a time is to come when those stones will be held
sacred because our hands have touched them,
and that men will say, as they look upon
the labor and wrought substance of them,
“See! This our father did for us.”
—John Ruskin
Timeless design need not be something unique to projects with heavy involvement by an architect.  We all know deep down when things are wack.  A worn out wooden walkway works just fine, and is frankly more charming than a perfectly sealed faux wood concrete piece.  Now that I look back on it, that is the essence of why I love concrete flooring.  It's honest.  It's exposed. It's imperfect.  Human bodies worked it as hard and as skillfully as they could at some point (maybe many points).  Like our bodies (though hopefully not our hearts), it get's harder and cracks.  It never goes out of style, and it never wears out.  In the last analysis, honesty is timeless; timelessness is honest and everything else falls short. 

Thursday, August 25, 2011

a spiritual quest for beige.

We get to make a lot of really cool stuff.


 I mean, there are much easier ways to make enough money to feed one's family than slogging it out in the Texas summer heat, crawling around with a saw cutting patterns into floors or making concrete the hard way (buckets of sand, bags of cement and our trusty little Imer mixer) only to have to bear the highest level of "hand-holding" in all of the construction trades and the most brutally competitive market for decorative concrete in the world.  (Texas was referred to in Concrete Decor Magazine as  "the starvation market").  I don't remember the last time my work day didn't end with me smelling like a homeless man.  My big, pointy nose gets filled with concrete dust regularly, my joints hurt most mornings, and we risk tens of thousands of dollars every day.  Good news is, I really don't think I could be happier!

How rad is it to make a living making stuff you think is great with guys you like for awesome people?  God bless America, eh?  But enough about all that - I bet you are not reading this because you care about how I smell or how my nose feels for that matter.

What I hope to share here is a reminder that while edgy concrete wall panels and ornate medallions in floors look cool in our portfolio, what it is really about is the day to day consistency.  I haven't written here too much recently because I have been maniacally focused on building systems that make the day to day work of the artisans of element7concrete better and more consistent.  And to that end, we are maniacs for beige.

"There is no beige acid stain" - Brandon Adamson at my 2nd day of training at Engrave-a-crete in Florida.  It's early 2006, and I have committed to going into the decorative concrete business, but I am still working my union job, and taking every seminar in the nation I can before moving to TX to take over the company I have ran for the last 5 years.  Brandon went on - "Sealer should be re-applied once a year or maybe once every two years."

This all sounded like crap to me.  I lived in Las Vegas at the time, and most things were beige.  Re-sealing annually?  Sounded like a white elephant for sale to me.  I knew my own concrete driveway at home hadn't been touched for at least 4 years and while it was grey and totally unremarkable, it was not something I had to deal with.  There had to be a better way.



The project photographed above was just finished this morning. It was about a year and a half old, ugly grey, and covered with oil stains and tire tracks when we started.    We used nothing other than Kemiko acid stains, lots of little tricks, an amazing penetrating sealer that will go at least 10 years before needing anything- there is no paint, "dye", or anything else questionable used. If that is not beige, I don't know what to call it.  Most important to me,  I will bet that when my little kids are out of collage, this thing is a good cleaning away from looking a lot like it did today.

Note: Engrave-a-crete makes great tools and is a really positive force in our industry.  I mean no disrespect to Brandon, his family, or their company.  I just know that if you tell a stubborn old Kraut like me crap like that, I will find a better way.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Show me a picture, and I'll cut it into your floor.

Custom home builders love us because of how we improve the experience for their customers.  One way we do that is by cutting a medallion in the foyer based on anything they already have and like (contrasted with selecting from catalogs or samples at a store).

It's less permanent than a tattoo, but we still careful to pick something that translates well to concrete and is timeless.  The floor we recently finished for Dave and Vicki Shurman in a home by Reven Builders is typical,
This one was based on a coat rack.  They had owned this coat rack for years and just always seemed to feel better after looking at it.  I think a swirling sun is about as primal as you can get, and the engraving process is not wholly unlike the petroglyphs of the Native American tribes of the Southwest. Vicki gave Todd (awesome guy on our team since 2006) this photo as something they liked and would like a medallion of:
This picture was passed onto me on the second day of the project (winter 2010 I think), and I knew that it would be best to translate this on a finished floor after the sealer had really cured out.  So, we finished the floor and let the other monkeys ply their trades, planning to put it down when we came back for the final polish. 

Now in July, the house is about done and it was time to do the final polish and install this medallion.  Putting a Ermator S26 vacuum on the tools, and having an great team cleaning up on my heals made working in a finished home a breeze. I dug the hand made look of the coat rack, and wanted that to translate to the floor with little deviation in the swirl, but better rays.   Rather than sandblasting or using a needle scaler, this one was cut free-hand with a 4" grinder so the texture of the engraving accentuates the design.
The best part, though was Vicki saying "That is exactly what I hoped for".  I thought to myself "You saying that is exactly what I hoped for!"   
 I am really thankful to be able to feed my family making stuff I think is cool for people I like.  Thank you David and Vicki Shurman, Larry and Randy Reven (I don't know Mrs. Reven, but she must be a saint).  

Sunday, June 26, 2011

All's well that ends well - Correcting Construction Errors Episode 5

We did it!  It was a long day of grinding, scrubbing, head-scratching, re-staining, and rinsing, but we did it.  The floor described earlier in "Avoiding Construction Errors" now looks pretty sweet.  Like so many before it, the floor is actually better now than if everything would've gone as we hoped it would have.

Because of a mishap with my iPhone, and the SD card for my camera doubling as a vehicle for an audiobook I wanted our interns to hear, I have no pictures of the corrected floor to share here now.  Photos of floors in homes without proper walls or trim stink anyhow.  I know it sounds like I am trying show the bright side of "the dog eating my homework" and I might be.  I will try to get some proper pictures when we do the final polish and will post them to http://www.facebook.com/pages/Element7-concrete-design/105210402870801
(please click "like" there if you haven't already) and put them on twitter as well.  You can follow us there @element_7.

What we did to fix it is hone the floor with bonded-diamond-abrasives (blocks of metal and resin with little bits of diamond in them), re-stain it, rinse it, densify (apply a chemical that makes the concrete hard and dust-proof), and then come back the following day and finish it out with a stone oil/paste wax.  The stamping done outside by the concrete contractor is not the best I've seen, so it's not likely that'll make it into our portfolio, but the interior floor is first-class.  The low spots of the floor kept a bit more of the dark walnut stain from before, and the overall texture is buttery smooth now.  There is good color movement and the finish is refined, yet rustic.  Like much of work when it's right on, it looks brand new and 100 years old at the same time.  Sorry if that seems a bit self-promoting, but after all the blood and sweat poured into this one, I am really stoked with the finished floor.  

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Avoiding construction errors.

They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  Today we find ourselves doling out that pound with our HTC machines and a lot of power and diamond tooling.


The builder following this little link on our website could have saved today and tomorrow's work for us.

http://www.element7concrete.com/builder_awareness.html

Behold the culprit:

This was one of three drinks we found on the framing when we started the project.  Who knows how many more were in the house and spilled on the floor so far?  I would guess about 5 or 6 based on the spots on the slab.  If you zoom in, you can see one in the room behind the can.

The point is unprocessed concrete is like a big hard sponge, and chemical staining is like that black light they use in scary evening "news" shows (Dateline, 20/20, etc.) that shows all the gnarly stuff on the bedding of a hotel room.  If the concrete is to be stained without a lot of grinding, stuff like spilled sodas is going to show up.  Now, if you root through the insights given on element7concrete.com, you'll read about how much we like leaving the cream of the concrete intact, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.  So we are slogging it out in the Texas heat, grinding a floor that should've been protected a bit better.

Now to be fair, the builder on this project is a good one.  He and I have worked together many times before and I don't blame him entirely for the mistakes.  Concrete flooring is a great way to create value when building, but it's frankly a pain for the GC to have to protect the floor as much as the have to.  Most importantly, the communication has to be better.  The link given will soon have an easy to print sign in PDF format that can be hung around jobsites where stained concrete is specified.  Until then, please contact us for a copy of this so we can all build efficiently and keep moving forward.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

How to fix our schools (?)

I really hope this is a bit of a snowball that grows with input from others.  There is a serious problem in our country, and it won't be solved by one person with a plan or by us ignoring it.  So for goodness sake, please consider this idea, and either promote it, rip it apart, or just tacitly pass it along.  If we don't discuss it, our education system will continue to deteriorate and our country will decline and ultimately crash.  We have nothing to lose by trying to fix this.  Who knows, maybe we can find legitimate hope and make something better for once.

OK.  So here is the first proposition.  From what I gather, the state pays some $10,000/year/student for education.  Merit-based-pay sounds good on paper, but it's problematic in reality.  What do you suppose would happen if we took the $60,000-$120,000/year that could be spent in a traditional school, and allowed parents to pay that to a certified "home schooler" (with the same or more rigorous standards teachers are held to now).  Of course there would be oversight, but don't we have administrators already?  Wouldn't that kind of income and freedom to really help kids grow attract great teachers (or maybe realistically keep the great ones from burning out and leaving)?  How well does the feedback system of the amazon.com, zappos.com, the app store, etc. work compared to the current ways we evaluate teachers ?  This might be great or it might be dumb.  Please share your thoughts and push the snowball.  At the risk of sounding dramatic, the stakes here are pretty high.  Your input, from a completely different plan, to a simple post on Facebook to attract attention to the issue is the only way we can fix this.  There is no knight to ride in and save us.  Let's get busy!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Correcting Construction Errors - Episode 4

Regretfully, I still don't have photo's back from the Rick Burleson Job alluded to in a previous episode, so here I will share a recent adventure at Double Horn Brewing
http://www.doublehornbrewing.com/
This whole project was correction of construction errors, as the building was originally a laundromat, had probably half a dozen cold joints, plumbing trenches, and holes and was a generally haggard 50-some-year old slab.  It was the Keith Richards of concrete floors.  The worst part was a combination of slabs in the floor with about a 2" ridge.  More on that later: let's start at the front door.

Months after the interior floor was finished, I got a call from the builder about an issue with the front door.  Apparently, the doors couldn't open right, and the ridges between the three slabs in 5 feet ahead of the front door (just past where we finished our work) was flagged by the inspector for not being wheelchair accessible.  Now, grinding an inch of concrete off is no small task.  It usually doesn't look too great, either.  So to deal with all of that, I cut a leafy, barley-inspired (It's a brewery after all, and the idea struck me about three beers into a night of celebrating April 2011 as the best month in our company's history).  I acid stained it green, then installed a thin, stamped overlay to mitigate the ridges and half covered the leaves with the brown polymer-modified mortar and distressed it back for a good gradient of colors.  Really representational art generally looks cartoon-ish to me on a floor, so I try to keep it a little abstract and variegated.  I sealed it with a solvent based acrylic sealer and took the photo above moments later.  It should mellow a bit over time.    

Friday, April 8, 2011

Details vs. Altitude

If you ask my team what 90% right is, they know to answer "wrong!".  In our work, the details are actually pretty big.  The problem this causes an entrepreneur is that there are potentially infinite details to consider.
Attention to detail in the technical work is easy to get in the habit of and set standards for.  After all, when you are done, it's there to look at.  Things get trickier when you start considering creating customer experience, establishing stewardships for you people, creating a brand, and manifesting a social change.  The magnifying glass that made you the the great studier-of/wrathful-god-of the anthill gives you a very distorted view of your dog.  The elephant is incomprehensible through it.
  
Altitude is clearly the answer.  Backing up, zooming out, getting the Google Earth view, that is clearly paramount to orientating ourselves to lead.  But we know broad strokes alone will never do.  Some areas clearly need to be cut in with the smallest brush and detailed.  Challenge is, we have about 17 waking hours today (tops), families that need us, bills to pay, and obligations to meet.  We can't possibly do it all.

The answer is simple and brutal.  The only thing to do is to blueprint the day and then stick to the plan.  This means there are many things we will have to say "no" to if we are to say "yes" to things that are truly more important.  The three options you have are:
1.)Take the time to make a list of all the things that could possibly be done, grouping them ala David Allen's GTD, and then have the discipline to stick to our commitments of working in uninterrupted blocks of time to knock it out.
2.) Lower your standard and quit caring
3.) Go insane.
Now, go. (not insane - choose #1 for goodness' sake)  

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Faith in Education

I have read a lot of useless crap in my 20-some-odd years of literacy. I have also read a few things that have positively touched my soul.

Steven Pressfield wrote an amazing little book called "The War of Art" about how Resitence tries to keep us from bringing the best within us to the world. The incredible lessons of that book came in terribly handy this week as my faith in the mental and spiritual side of my work was tested.

Our year started off a bit slow and expensive, and we have been just flooded with great projects lately. Our internal systems of job expense tracking, material management, and project notes are really evolving now, but are nowhere near what they out to be for me to leave town amid 4 big projects. Nevertheless, spring break and the second annual Concrete Decor show came up, and Shelly and I had planned to attend for months. I knew I had to go. I have always known the real value creation in our work comes from our specialized knowledge and our network of fellow artisans, but knowing that and stepping away from business for a week when things are finally really cranking are two different things.

So we kept our faith and went. Did things run perfectly in my absence? Of course not. However my team did rally to make some raving fans, and nothing was really ruined. Most importantly, I was able to have amazing conversations with guys I have looked up to in my industry (Mike Miller, Tom Ralston, Rocky Geans, etc.) and meet some new people to really learn from (Dru Blair, Nathan Giffin, Thom Hunt, etc.). Back to the Pressfield reference, I found that that just before I found some real nuclear fuel in a conversation, I would be confronted with a fire to put out back home. When I pressed through Resistence's efforts to keep me from growing and contributing at the highest level, I would then be rewarded with a pearl of wisdom, or a real reason to run the good race. In the words of the good prophet Greg Graffin "I seek a thousand answers, I find but one or two/I maintain no discomfiture, my path again renewed!"

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How to really get free.

The good prophet Henry Rollins once said "It feels pretty good to know without a doubt, that I am what I am without a doubt".  I bet it does.  This is a break from the "making consturction errors remarkable" series to explore the driving force behind our work and virtually all work.

All work is done for one of six reasons:  Habit, Hunger, Boredom, a need for Significance, Love, or Inspiration, and probably in that order or liklihood.  The first four of those will spur nearly anyone into action.  What is worth discussing is aligning Love and Inspiration with those so there is no friction within. 

The question one must ask themselves is what they would do, if knowing what they know now they had to start all over.  I really think human beings start off like the bulbs of flowers, all looking similiarly dark and crude, until they grow into the various flowers they were meant to be.  Though instead of water, air, sunlight, and nutrients from the soil, human beings need their basic physical and psycologocal needs met to have the confidence to be the weird flower they were meant to be.  I say "weird flower" because to your cohort of bulbs, any flower you grow to be will be "weird".  Continuing with the flower metaphor, the rocks and soil you will need to push through are habit and peer group. 

Habits are incredibly hard to change at first.  Doubtful?   Try fasting tomorrow if you have never done it.  What is inspiring is the knowledge that they get easier with time.  In fact, nearly every hard thing gets easier, and most easy things were once hard.  Persist.  You may do so for no reason than for the sake of persistence itself, or you may find your true calling and cling to that.  Either way, persist.

Peer group can be a tough thing to overcome, too.  Your friends want the best for you, so long as it doesn't threaten their self esteem.  If you already have big-thinking friends, than little you do will threaten them.  Most of us end up alienating a few if we grow though.  It hurts, but not as much as a regrettable life. 

Sooner or later though, it would be a good idea to find that true calling to pull you through.  It will probably be weird.  Mine was to make shiny pieces of concrete, and create jobs for others to do the same.  That's admittedly weird.  But lining up with the unique voice within you is one of the sweetest things I've known.  I can't recommend finding that highly enough.  One practical way to find that is to practice breathing deeply and sitting completely still for an hour at a time.  If you try it, and it's not really remarkable, please let me know.  I've never heard that before. 

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Making Construction Errors Remarkable - episode 3 (really a prelude to 4)

I love good architecture and design for the same reasons that I like concrete flooring.  It's efficient, timeless, minimal, elegant and it tickles my sense of aesthetic.  What's fun about being at element7concrete is that we get referred to and referred by people that "get it".  Architect Rick Burleson is one of those guys.  We met through The Loftis Home built by Dauphine Homes, and from outset I knew by the hand-drawn renderings and use of repurposed materials this was going to be special.  What nobody knew was how the live oak tree would riddle the slab with leaf prints out of season or how the stamped concrete would be bombarded with hail a few hours after placement.  Nobody knew how these mishaps would become great serendipity, either.  We'll make that another story, though.
The picture below was from another project of his.  He had a cool design of wood inlaid in stained concrete, but with proportions opposite of what you would expect.  It was a remodel and the wood would finish out around 3/4", and according to the Minnick's builder and his decorative concrete guy, that just wasn't possible.  Not possible?!  Some things are harder to do out of concrete than others, but precious little is not possible.   Rick recommended meeting me to discuss it, and though it was a small project more than an hour away, I really like the design.  Finally, after a few more exhibitions of questionable competence, the owners asked me if I knew a builder I would recommend in their area.  Cody Schmidt from Sierra Builders took over and the project sailed to completion.  The photo below shows the small field of concrete installed to wood.  The larger field received a simple scoring design and the same green and dark walnut acid stain. 

Today I found myself on another project being built by Cody Schmidt and designed by Rick Burleson in the hills outside of Wimberly, TX.  Thankfully, the homeowners chose a clear paste wax after the floor had been wet sanded, chemically etched, and treated with an amazing penetrating stain blocker.  The honest highlighting of the material fits the home extremely well.  I love the way the house fits the hillside, is orientated to the sun and common winds, and draws you out into the strikingly rugged landscape.  I also love the way the sand in the concrete was occasionally exposed by the chemical etching and the nuances from the finishing happen to match the rock of the home better than and stain or pigment know to man.  I only wish I had the language to describe the rhythm of the spaces and the rightness of the proportions.  I know I am gushing a bit here, but the point is there is just nothing like good design.  It brings out the best in the workmen on site, and next week I will show how we used the badly "honeycombed" steps to make the best part of the floor.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Making Construction Errors Remarkable - Episode 2

I've had the opportunity to meet more than my share of celebrities. Though Hollywood types don't impress me much, I gush a little when I meet a great architect.  I think it might be because of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead.  Or maybe it's just because I love great design and know how hard it would be to bring a great building completely into existence.  In any event when I have had opportunities to meet my personal heroes of design, I really got keyed up.

Most recently, my path has crossed with the work of Dick Clark Architecture.  His client, Jon Luce, builds some of the finest custom homes in Austin, and for his Hill Country Retreat, the design is minimal, honest, and just excellent.  I really don't know how to put into words the economy of space and how well the land is showcased. (Language fails there:  It's like trying to describe what a mushroom tastes like.)  But if one has even a modicum of sense of aesthetic, walking through the bones of this house is just delightful.

Problem is, the house was to have sealed concrete flooring, and the slab turned out really bad.  Often we score grids or patterns into floors using saws with diamond blades, but this one could've been cut with a pocket knife!  Crappy weather and who-knows-what-else made for a slab that wore like it was made of gypsum.  When I looked at it for the first time, I really didn't see a clear way to fix it.  An overlay here would've been a bit wrong as the rawness of the land and elegance of the design would abhor a veneer of any sort.  Grinding seemed risky as sometimes a poor piece of concrete will just disintegrate beneath our equipment and burn up a lot of diamond tooling in the process.  I just didn't see a clear means to create value.

To humor Jon, I showed up on a cold, rainy, Friday morning expecting to grind a sample for a set price, pack-up and go.  The sample seemed better than the floor that hadn't been ground, but I wasn't sold.  The more I talked to Jon, the more I realized that we really had to roll the dice and go for it, though.  We came up with a strategy of multiple passes with a 150 grit metal bond diamonds and a methyl-methacrylate sealer with a matte finish additive to sort of glue the slab together. 8 hours and 240 gallons of water-turned-slurry later, we surprisingly had a really neat looking floor.  Though we ran out of diamonds and pads for our scrubber, the outcome is clear now, and I am STOKED.  The floor is rough in spots, and it couldn't be re-created on a bet, but somehow it's just right.  It is perfectly imperfect.  It is the bridge between the rustic site and the modern lines of the home.  It is the serendipity that makes element7concrete floors worthwhile.

Check out the architects renderings on JonLuceBuilder.com:
 http://www.jonlucebuilder.com/current-projects/
Check out Dick Clark Architecture's site to see why I'm so thankful to work on one of his projects:
http://www.dcarch.com/
Then, check out of your internet browser and go make something!
Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Making construction errors remarkable

A customer of mine (an architect from Brazil), reminded me recently of how concrete flooring is an element of "honest architecture".  Sure, some decorative concrete contractors base their businesses on faux rocks of all sorts, but the real point to working as hard as we do is to make something timeless and simple.

Therein lies the rub. The foundation is never perfect.  The other trades working on it aren't either. Plumbers miss the mark and have to cut trenches in the slab. Framers oil their nail guns right in the entryway and inadvertently apply an irremovable "resist" to acid stain. A family of raccoons pissed away the lime in the concrete and ran through it (literally: this has happened on a floor we stained) leaving ghost puddles of white in the dark walnut floor. The point is, these mishaps can ruin the project, or make it the coolest part of the house.

I guess if I have one story to tell here, it ought to be the raccoon-pee story.  After wet-scrubbing/honing the slab, it looked great and we turned around and stained it the same day. The next day when we came to rinse residue, there were puddles and tracks throughout. What we did, was design and saw-cut a pattern of golden rectangles, sectors of circles, and other such shapes that minimally complemented the architecture of the house in the places with the puddles and tracks and to balance. Then, we ground away the concrete within the shapes, exposing the stones and polished it as shiny ass possible (3000 grit) while the rest of the floor was at about 150. We used a solvent based dye to penetrate and color the concrete without regard to the lime content. The end result was a rough-and-dusty-half-day for my team and I, a really cool floor, a very happy customer, and a builder who became a raving fan of element7concrete.

So, the take-away is study the geometry and rhythm of good design and be a pro. When things go wrong (I promise they will) use the opportunity to make it better than you could have without the "inspiration of Nature".  At the risk of sounding weird, I urge you to know that Nature is for you (not against you) and if you dance with it through the process everything will work out for the best.  Go make something today!