Bathrooms: Research and Design


You can tell a lot about a place, be it a house, hotel, or a restaurant, based on the quality and cleanliness of the bathrooms. Whenever I go to a new house I always, inherently, check out the bathroom. Is it neat and tidy? Or is it grungy and smelly – does it have a crusty ring around the toilet? I will make immediate judgements about you, I’m sorry, I will.

Similarly, I will make the same judgements about a restaurant’s washroom. Is it dirty? Is the caulking around the sinks peeling away? Did they paint over the light switches – the same colour as the walls even? Are the fixtures falling off from the walls? If a washroom is gross, my bet is the kitchen will be gross too. I don’t know that I want to eat here.

Don’t get me wrong though. I’m not a germaphobe by any means. I’ll eat a dirty carrot right out of the ground. If I drop a piece of food on the floor, I’ll eat it, I don’t care. But, I don’t like the thought of pink eye or fecal matter on toothbrushes… Call me old-fashioned.

When we were designing the house, there were some considerations we made, first being that we did not want too many bathrooms. Our last house had 4 bathrooms. Too many! Granted they were very nice looking bathrooms. But, have you tried cleaning 4 bathrooms per week? It takes forever. Ug.

Still, you don’t want too few bathrooms. There’s a balance to be had. I like a half-bathroom for guests. A small sink and toilet, near the main space of the house. Certainly, you can use it too. But, there is no need for your guests to have to use the same bathroom you use daily to wash and clean. And worst case scenario, if you have people coming over, just make sure that guest one is clean! That way I won’t think you’re super gross.

An ensuite is nice and all, but that is typically reserved for off of the master bedroom, thus being just for the adults of the house. If this is only going to be you and your partner, and you’re not going to be having any kids, then go for it. Connect your master bathroom directly to your master bedroom. That way, your guests definitely won’t be tempted to use it. For us, though, we decided to make the main bathroom a separate room, off of the main hallway. It is directly across from our master bedroom, but not connected to it. This way kids can also use this bathroom. We also put in another full bathroom in the basement. I don’t know about you, but I grew up in a house with only one combined bath/shower in the whole house. With two parents and two teenagers trying to get ready with only one shower – well, let’s just say it caused a lot of unnecessary resentment and many arguments. Two showers are necessary. It will result in a 50% reduction of family strife (that’s my completely uneducated guess anyway).

Now let’s bring this back to my original point: Bathrooms are inherently gross. This is where all of the less desirable necessities of life take place. So it is understandable why bathrooms, not properly designed, can be even more gross. And why a clean and tidy bathroom is so impressive.

I hadn’t really been able to explain this well until I read this series of articles over at which completely made me shift my thinking about bathrooms: “The History of Bathrooms.” This series talks about how the bathroom developed and changed over the years and how various professions and innovations have changed it, as well as, how some cultures, particularly the Japanese, have a deep reverence for the bath.

OK, so let me give you a tour of ours.

Master Bathroom:

The first picture of this post (scroll back up quick) is of the Master Bath as you walk in the door. To the right is the hand-built white oak vanity. To the left is the walk-in shower and behind is a clawfoot tub. In the back right corner, behind the door is the “water closet.” A water closet is the enclosed room for the toilet. That way your mess is contained to that space. When you flush the toilet, the mist stays in there and doesn’t spread to all the other spaces in the bathroom (like your toothbrush and contact lens). I’d never seen a water closet before, but our old house had one and we loved it. That way, someone can be having a shower and the other person can still use the toilet. No need to poop in front of your spouse!


I had written about refinishing this clawfoot tub that we’d bought on Kijiji for $75. It is neatly tucked into the corner of the bathroom, right behind the enclosed shower and underneath a west-facing window.


A double sink was a must-have for us (trust me, it will save your marriage). This hand-built rift sawn white oak vanity was built by our friend, Ryan Unger of Rhine Artisans, who also did our kitchen. We wanted a mid-century credenza-type of vanity and he nailed it with this.

The light fixtures are from One Forty Three, which we used variations of for all of the bathrooms.


When looking at bathrooms (endless, endless bathrooms) on Pinterest prior to building our own, I was constantly drawn to wall mounted and black fixtures. These Brizo faucets met both of these desires… though they were a bit of a splurge. The countertop is white Corian with simple under mounted sinks, which are easy to clean.


The shower is a walk-in. It’s near the side door so we can come right in and wash off ourselves or dogs or little kids without needing to track through the whole house. I’ve never been a fan of the glass enclosed showers. They look nice when they’re clean, but the problem is, they are clean for about a half day between when you clean the bathroom and when someone has the next shower, otherwise, they always look messy. I prefer a simple curtain.

The other bonus of the Brizo Odin fixtures, aside from being sexy black, is that they are low flow too. Being an eco-house and on cistern water, we’re very conscious of our water use. This shower uses 2.0 gallons per minute (gpm) versus the standard 2.5-3.0 gpm.  AND! This has a wand shower. Let’s be frank here for a second, it is impossible to clean your… ahem… nether bits with an overhead shower, a wand hand-shower attachment will keep you… uh… very fresh.

Did I mention, that I tiled this whole bathroom too? This one took about 6 days and 10 hours per day. I tiled a wainscoting around the vanity and bath tub and floor-to-ceiling in the shower and around the entrance.

Guest Washroom:


We installed three ultra-low flow toilets from Caroma, called Somerton Smart 270. These toilets are fantastic and conserve an amazing amount of water. A standard “low flow” toilet uses 1.6 gallons per flush (gpf). These dual-flush toilets use 1.28 gpf for a full flush and only 0.8 gpf for a small flush. One of the keys is a large drainage path. I was worried it may leave some stowaways behind, which I’d heard was a problem with ultra-low flow toilets, but this toilet is great. I would highly recommend it.

Another great part about this toilet, is the smooth sides on the base. If you clean your bathroom, you know that those stupid faux pipes on the side of most toilets are a haven for dust, hair and grim. I hate cleaning those. I was adamant that whatever toilet we bought had to have smooth sides. And, as if it couldn’t get any better, the toilet seat has a slick little button to quickly release it and easily clean. So smart, this Somerton Smart 270!


It took us almost forever to find a tap that would work for this old-vintage sink. I think we ordered 5 different taps before we finally found this cheap $60 one from Home Depot. Works for me.


OK, one other thing that is not easy to find is stylish rods, hooks, and toilet paper holders. They are 99% cheap plastic chrome junk. This, well, I’d Instagram this: #sexytoiletpaperholder?

Basement Bathroom:

The basement bathroom is where my obsession with Japanese bathrooms was most fully expressed. When I read about the fragrant smell and soothing nature of hand-built Hinoki wooden tubs I told my wife – “we have to get one!” That is until, I found the price… ~$9000 + shipping + taxes + import fees… OK, next best option:


We installed this DEEP two-person soaker tub from Produits Neptune, called the “Osaka“. We actually had to put this tub in the basement before framing of the house was done. Being 52″x52”, there was no way this could be brought in after the fact. Granted, this is not a water-conservation tub, but we don’t use it everyday either, more like one every couple months, but it is glorious. When full, you can sit in chest deep water. Rather then getting a wooden tub, I clad the tub, back wall and ceiling in cedar. The condensation of the hot water of the tub and shower results in a beautiful and fragrant cedar smell. It might not be Hinoki, but it’s pretty darn nice.


The shower is completely open to the tub. All of the fixtures in this bathroom are from a Canadian company called Rubi – notice the wand shower *wink wink*. I also tiled this whole bathroom too, three full walls, in these 4×4″ white tiles. This was probably the most difficult tile job in the whole house. At least with 3×6″ brick laid subway tile there is some room for error. But these grid laid square tiles, especially with the dark grey grout, show every error or not perfectly square corner and wall. I had some choice words for the framers while I tiled this bathroom…


In the floor of the shower I asked the concrete guys to very slightly grade towards the drain. This shower is about 60×48″ so there is no standard shower base that would fit here. This option worked great.


I’d asked the lumber yard for 6′ lengths of cedar that would only have needed to be slightly trimmed for the shower, instead I got 7-9′ lengths and had to cut every single board. I was a bit annoyed by this waste. But after I finished the shower and walked into this space right next to the tub/shower, it looked terribly boring with just a drywalled wall. I ended up using the scrap pieces on the back wall – a happy error.

I admit that this toilet-next-to-sink setup is a recipe for a cesspool of bacteria, but it simply didn’t work to hide the toilet in another water closet in the basement. I just won’t brush my teeth down here.


This sink is from Rubi as well. It was a nightmare to get a sink down here too. We’d ordered a different sink with a shroud base for the pipes from another place, but they sent the wrong base. Then we sent it back and the new one they sent was the right base, but wrong sink. Then we scraped that sink and bought this one, but forgot to return the taps, so we had to send the taps back and get new taps… sigh…



The trials and tribulations of concrete


The last of the work on the house was a concrete retaining wall and front step/pad and a side door pad. I can’t tell you how excited I was to be done with contractors (and spending 1000s of dollars). One of my friends, Dan, who had worked for a large concrete contractor in town had recently started his own company, called Old North Concreteworks. When he’d told me about this over the last winter – I said, “Dude! Why didn’t you start your company last year?!” With all of the headaches we’d had with the concrete before during the build it would have been so nice to have someone with a such an experienced and trustworthy knowledge of concrete.

Nonetheless we, being one of his first contracts, would be able to get the pads poured early as soon as the ground had dried and thawed. Retaining walls are tricky and we’d had a lot of settling over the wintertime. But around the area of the retaining wall we had watered and backfilled last year to try and expedite the settling. It seemed that we’d been successful in this regard as the land had really not dropped at all there over the winter. For the retaining wall, Dan first poured a 6” footing extending 6’ perpendicular to the house with the retaining wall form built on top. He and I then backfilled to the form with dirt and crushed rock (tamping down at each bucket load) to bring this up to the point where they would be able to join an 8’x6’ pad to the top of the retaining wall – essentially creating an upside down ‘L’.

The side door pad would be simpler – 4’x7’ and 4” thick.

A few days before the planned pour date, he sent me two different options for finishing the concrete edge:




“Hmmm… Neither,” I told him.

Do this:

Alyson Fox House

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yup, that’s what I want, no edge, just poured.” If you’ve read this blog for anytime, you may realize by now that Darcie and I like things that other people don’t normally do – at least not around here. Dan suggested a “mag finish” in which he lightly brushed the top of the concrete in a swirled, random way to get some grit to the top so it would not be slippery.

The day of the pour came and when we got home wouldn’t you know, we had a two pads and a retaining wall poured! Success.

I messaged Dan to see how the day went. “OK I love the top,” he said. Excellent, I thought, I would like to collect a royalty fee now every time you use this. “But…” he said, it was essentially the worst day of his life otherwise. The concrete truck they’d ordered broke down on the way out to our house. We are 30 minutes away from the city and it was a very hot day – that’s not a good combination for concrete. The concrete was starting to set as they poured it. Fortunately they were able to get it in place, not being a lot of concrete really – but our very sandy soil didn’t hold the retaining wall forms very well, despite being heavily reinforced, and the wall had bowed. He was not happy about this and insisted that he would fix it, suggesting that he rent a large concrete grinder to take out the bow later.

I really wasn’t surprised to hear that they’d had issues. It always seems to be that way with our place… Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

For Dan though, the day only got worse. After finishing our place they had to rush over to my neighbor’s house a ½ mile away to pour a sidewalk along his garage and house. The concrete truck broke down again! And he poured the hardest concrete of his life, he said. He had to use all of his might to smooth and level it. In the process and stress of it all, the concrete had started to stick and cure to his legs. After they’d gotten it all down and finished – he attempted to pull the concrete off of himself, but with that came a lot of his skin. Yucky.

A few days later Dan returned and ground the bowed section out, exposing the aggregate in a very interesting and dramatic fashion, which I was pleasantly surprised with. As has seemed to have been the way with our house too – right to the bitter end – many of the seeming mess-ups or frustrations end up turning out creative and interesting solutions. I would not have asked for the wall to be finished the way it was, but pleasingly, I’m happier with it then I would have been had it all worked out just as planned.

Swirled, “mag” finish
Yes it rained last night.
Ground and polished retaining wall




The unforgiving nature of concrete and the dangers of Ram Board


As I’ve said before, I do love concrete. Though, recently, my love affair with concrete has been tested and I have started to see a side of concrete that I do not appreciate as much as much. This is, of course, it’s unforgiving nature.

I’d been told this before by a concrete contractor. He said, “I hate working with concrete. It makes me very nervous. You only get one chance with it.” It’s one thing to hear that but I’d never experienced this myself before. Until now.

OK, so let’s start at the beginning, just after we’d poured the concrete floors. We’d been told to be VERY CAREFUL with the floors after they had been poured. They take 28 days to cure, so anything done to them in that time and, following this prior to sealing, will effect the outcome. We had simply wanted a troweled and sealed concrete floor, without any fancy finishes. So that meant we had to protect them from the other trades coming in. We were recommended to use a product called Ram Board – a temporary floor protector.

So we ordered the product and proceed to lay it out across the whole of our main floor and basement concrete. Now, if you actually look at the link to the Ram Board, it says, “lays out easily.” So you would think (as I did) that you simply roll this stuff out, covering the floor, secure it together, secure the sides and you’re done, right? Wrong! This stuff was insane to try and secure to the floor and secure it to itself. We were initially told to try masking tape or painter’s tape. Fail. We then tried packing tape (as the Ram Board seems basically like thin cardboard). Nope. Duct tape? Nope, not at all. Finally, the only stuff that we could find that was sticky enough to hold the board together and secure it to the floors was Tuck Tape (please learn from my errors). Neither the contractor nor the supplier could provide us with any other suggestions.


I will say this, and perhaps if you have or are planning to pour a concrete interior floor in a residential house, you will have noticed this, but every time I talked to someone about anything related to an interior concrete floor, it was as if we were the only people in the entire world to ever do such a bizarre thing. Trying to get any information out of anyone, including contractors, suppliers, designers, et cetera, was like beating my head against the wall – I couldn’t find any information. Even online the information and resources were incredibly scarce. So I do hope that this will be helpful to someone in the future, because I wish I knew then what I know now.

Ok, so that’s what we did. We tuck taped it down (NOTE: don’t do as we did). And for awhile we said, thank goodness for Ram Board! It saved us from the leaky chimney, from the muddy boots that the contractors wore into the house, from the incredible mess from the drywall mudders, and from our own sloppy painting.

Then about four weeks after we’d laid the Ram Board out, I went to the concrete wholesaler to pick up our sealant and wax for finishing the floors. He asked how we’d protected the floors and we told him what how we covered them. “You know that Ram Board can leave cure lines, right?” He said. Umm, no and I don’t even know what that is (I’d never heard of ‘cure lines’ as a term before in my life – never in all of my exhaustive research on concrete). “Well, hopefully not,” he said. “How do you prevent cure lines,” I asked.

“I don’t know. I’ve never used Ram Board before.” He replied. (See what I’ve saying re: beating head against wall?)

Well, I couldn’t do anything about it now, and I still didn’t know what cure lines were, so if we got them then I guess we’d have to figure it out later. Another month passed.

Finally, we were ready to expose the floors and see what lay beneath. We started with the basement and to my horror, the board, no, the Tuck Tape, was really fricking hard to remove! As we started to pull the board away, the tape began to release, but…


Oh God, no. FML.

All around the perimeter of the floor was this. In spots, not so much. In others, a nightmare.

We got down on our hands and knees and started scraping it frantically with a razor blade and a hair dryer (seriously). The tape started to slowly release. Ok, good (kind of) we can fix this, I think. Although there were dozens of areas like that in the photo.

We decided we would get the rest of the board up and then proceed to take the tape off the floor. As we continued removing the board in the basement we worked towards the interior walls.


What?! NO!!!

Yes, this is red chalk. Deeply pigmented red chalk. Why would we have red chalk on our floors, you may ponder. Well, the framers, had chalked the floors to mark the walls for framing – a typical practice in a basement that will be covered with laminated, hardwood or carpet – but not on a finished concrete floor! Oh my god.

Well, I guess we have a red concrete basement floor now, I said.

But hey, no cure lines!

(I can joke about it now, but this really really sucked.)

Over the next two days, I spent on my hands and knees, scrapping the red fucking tape with a razor blade and hair dryer (I believe it was in the range of 20 hours of work). How we were going to get the red chalk off was another question. I figured (naively) that it was wipe off with soap and water, and so, I futilely attempted this.

Nothing. It did absolutely nothing.

Desperate, I got my palm sander out and sanded a small area in the closet with 80 grit sand paper. Hmm. It started to come up – ok, this is good. Although my measly 4″ palm sander would take a lifetime to try and get the roughly one 1/4 of our basement that had red chalk dust clean.

Bizarrely, on my day off, sweating and angry in the basement, perhaps by the grace of God (or whoever), a stranger showed up at our door. It was a Tuesday afternoon and we don’t get people just dropping in. We are in the middle of nowhere. It was a guy who we were actually supposed to have a tour of his house some months before, but we’d gotten busy and never gone. He was coming by to see how things were going and to check out our house (I think he was just snooping though really, as how would he have known someone would be around on a Tuesday afternoon). Naturally the discussion turned to the concrete floors, (which he also had!) and he asked how we we were going to finish the floors. Not sure, I told him. He informed me that he had in fact wanted to grind his floors to expose the aggregate, but when they came to do this, they found the floor too hard to work with. Because they had intended to grind the floors they did not cover it so it was covered with paint and drywall mud and all sorts of other crap. After much of their own stress, they decided to try to sand off that layer of crap. They rented an industrial floor sander, like the ones they use to refinish decks and old hardwood floors. It was a fair bit of work, he told me, but it removed all of that junk and left the natural grey floors. You should come check it out, he told me.

I had too much work to do. I needed to get the main floor board up and see what was underneath. I was relieved to find that, for whatever reason, this board and tape came up much better and there were only a couple spots with Tuck Tape residue left behind. Wow, must be my luck day, I thought. But then I stepped back and surveyed the great room. Sonuvabitch.


It may be faint in the photo, though it is much darker in person… you see those lines running to the end of the room? Yup, those are cure lines.

I was beside myself.

After being super depressed for the next few days, talking to contractors, suppliers, builders, and trying to think if there was anyway to fix this multitude of problems that we were now facing with the floors.

(By the way, I also researched “cure lines with ram board” in concrete floors. And wouldn’t you know that the only way to “fix” this was to prevent it from happening in the first place! By using a special vapour permeable floor tape! A tape that was not available through our supplier nonetheless… Rage.)

After talking to numerous people we narrowed our options down to four:

  1. Live with it. Gah, concrete is unforgiving. You mess it up and you have to live with the shame of it for the rest of your life. Probably though you will get over it and not notice it eventually. But as a recovering perfectionist, this was a stretch for me. A leap of faith that I wasn’t ready to accept without trying something – anything.
  2. Creative acid staining. The suggestion was to stain the area around the cure lines a darker colour then stain the whole floor in another colour. This may or may not work and to be honest, I don’t like the look of acid staining anyways.
  3. Grinding and polishing. I like this look, but it is very very expense ~$10/sq.ft. This is where the top 1/8″ of the concrete is ground off and polished to expose the aggregate. This was the only option to guarantee removal of the cure lines and chalk in the basement.
  4. Sanding. This is an option made only by the stranger that showed up at the house a few days prior. I found no information online about this except for one article that said you could sand the floor to prep it before staining to even out the finish. There was no guarantee that this would work, but it was probably the one with the least risks associated.

I called up the rental store and asked if I could rent a floor sander for the weekend. In talking with the stranger about the concrete floors, he told me he had used 60, 80 and 120 grit sand paper on his floors. Now I needed to go a bit deeper to see if I could get the cure lines slightly reduced, if not eliminated. I elected to start with 24 grit. Again, I will say this was a total experiment and I had no clue what I was about to get myself into.

I, of course, did not tell the rental store that I was going to use it on a concrete floor as this may raise some eyebrows. We decided to start in the basement because if we did fail, at least I would prefer to screw-up the basement over the main floor.

And so, on Friday we spent the evening like this:


It was a crazy crazy amount of dust – crystalline silica dust to be precise, which interestingly is super cancer causing. But ever so gradually as I went over and over the floors on the second and third passes with 24 grit sandpaper, the red chalk started to disappear. At the same time though, where the Tuck Tape had been stuck to the floor, it showed the residue of the adhesive more clearly. This too had soaked into the floor. The sander was not localized enough to get at this, so it had to be done on hands and knees with the palm sander (which did remove the adhesive residue) and some serious elbow grease.

We then made passes with 40 grit and 80 grit paper. I had been worried that the sanding might just “grey out” the floors into a bland pattern, but this wasn’t the case at all. Impressively, this actually exposed some interesting tone and variations in the concrete that were not there prior. And in some areas that were gone over a bit more heavily, some aggregate became exposed as well. The industrial sander worked well in that it covered a broad area with out leaving any sort of pattern to its movement. In that way though it was also really hard to control. Weighing about 100 lbs and vibrating across the floor in a seemingly random pattern did end up leaving some unsightly dings in the drywall that will need to be patched later.

After the dust settled the next day (literally), we surveyed the situation and were happy and relieved to see that the vast majority of the chalk had been removed, and with the hand sanding, the tape lines too.

With some returning sense of optimism, I decided to try it on the main floor. I followed the same process going over with the 24 grit sand paper 2-3 times, then the 40 grit and lastly the 80 grit paper, vacuuming with the big shop vac between each pass in each room. It was tough to tell at first, but the lines seemed to be less noticeable. But maybe it was just the dusty residue. We decided to leave it again for another day.

On the third day we returned with the plan to clean the floors and seal them if they did not look like a total disaster. We vacuumed the entire house another two times.

IMG_3127Well, I’ll be damned, they looked better. They weren’t perfect, but definitely a bit better. I could still make out the cure lines in places, but they were less continuous overall.

In the photo to the left, you can slightly see the cure line running in the right top corner on the diagonal.

So, relatively satisfied with the outcome, and happy that we had at least done our best to fix it, we decided to seal the floors. I had picked up a 20% solvent acrylic sealer (totally poisonous stuff). They recommended using a nap roller to apply the sealant, but we had used that method for the concrete basement walls and it sucked, so instead we decided to use the ol’ “spray and back roll method.”

This is just what it sounds like, spray the stuff and use the roller (pulling backwards) to smooth it out. Try not to overlap the rolls too much and just apply the spray lightly in a mist to cover the area. I sprayed and the wife rolled. This method went about three times faster than just the roller method and it gave a nice even finish. It took about 45 minutes to cover 1200 sq.ft.

We then proceeded to the main floor. This solvent sealer is very sticky as it starts to try. We’d taken a short break to breath non-toxic air before returning to the main floor. It started well, but about 1/2 way through the sprayer became gummed up with the drying sealant and I could not turn it off! It was spraying uncontrollably, including onto the freshly painted wall! Yup, nothing is easy when building and nothing really goes as planned.

The rest of the main floor ended up taking four times as long as the basement as I was constantly stopping to clean the sprayer. In hindsight, I would recommend having one sprayer for every 1000 sq.ft.

Finally though we finished. It was sealed and now there was no going back at all. Fine by me. I was so done with these floors.

We left all of the windows open for the next 24 hours to let the house air out as the sealant smelled very potent.  When I stuck my head in the window the next day though I was very pleased to see that, well, the floors looked pretty awesome:


Again, there were spots that were not perfect and in the second bedroom there was still a very dark line that I was not at all able to reduce. Can anyone say: throw rug? But nonetheless, I’m relatively happy with them. We tried and didn’t totally fail. Although I wish I would have known how to prevent the cure lines in the first place (now I do and so do you): Special tape!

Main Floor Concrete

We were very happy with how the basement concrete slab turned out. Tyco Concrete had come through for us on short notice and they had done a really nice job. So one week later we had them come back in to do a second pour, this time for the main floor. We had really debated about how we would like to finish the main floor concrete though despite months of reading and looking.

I should digress for a moment and simply state our reasons behind the concrete floor in the first place:

  1. Thermal mass – thermal mass is a the ability of a material to absorb and store energy (heat in particular). For passive solar heating in the winter months, the sun shining on the concrete will act like a battery, gaining heat during the day, and allowing it to release the heat in the evening. You could use a tile or brick to similar effect. A large brick or stone wall would also work, but you need the sun shining on it. Conversely, in the summer and “shoulder” (April and October) months you really don’t want the sun shining on the thermal mass as this can lead to overheating (thus the importance of passive shading and overhangs).
  2. In-floor heating – we still need a heat system. It is true that our thermal mass is not quite as good as if it had no in-floor heat (a colder mass will heat MORE than a mass that is already pre-heated) – however who wants to walk around on a cold concrete floor in the morning, honestly?
  3. Concrete is sexy.

Okay so now that that is cleared up, we had to decide on how we would like to eventually finish the floors. We had already decided that acid staining and dyeing the concrete was really not our thing – much too fancy-pants for us. That basically left us with two options: power trowel (same as the basement) or grind and polish. Both looks we really like.

Grind and polished concrete – not our place

The grind and polish look is something I really like. You need a concrete grinder machine with diamond discs starting with very rough grits of 80 and 120, which grind the top layer of concrete off exposing the pea gravel aggregate that sinks to the bottom and progressing up to finer and finer grits. Eventually getting up to 800, 1200, 2000 grit discs that give a highly polished look to the floor. You get a lot of interesting variation and different colors of the pea gravel coming through (although some people specify all grey or black pea rock if they want something more consistent). There is a couple downsides with this for us though. Firstly the concrete topper they were going to pour was only going to be 1.5″ thick, which is pretty darn thin. Although you are only taking about 1/8″ or so off the top, we had 1/2″ PEX in-floor piping and metal concrete mesh overtop – grinding too much off could be a horrible thing. We had seen this first hand – a good friend had built an eco-house in town and wanted a ground and polished concrete floor. Unfortunately the contractor ground off about 1/4″ too much. It looked great initially, but the layer of concrete over the in-floor heat was so thin that in the next few weeks the concrete started to crack badly following the pattern of the in-floor lines… It looked so bad. On a thicker floor you’d have nothing to worry about, mind you. But needless to say I was a bit paranoid of that risk. The second consideration is that you need to grind and polish before drywall as it makes a crazy mess. And you can’t grind and polish until it has cured for one month. That would mean that we would have to put the interior on hold for a month which we really did not want to do.

The other option was to simply power trowel the main floor, same as the basement. We have seen this look a lot in some more modern homes and I really like the simplicity of it. It is not complicated at all and is in fact the simplest, cheapest and easiest way to go (pour and trowel is about $2.50/sq.ft completed while the the grinding and polishing cost would be an additional $5-6/sq.ft above and beyond). You pour floor, power trowel the crap out of it and call it a day (in 28 days you can seal it, buff it, wax it, whatever). As I said we liked how the basement floor turned out, particular the very “swirly” areas, as my wife calls them. I hoped that we could make the floors slightly different then the basement floor still though. I looked into the possibility of adding a bit of black pigment to darken the grey slightly – however I abandoned this idea after I was told the pigment dries the concrete faster and can lead to an uneven finish.

Eventually the decision came down to, what is the simplest option? Through this process we have found ourselves periodically down a rabbit hole wondering how we got here and how everything became so complicated. Our answer in those situations, or when we’ve debated about two or three different things is – simple is always better. The more complicated, the more things can go wrong.

So I told the concrete guy, “finish the concrete just like the basement – only, more swirly please.” (He told us that the metal blades of the power troweled as what make it swirled and darker, but troweling longer and on a higher speed for the blades, they can darken the concrete more).

The morning of the pour was crazy again, our builder did not realize they were coming so early with the concrete truck and he’d left a bunch of stuff around the house. I received a text at 6:30am from the concrete guy – “someone has to get over here and move all this shit – truck is here.”

IMG_2982Fortunately we are living very close right now so I threw on some clothes and was out the door. We frantically (concrete starts to cure as soon as it leaves the plant – being 30 minutes from the city, every extra moment counts) moved a trailer, two big garbage bins, scrap wood, plywood and all sorts of junk. Meanwhile the rest of the concrete crew was even more frantically throwing down the concrete mesh (which provides structural support, like rebar, in thinly poured floors like ours). This stuff was crazy heavy and looked so cumbersome to work with, but these guys were pros, they had the whole floor laid and secured in about 20 minutes.

And so the pour began again. I could not stay and watch and truthfully, I did not want to see it. Seeing that grey/brown sludge of mud being rolled in and dumped on the floor simply made me nervous. I just wanted to see it pretty at the end.


When we got home all was quiet again. We went to the back door and peaked our heads in.


So swirly!


So very swirly!

Basement concrete slab

I do love concrete. It is one of those rare man-made products that border on being a living thing, like plaster or linen.  Those things that have such a rich texture and variation of composition that they seem to beckon you to touch them and get up close for a better look.

Of course, not everyone will share my appreciation of concrete, traditionalists have tended to cover up the concrete or at least extensively treat it with stains and dyes making them more palatable to themselves. Not us. When I told an interior designer about our exposed basement concrete walls, his response was, “Now that’s modernism with a capital ‘M’!” Cool, I said, “What’s modernism with a little ‘m’?” To which, he sheepishly did not have a response (I’m an ass).


After the walls cured for 28 days, we had to seal the concrete. We wanted to get this done before the slab went in because if we waited to do the floors and walls at the same time, not only would there be framing and drywall in the way, then we ran the risk of the drywallers slopping crap all over the walls and making a mess of our beautiful concrete finish.  Like an idiot, I decided not to purchase a $25 dollar wand sprayer to apply the sealant and instead decided to use a nap roller. A job that would have taken me 30 minutes ended up being closer to 5 hours rolling every inch of the wall on multiple passes (lesson learned).

Next, we had to lift the giant water tank and Japanese soaker tub off of the floor and strap them to the steel beams (getting the tub in the basement was another adventure in and of itself. I will write about that someday). The under slab insulation was then cut and laid. We elected to use 7.5″ of under slab insulation, which is likely overkill, however this brings the floor insulation to R30 (our last house had no insulation in the basement at all). This EPS insulation was pretty cool. Having a honeycomb pattern as the top layer allowed for incredibly easy installation of the PEX piping for in-floor hydronic heating.


Notice the levitating water tank and soaker tub

We knew we wanted the concrete floors to be a simple natural grey concrete, power troweled and sealed to complement the exposed concrete walls. No fancy finishing, dying, staining or grinding.

Now being that the basement concrete slab was to be our finished floor, it was pretty important to me that it not look like crap. Therefore the quality of the contractor needed to be top notch. Unfortunately for us, that was not how we entered into this venture.

I did not meet the contractor before he was actually on site prepping to pour. My wife had driven home early that day and came upon a most peculiar sight. A rather criminal-looking fellow standing beside a broken down early 1990s sedan, holding booster cables. Our place is a bit out of the way, so this was not a sight one would expect. Of course she stopped to see what the problem was (as the next passerby would probably not be until much later on). He proceeded to tell her that he needed a boost, he’d gotten in a fight with his boss and left from “that house being built down there”, pointing in the direction of our house. My wife, boosted his junk car, and asked if he was going back to work? Nope, he said, and drove off.

My wife drove to the site and found a lone guy working in the basement – no truck, no car, no nothing. She told him she might have just met his worker on the road and asked how he was getting home. Of course, he had no idea. She called our general contractor to come pick him up, however as she was leaving the property his buddy had returned with the car.

When I stopped by later to check on the whole situation, they were still there.  “Working late, boys?” I asked. “Yup,” the boss said, “but we gotta get home, we’re losing light and we don’t have any headlights.” (He wasn’t joking).

He told me that they were planning to have the concrete poured in two days, but would need to finish laying the rebar and tying everything in beforehand. “I’ll be back at 6am tomorrow,” he said, before driving off headlight-less into the night. I came by the house at 7:30am and, not surprisingly, they were not there. Sometime throughout the day however, they were back working away in the basement – this time, they’d brought a rusted old Honda, apparently this one had headlights and was more reliable.

On the Thursday, which was the day of the scheduled pour, they did not show up at all (what other profession could you simply not show up to work and there be no repercussions?). The bossman called our general contractor later in the day, apologizing and saying that he had to fire the criminal looking guy, but promised to complete the pour the next day. I told the contractor that it was tomorrow, or else he was off of the job.

On Friday, I received a phone call from them telling us it was “too hot” to pour the basement slab. Granted it was 34° Celsius. He said that the concrete would cure too fast and they would not be able to guarantee a nice finish. I wondered to myself – is this a convenient excuse for them in case the floors didn’t turn out? What am I to do? Ask them to pour it anyways? I called a couple of friends that I have in the concrete business and asked if they were pouring today. They were. I asked if there would be any reason to not pour a basement today and they told me that an insulated basement would be perfect in this weather – being at least 10 degrees cooler in there and not in direct sunlight.

That afternoon, we made calls to find a replacement for this retard concrete guy. I couldn’t handle it anymore – how many chances do you give someone? That being said we needed the floor done immediately. This idiot had already setback three other trades with his 5 day delay. Especially when Taylor and Curtis worked to hard to be ahead of schedule despite some of the challenges they faced with the Nudura One set up.

Incredibly we talked to Tyco Concrete Finishing, who said they would be able to squeeze us in early the next week. That Sunday evening we met the owner on site (I was relieved to see him drive up in new super duty 4×4 truck). He spent a couple hours with us going through everything, including checking what little work the other guy had done, making sure he knew how we wanted it finished, and confirming all of the dimensions and depths.

Two days later this was happening:


They had a crew of six guys on site and they did an awesome job. That night we came home to this.


Concrete wall reveal

The day following the pouring of the concrete, we were ready to pull off the plywood forms and see what lay beneath. Leaving the plywood on for more than a day would cause them to adhere too firmly to the concrete and make them extremely difficult to remove. We were a bit nervous. We had been pegging a lot on how these walls would turn out – they would be, after all, our finished interior walls, so I really hoped they wouldn’t look like crap.

First we had to remove all of the exterior bracing that the builders had spent four days installing, tweaking, levelling, and straightening.


They had done a great job. The walls were perfectly straight and square.

We started unscrewing the plywood forms and Cha-Ching!


They looked frickin’ awesome!


As we removed the forms, I had to chuckle, because the builders, who had for the previous week been cursing the Nudura One system, as they saw the finished look decided the would “use it again.” I guess looks due make up for a bad personality from time to time.

We spent about two hours removing all of the forms. As we got towards the base of the floor, we crossed our fingers hoping that it had all settled nicely to the bottom without any “honey combing” of the concrete that would need to be parged. Impressively, it looked excellent all the way from top to bottom.



Dang, those are sexy walls.