The Style and Substance of Concrete Flatwork

Most of the world’s ubiquitous and recognizable man-made structures — highways, skyscrapers, bridges, houses — are testaments to the versatility of the most commonly used construction material on Earth: concrete.

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June 8, 2020

Smooth and Stylish: Concrete Flatwork

People have discovered and developed numerous applications for concrete. One of its more notable uses is as the material for concrete flatwork. As the name implies, this type of construction job entails pouring concrete on a horizontal plane, creating a perfectly flat and smooth surface.

Concrete flatwork installations are popular with property owners due to the material’s strength and decorative options. Much like any concrete application, however, there’s more to flatwork than just pouring and finishing: with structural integrity as one of its selling points, using premium quality concrete should always be standard. The precise mixture of aggregates, proper curing, and careful application techniques ensures that the concrete isn’t damaged even after going through different finishing methods.

Decorative Flatwork Finishes

Various finishing methods produce different effects, depending on the purpose of the flatwork job. For example, smoother finishes work best for indoor flatwork, while brush-textured concrete is ideal for exterior flatwork (smooth finishes make concrete slippery when wet).

Concrete flatwork’s durability and finishing options provide an excellent base for its decorative possibilities, unlike other paving alternatives like asphalt. Decorative flatwork techniques give much-needed cosmetic enhancements to what is otherwise just bland, gray concrete. Home builders use a variety of methods to apply texture, color, stamping, etc. on flatwork to mimic the look of other, more often expensive, surface materials.

Thanks to concrete’s workability, designers can make ordinary flatwork look like brick, flagstone, hardwood, marble, cobblestone and more. These aesthetic options help complement both interior designs (e.g., stained concrete styles) and liven up facades (forming patterns with stamped concrete).


Builders have found plenty of uses for a material as versatile as concrete in flatwork projects for residential and commercial purposes. Driveways, courtyards, patios, pool decks, walkways, and garage floors are just some of the residential applications of concrete flatwork, mostly due to its inventive visual appeal.

Commercial and industrial property owners, meanwhile, recognize the material’s durability by installing concrete flatwork on their parking lots, warehouse floors, loading docks, access ramps, curbs, and sidewalks.

Common Flatwork Problems

Despite its versatility and durability, concrete isn’t without its faults. Some of the more common concrete issues are:

  • Discoloration/staining – Stains on the concrete can lend a nice look to flatwork, but it could look unsightly if it wasn’t meant to be there. Some causes for staining or discoloration are premature or delayed finishing, inconsistently incorporating materials to the concrete mix, and poor workmanship.
  • Cracking – Cracks occur due to thermal contractions, settlement in the subgrade, the application of excess loads, or a combination of all three.
  • Scaling/spalling – This issue appears as flakes or chips falling away from the concrete surface. Scaling occurs because of water seepage into porous areas, exposure to freeze-thaw conditions, or insufficient curing leading to weakened surfaces.
  • Crazing – More of a cosmetic issue than a structural one, crazing appears as a web of fine cracks that are merely surface-level. The culprit is usually cement paste that surfaces then shrinks unevenly or a poor finishing job.

Maintenance Tips

Concrete flatwork is installed in slabs, which is partly responsible for its trademark strength — it also makes concrete much harder to repair if it is damaged. Unless the problem is surface-level, concrete repairs can prove costlier. With proper care and maintenance, however, property owners can avoid bogging down their budget with undue repair jobs.

  • Install good drainage – As mentioned before, concrete flatwork comes in slabs which are prone to floating during flood situations. Hire a reputable contractor to install a drainage system that covers any flatwork area (porches, driveways, sidewalks, etc.). Good drainage prevents excess water from carrying concrete slabs away from foundational walls.
  • Mind temperature changes – sudden shifts in temperature can damage the surface bond on concrete. This can happen, for example, when spraying cold water on a hot concrete driveway or garage floor. Ditch the hose and sweep the surface instead.
  • Seal cracks promptly – concrete shrinkage occurs over time, which can cause cracks or gaps to appear next to expansion joints. If you want to address the problem immediately, fill in the cracks with gray silicone sealant (available at any hardware store). If you feel you aren’t up to the task, contact a professional to do it.
  • Surface sealing – this is particularly advisable for outdoor flatwork, as they are constantly exposed to corrosive materials like acids and salts. Use a film-forming sealant with solvent-based acrylic to let moisture escape easily and ensure lasting protection for the concrete surface.

Concrete vs. asphalt

In terms of paving materials, concrete isn’t the only choice. Asphalt is a popular construction material alternative especially for applications like driveways, sidewalks, parking spaces, etc. When compared, the two materials both have strengths and weaknesses. It’s up to the builder to decide which suits the project best. Some important considerations when selecting between these materials are appearance, cost, and maintenance factors.

  • Appearance – Concrete wins hands down. There’s not much visual variety to asphalt, which is limited to gray or black, and virtually no finishing options to speak of. Concrete flatwork is the complete opposite, offering a multitude of finish, color, texture, and pattern options that make it stand out from any paved surface.
  • Cost – Installing asphalt is generally cheaper than concrete, averaging $2.00 to $5.00 per square foot. In comparison, concrete costs about $3.00 to $10.00 per square foot without finishes and detailing. When service life is considered, however, concrete is more cost-efficient in the long-run than asphalt, which the following section explores.
  • Maintenance – Asphalt’s material composition requires constant maintenance (like sealing) every three to five years to maximize its average 20-year service life. Concrete doesn’t necessarily need constant sealing and can last for 30 years or more.

K&E Flatwork specializes in installation and repair of concrete flatwork and other concrete-based jobs for residential and commercial construction projects. Contact us today for the reliable services and professional touch that your paving project deserves.

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