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If you're getting ready to replace your countertops and are bored with tile, granite, and the other brand name materials because they're beginning to all look alike, then concrete may be for you.

Many homeowners, particularly in high-end homes, are choosing concrete for their kitchen countertops for a variety of reasons.

"Concrete is versatile, durable, and most importantly, you can do just about anything to it to make it your own," said Jim Peterson, president and founder of www.ConcreteNetwork.com, a comprehensive web site for concrete contractors and home building professionals that offers a "find-a-contractor" directory.

You can select your own color, texture, finish, and edge, he said. And you can make your countertop even more personal by adorning it with seashells, colored glass, broken tile - virtually anything can be laid in the form and molded into the concrete.

"Homeowners love being their own designers," Peterson said.

Few materials are as versatile as concrete, he said. You can mold concrete into any shape, color it to match virtually any hue, and you can make it smooth or rough. Its versatility lends to a range of design styles from contemporary to classic.

Concrete countertops can be left looking natural to complement materials like wood, stone, and brick. Or, concrete can be treated with chemical stains, coloring pigments, aggregates, and epoxy coatings that allow concrete to mimic popular materials like marble, granite, and limestone.

"Concrete is the only material that allows you to customize just about every aspect of it, including color, shape, thickness, and texture," said Jeff Girard of FormWorks, a decorative concrete company in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Each concrete artisan approaches his or her craft personally, achieving a distinct look by building their own forms, developing special casting techniques, and using proprietary materials and coloring methods.

Because each piece is usually made to order, customers can be a part of the creative process.

"People like the look - the down-to-earth, rustic look. It's a different feeling. It doesn't feel cold; it's a warm material," said Marco Lucioni of Lucioni Arts in Seattle.

And while products like Corian are still popular, many opt for concrete because the look is more natural.

For some people, concrete has more tactile appeal than granite, marble, or ceramic tile. Another lure of concrete is the range of colors available. Concrete countertop contractors each offer their own unique standard and premium colors.

Samples will always be different because each contractor has their own secret recipe for constructing the countertops and employing different types and amounts of cement and aggregates. In fact, cement varies in different parts of the country. There are different brands of pigments, stains, and aggregate colors, so each concrete countertop will always be unique.

Like any other material, concrete has properties that require special care and attention. One of the biggest questions that comes up is whether concrete countertops will develop cracks. The answer: Not always, but concrete countertops can develop hairline cracks. The cracks tend to be non-structural and result from the natural shrinkage of the concrete.

But many view this unpredictable, imperfect quality as one of the many assets of concrete.

"Imperfections are part of the appeal. ... Most people prefer the aged appearance that this natural occurrence bestows - in contrast to the cold and unvarying smoothness of plastic products such as Corian and Formica," said Buddy Rhodes of Buddy Rhodes Studio in San Francisco.

And the cost? It doesn't come cheap. Standard 1.5" thick concrete countertops range from $65 to $125 per square foot. And extras like irregular or curbed shapes, two-inch-thick concrete, integral drain boards, custom edges, and back splashes all add to the cost. Installation typically ranges from $40-$50 per hour.

Mat Rogers, owner of Flying Turtle Cast Concrete in Modesto, California, said that one of the most telling indicators of the role concrete is and will continue to play in home projects is the fervor generated by designers and architects.

"The design community is very excited - and that's the most important measure," he said. "When the architects and designers favor a material, they'll continue with it."

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