By Debra Smith Herald Writer
The idea that might make Jim Harvey a well-off man started in the dark, dusty basement under his Snohomish house.
For two years he spent hours there, sometimes more than 80 a week, trying to find his Holy Grail of concrete: a super-thin, strong, less expensive alternative to terrazzo flooring.
Harvey, 47, who spent years on his hands and knees installing flooring and restoring concrete, knew such a product would be appealing to general contractors and architects.
In the last few years, concrete has become increasingly popular in homes and businesses, progressing far beyond the stuff normally found in garages and warehouses.
It can be infused with pigments, seeded with metal, rocks or glass, stamped to mimic natural surfaces and polished to a high sheen. Water-filled pipes embedded under its surface can warm it. It can even be manipulated to resemble expensive marble or granite — but for less money. And since concrete is renewable and durable, it has become a popular choice for builders searching for green materials.
When Harvey first got the idea in the late ’90s to invent a product, he wasn’t thinking about the environment; he wanted to create something that resembled expensive terrazzo but cost less.
At the time, his firm, Harvey Construction, specialized in repairing concrete floors. He mainly worked on commercial jobs, fixing deteriorating concrete floors in schools, businesses and hospitals. One product he used often, a self-leveling overlay, he liked but found pricey. Other companies were outbidding him on jobs by using inferior products, he said. That’s when he got the idea to make his own.
He wanted to create a concrete concoction thinner than a deck of cards that could be poured directly over an existing tile or wood floor. His version of terrazzo had to be strong and it had to look expensive. Terrazzo is a centuries-old form of mosaic flooring made by embedding small pieces of marble in mortar and then polishing. He’d be turning a sow’s ear into a Louis Vuitton handbag.
Down to the basement he descended for months, mixing different concoctions, searching for a combination that would dry quick and strong. He’d re-emerge to buy supplies. His construction business slowed and debt began to mount as he zeroed in on finding a solution.
“I became almost obsessed by the idea,” he said. “It was something I had to figure out, and the more trouble it gave me, the angrier and more determined I got.”
Harvey’s product built on the advances of others in the concrete world, and he had a network of others in the industry he could call on for advice. But when he finally emerged from the basement triumphant, sample in hand to show his wife, Jerrilyn, he was making his own stamp on the world of concrete.
Harvey’s terrazzo is mixed in a barrel and pours like pancake batter. He can add pigments and any combination of aggregates such as bits of glass, rocks and metal shavings to create different effects. The stuff sets in three hours, and the next day he grinds it finer and finer with a diamond polisher.
The Deco-Pour terrazzo product did everything Harvey hoped it would, and it had a few other features that would make it especially attractive: It can be poured on top of virtually any existing surface, even cracked and damaged floors, and it’s low-maintenance and easy on the environment.
Decorative concrete is generally coated with a sealer, a top coat or a chemical polishing solution that hardens the surface layer. The floor must be polished and workers need to occasionally strip and re-apply sealers. Harvey called it a vicious cycle, one that can cost businesses money and isn’t great for the environment. An ammonia-based stripper is used, which workers usually dump down the sewer system, he said.
“We’ve seen it,” Harvey said. “They take their mop bucket and dump it into the storm drain.”
The grinding process Harvey uses eliminated the need for waxing and sealers. Another advantage: The overlay can be applied directly over a hard surface. That’s unusual, and also valuable, because it eliminates the cost of pulling up and disposing of old vinyl, tile or wood flooring, which can run into the thousands, Jerrilyn Harvey said.
At first, Harvey, an old-school construction guy, didn’t understand what the green building movement was all about. But when his customers started asking about it, he learned.
“I started to realize what ‘green’ meant,” he said. “I hadn’t really cared, but I needed to find ways to care, and I began asking myself, ‘What else can I do to make this better?’ “
He started using more recycled and local materials. And he stopped using acid stain, the primary method used to color concrete, which creates a volatile slurry byproduct. Harvey began opting for water-based dyes instead.
He patented his product and began producing other variations, including a polished overlay without the aggregates; a product that could be troweled onto walls and fireplace surrounds; and an exposed aggregate version for driveways and pool decks. He devised a way to muffle sound by inserting special mats into the concrete. The original terrazzo Deco-Pour and the overlay remain the company’s most popular products.
The Deco-Pour terrazzo typically costs $14 to $16 per square foot installed, whereas a traditional terrazzo floor in the Northwest costs more than $30, Harvey said. The polished overlay Deco-Pour, which doesn’t have the added aggregates, costs $10 to $20 a square foot. Projects cost more if the floor needs structural reinforcement, he said.
Harvey thought his products were so good the business would take off fast. It didn’t. Even though his process is patented, competitors copy his method. He doesn’t have the time or money to hire lawyers or sit in a courtroom defending his patent, he said.
The company’s attempts to set up licensing agreements with installers nationwide fell flat when the majority didn’t produce work up to Harvey’s standards. While installing Deco-Pour isn’t rocket science, he said, it is more detail-oriented and time-consuming than most concrete installers are used to. Instead, Harvey and his crew did jobs all across the country themselves, packing up the tools and supplies and shipping them to job sites as far away as New York. Deco-Pour charged everyone the same, so Harvey had to eat the shipping costs. At one point, the couple owed $200,000.
“Our name and our pride and our integrity was on the line,” he said. “If we were going to install these floors, we would have to do it ourselves.”
Seven years after inventing Deco-Pour, the business, bolstered by the growing green building movement, started picking up in the summer of 2006, said Jerrilyn Harvey. Deco-Pour landed high-profile jobs, such as a fire station in downtown Seattle and Bremerton High School. The soundproofing option Harvey came up with proved popular with high-end projects in New York, where sound ordinances are strict. Architects and interior designers on custom residential projects ordered floors, shower pans and countertops. He said the company will do jobs as small as a bathroom and as large as businesses with thousands of square feet of floor.
Last year, they grossed $500,000. Next year, the company is projecting $1 million.
Sandy Campbell, owner of One Earth One Design, a Seattle retail store that offers interior design services, sells Deco-Pour to clients, and she liked the product enough to have it put on the store’s floors last year. So far, it’s performed well, she said. It was less expensive than hardwood floors and easier to maintain than floors made of cork.
“It’s an amazing product,” she said. “It holds up well. In the Northwest, we get a lot of rain. People walk in the door with wet feet and it’s never slippery. It’s easy to maintain.”
She recommended that customers have color samples tested on the existing concrete, if possible. She found the composition of the concrete can affect the color. Her floor, for instance, came out with more purple than she expected.
E. Cobb, a high-end Seattle architectural firm, usually works on about 15 projects a year. Three this year will use a Deco-Pour product, said Josh Johns, a designer for the firm.
“It’s extremely durable, economical and a green solution compared to other products such as carpet,” he said.
Johns is using the company’s concrete overlay in the living room, kitchen and bathrooms on a family’s home on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. One of the reasons Johns chose it was because it was light enough to use in places where traditional concrete would have been too heavy, such as the upper floors of the family’s home.
“Nobody is doing this,” Johns said. “I have a feeling they’re going to have many more competitors soon.”
Reporter Debra Smith: 425-339-3197 or firstname.lastname@example.org.