Surface Chic Concrete -- it's the newest trend in decorating by Christa Martin Concrete--It's more than just a slab of cement. Think hip, affordable and versatile. It keeps you toasty and it's easy to clean. Yes, this is the same stuff that sidewalks are made of.
Concrete has become a popular substance in the decorating market-it's being poured into bathrooms, kitchens, swimming pools and more. But here's the catch--don't try to self-install a concrete anything (countertop, floor, etc.) unless your skills are, well, concrete. Otherwise, you'll be the humble owner of an enormous mess and you'll have to call the guy you should have called in the first place: Tom Ralston, a guru in the ways of concrete and the owner of his own large business here in Santa Cruz, aptly called Tom Ralston Concrete. Ralston is a third generation man of concrete, sort of a "Superman" in town, whose company offers an elaborate assortment of would-be concrete products. "Would-be" because his crew comes in and creates anything (fireplaces, private underground parking structures) for anyone from Carmel Valley to Portola Valley. "It [concrete] has a raw sort of look and an air of uniqueness to it that you can't attain with tile or slate," Ralston says. Most jobs start at about $5,000 -- a typical price estimate for installing an interior concrete countertop that can look like granite, marble or flagstone, without the bumps and grooves found in those more expensive products. Another perk is the radiant heat systems found in concrete floors. This trend rose to popularity in the 1990s, Ralston says, as the design became familiarized by famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. In such floors, tubes are strewn through the floor and connected to a water system that, when heated, in turn heats the home, from essentially the feet up. This style of heating a home is 40 percent cheaper than electrical means, Ralston says. "It's an efficient way to heat a home when compared to forced air heating and bug poop floating around yaw house [from the vents]," Ralston adds. This construction type of guy is anything but gruff. He's personable and breaks down the "art' of concrete quite simply to the confused. Ralston, both a businessman and an artist, designs much of the work his company produces--he's a creative type at the core, someone who also plays the piano and writes poetry, The business was handed down to him from his father when the junior Ralston was 37, but in all honesty, he didn't have any idea what he was getting himself into. Fueled by hard work, passion and years of jackhammering and construction jobs for his dad, Ralston brought the company to the next level. He's now 52 and completely jazzed by his work and the increased technologies that the concrete business has seen, including creating estimates for clients. In years past, estimates were tedious work but now, he turns on a computer, sets a job plan on a grid, and clicks away with something that vaguely resembles a pencil, which offers up measurements, by which he can dictate a price quote. The company is doing well with a usual 12-15 jobs/day and a gross income last year of $4.5 Million. At the offices in the downtown Santa Cruz area, everything is a showcase of concrete: portions of the driveway, the internal office counters and floors, Giant slabs are outside: the Italian light gray model, the sand finish (a light wash), blended acid stains on one piece, shards of beach glass and sea shells decorate another. Many locals have walked all over Tom Ralston Concrete--the company's work can be seen on the floors of the restaurant Costa Brava and the clothing store Pacific Trading Co. (both on Pacific Avenue in downtown Santa Cruz). But remember, "Concrete has its limitations," Ralston says. "It wants to variegate, and it wants to crack; it's not a perfectly precise medium. It's not advisable for people to do It themselves." Tom Ralston Concrete is at 241 Fern St., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 426-0342 or visit www.tomralstonconcrete.com. From Good Times magazine, March 27, 2003