Polished to Perfection
Elegant Concrete Polishing, Inc. creates beautiful, durable concrete floor solutions
More than 12 years have passed since the owners of Elegant Concrete Polishing, Inc., opened their decorative concrete flooring business in New Haven, Connecticut. During this time, Austin Morrison and Jeff Brubacher have built a small local startup into an established, well-respected business that serves commercial and residential clients throughout New England, New York and New Jersey.
“Although we are best known for doing high-design projects that have a lot of detail, we also do concrete floor restoration,” Austin says. “There are a lot of concrete floors that need some TLC, and restoring them costs a fraction of the price of replacement. We also pour a self-leveling cementitious topping that we can then polish, do some epoxy coatings, install sealers and work with dyes and stains.”
A Branch Becomes a New Business
Austin and Jeff’s introduction to this specialized concrete niche came from Austin’s father-in-law, Dave Fielstra, who co-founded Concrete Cystems in Traverse City, Michigan, with his dad in the 1970s. That company still focuses on constructing driveways, walkways, walls, foundations and other flatwork and structural elements from concrete.
In the early 2000s, Dave started working with epoxies and stamping, and polishing concrete to create decorative finishes. It wasn’t long before he saw the tremendous growth potential for these services. By then, Austin had married Dave’s daughter, Erika, the couple had started a family and they were living in New Haven.
“I had moved to Connecticut from Texas in 1999,” Austin says. “My wife and I married in 2000, and a few years later, I began working for my brother-in-law’s company doing carpentry work. I was at a transitional spot, vocationally, when my father-in-law told me he’d like to bring the decorative flooring branch of his company to Connecticut. He asked me if I wanted in. I said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I knew this was an opportunity to get in on the ground floor of something new.”
A conversation that Austin had with his longtime friend Jeff Brubacher expanded plans for the business venture. Jeff had moved to Connecticut in 2000 and was running his own home remodeling business. “I told him what was coming down the pipe for me, and it piqued his interest,” Austin says. “He said, ‘I’m at a crossroads myself. Why don’t we do this together?’”
In December 2006, Dave, Austin and Jeff launched Elegant Concrete Polishing, Inc. in Connecticut. “The office was still located in Michigan,” Austin says, “but Jeff and I were working in New Haven. A year or so later, Jeff and I borrowed some money and bought out my father-in-law.”
Austin and Jeff did everything at first—from sales and installation through billing and accounts receivable—unless a job was big enough to hire others to help. He jokes, “Then we’d bring in some of our friends to punish them.”
Although decorative concrete flooring was viewed as a luxury during the Great Recession, the two partners steadily built a reputation for high-profile projects that require precise execution. These include custom concrete floors they finished at the new Jonathan E. Reed Elementary School in Waterbury, Connecticut, which was the Education Winner for Concrete Surfaces 2015 Polished Concrete Awards, and the rebuilt Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, which won the same award in 2017 plus Readers’ Choice for that year.
Bruce Wujcik, AIA, CSI, associate principal for Svigals + Partners, the architecture firm that designed both schools, says he likes working with Elegant Polishing’s team members because “they are casual, comfortable, reliable and informative. They come in and do their work and are pleasant and helpful.”
“There are a couple of ways you can approach doing polished concrete,” Bruce says. “First, you can apply colored stain to the top of structural concrete. This is what Elegant Polishing did for the floor at Jonathan E. Reed Elementary School because it had a multicolored design with freeform shapes. Their crews ground and honed the structural concrete, then laid a pattern over it to cut grooves and create a template to guide where they sprayed each color. Then they polished the floor surface again and sealed it. I wasn’t sure how they were going to accomplish this, but they pulled it off brilliantly.”
Since the floor design for Sandy Hook Elementary School called for a light-colored surface to be created in the middle of a standard gray concrete slab, Elegant Polishing used a different approach for this project. “If you are using structural concrete, you can’t make it lighter than the materials you put into it,” Bruce says. “So Elegant Polishing put a half-inch topping over the structural concrete that was mixed with a lighter aggregate. The finished floor looks similar to a fine-grained terrazzo. It’s beautiful.”
Bruce is currently collaborating with Elegant Polishing on a project for the University of New Haven. “This will be a single-color topping slab similar to Sandy Hook, though it will be a gray color with white marble chips,” he says.
Training for a New Trade
As the firm grew, Austin and Jeff started hiring and training staff so they could complete multiple projects simultaneously. Elegant Polishing now has 10 employees, including six who work full time in the field. Austin handles the front end, including sales and contract negotiations. Jeff oversees operations and makes sure things are going smoothly on job sites. Depending on the project and its level of difficulty, both partners also will work in the field.
Since polishing concrete is a comparatively new trade in the United States, it can be challenging to find people with relevant experience—or who want to acquire skills in this area once they understand what the work entails.
“Concrete polishing came to the U.S. from Europe in the late 1990s after some masons realized concrete could be ground and polished with the tooling and machines they were using to do this with stone,” Austin says. “So, it’s not like electrical or drywall work where there are ample people who have experience. And, I tell everyone up front that this isn’t glamorous work. You get dirty, and it’s physical labor. What I love, though, is that we do all this work and create something beautiful. We can say, ‘Wow. We just did that.’ “
To build a skilled, dedicated staff, Austin and Jeff provide on-the-job training for new employees. They also work with organizations such as Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS), a New Haven-based nonprofit that provides resettlement services for refugees. “IRIS recently helped us find and hire three Congolese gentlemen,” Austin says. “They are interested in learning a trade and are grateful for the work.”
Now that the team is large enough, Austin and Jeff are planning to implement a once-a-month gathering at the shop were everyone comes back to eat, play some Ping-Pong and have fun. They are also looking for opportunities to volunteer as a team in addition to the support Elegant Polishing already provides for local groups such as IRIS, Love 146, and Love Fed Initiative and global nonprofits, such as Heifer International.
The novelty of the concrete polishing trade also means that its standards are still a work in progress. “It’s not like other trades where designers can pull a book off a shelf and specify what they want,” Austin says. “There’s a big difference between what the end user will get from a guy who shows up in a van with a swing buffer and a bucket of sealer compared to when we roll in with hundreds of thousands of dollars in equipment to grind, hone, densify, polish and seal a floor.”
To distinguish the services they provide, Austin and Jeff offer “lunch and learns” for designers, facility managers, building owners and others who want to learn about what Elegant Polishing can achieve with various finishing products and techniques. This has led some designers to include Elegant Polishing’s name in their specifications. The firm also works with general contractors, building owners and facility managers.
When needed, Elegant Polishing provides consulting services for clients throughout its region and the U.S. For example, in 2017, Austin received a call from a project team that needed help at a high-end furnishings store near Minneapolis. “The contractor who had poured a topping on the floors and polished it didn’t have much experience,” Austin says. “We flew out early on a Monday morning and spent a week helping the contractor finish those floors.”
More recently, Turner Construction asked for Austin and Jeff’s expert advice about which approach would be best for polishing existing concrete floors as part of the renovation of the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University.
“We’ve done quite a bit of work with Turner Construction,” Austin says. “They are great to work with. They called us because they were considering two polishing systems: one dry and one wet. They said, ‘You guys do this every day. Can you weigh in as an unbiased third party?’ We met with people from the museum, the architecture firm and Turner, then gave them our two cents.” Based on this consultation, the project team decided to do some mockups. “They tented off an area, and we used the dry system on one section of the floor and the wet system on the other,” Austin says. “They are testing each section for things like stain resistance to make a final decision.”
While demand remains high for the decorative concrete floor finishing services Elegant Polishing provides, Austin and Jeff are building on the care they put into craftsmanship by developing new ways to meet client needs.
“We take pride in doing things right and taking care of the details,” Austin says. “This makes or breaks the quality of polished concrete floors. We have a vested interest in making sure they are properly maintained so they continue to meet clients’ expectations over time. If clients already have a cleaning crew, they can hire us to train their staff and set them up with the proper equipment and cleaners—or they can hire us to provide scheduled maintenance services.” Routine sweeping and washing with PH-neutral cleaners, combined with periodic buffing and polishing, can extend the longevity of a concrete floor so that it lasts for decades, he adds.
“Through diligence and our demand for perfection, we’ve grown the company to a place where we can meet the needs of every client,” Austin says.