Why is Concrete and Concrete Work so Expensive?

Concrete Work

Concrete is one of the most versatile and widely used materials around the world, especially in the construction industry. It is not only durable, but its flexibility when mixed early on makes it the ideal choice for building projects, both big and small. Most people would assume that due to its high demand and use, concrete should be relatively inexpensive; however, the opposite is often the case.

Why is concrete and concrete work so expensive? There are many factors that affect the cost of concrete and concrete jobs, including the type and amount of concrete used, the extent of concrete work needed, and project duration.

Though these are the main factors that affect the final price of concrete and concrete work, there are other specifics to consider, such as the ingredients used for concrete, and labor costs that are involved in concrete placement.

What is the Average Cost of Concrete & Concrete Work? 

In 2008, concrete was as low as $75 per yard. However, many builders and contractors have noticed the significant leap in cost as its demand has grown. 

Concrete

The average price of concrete will mostly depend on the type of concrete you need, how much of it you plan on using, and your location. According to the National Ready Mixed Concrete Association (NRMCA), concrete costs range around $108 to $113 per cubic yard today, or $8 to $18 per square foot.

The actual pricing for concrete will also differ according to your region. To get a more accurate estimate of the average cost of ready-mix concrete delivery in your area, this concrete cost calculator can help. Based on your zip code, the calculator can determine what the typical range in pricing is for cement and its delivery. 

Concrete Work

The average price of concrete work will vary greatly, especially since there are many types of projects of different sizes that will affect the final cost. However, traditionally, many people have used the $113 per cubic yard figure to include installation costs. 

Why is Concrete Expensive?

Besides having an expensive ingredient, cement, there are a number of other factors that make concrete expensive, such as specific types of concrete and the amount you ultimately want to purchase.

Concrete Basics

However, before diving into the things that drive up the cost of concrete, it is essential to understand what it is, as its basic features contribute to how it is finally priced.

Aggregates and Paste

  • Aggregates in concrete can be sand, gravel, or even crushed stones. These items are what binds to the concrete’s paste. 
  • The concrete paste is a combination of water and Portland cement. The cement functions like a binding agent when it is mixed with water to create the paste.
  • Portland cement is created through the process of grinding limestone or chalk and alumina and silica found in shale and clay. These raw materials are then blended and burned in large kilns until they begin to fuse into small masses called clinker. After the clinker cools down, gypsum is added, and the hardened materials are ground down again, resulting in a fine powder.

When these elements are mixed together, the paste begins to harden as the aggregates stick to it, creating the hard, rock-like structure we know as concrete.

Concrete Characteristics in Relation to Price

How does all this relate to price? The fact that newly mixed concrete is malleable and easy to form, while its hardened form is strong and durable, makes it a highly sought-after material. As more areas become industrialized—and as there grows a greater need for durable building materials to withstand severe weather and long-term wear—the demand for concrete has significantly increased. This alone has affected the price of concrete over the years.

In addition, the cement commonly used to create concrete is often the most expensive ingredient it has; the more cement included in a concrete mix, the more expensive it becomes (source).

Types of Concrete

Another factor that can influence the price of concrete is the type of concrete it is. There are quite a few different varieties of concrete and concrete mixes that can be purchased for different types of projects, but the following are some of the most popular: 

Ready-Mixed Concrete

Ready-mixed concrete is the most popular form of concrete used. The concrete is usually mixed at a local plant before it is poured into a revolving drum on the back of a cement truck to keep it from hardening. The truck then delivers the mix to its intended site. (Some also choose to hire smaller companies to prepare ready-mix concrete on-site for smaller projects.) As previously mentioned, the cost of ready-mix concrete can average as high as $113 per cubic yard but can be more once delivery fees are included.

Pervious Concrete

Also known as permeable concrete, porous concrete is designed to allow water to pass through it. It is created through a unique mixing process and application.

Pervious concrete is often found in pavement and driveway construction, where it is necessary for allowing rainwater to drain and eventually reunite with the groundwater underneath. The average cost for pervious concrete ranges around $4 to $7 per square foot.

High-Strength Concrete

High-strength concrete is considered “high-strength” when it has a compressive strength greater than 40 megapascals (MPa). This is due to the concrete’s low water-to-cement ratio (often below .35). Because of its high strength and durability, many high-strength and high-performance concretes are commonly used for large-scale projects, such as high-rise buildings.

Of course, with more strength and durability comes a much higher price point, maxing out around $2,000 per cubic yard for ultra-high-performance concrete.

Reinforced Concrete

Reinforced concrete is essentially concrete with added reinforcement, usually in the form of steel rods, bars, or meshes. Reinforced concrete is typically high in cost because the steel used alone is quite expensive. The cost of adding reinforcement can start at $.18 per square foot (source).

Precast Concrete

Precast concrete is concrete that is pre-mixed and poured to fit a specific cast within a factory before being brought to the project site. Some of the most common examples of precast concrete include concrete blocks, paving stones, and other structural components.

The main benefit that comes from precast concrete is that construction happens faster since assembly is only required for these structures, although the price reflects this convenience. On average, precast concrete can range between $20 to $30 per square foot.

Amount of Concrete

Another critical factor that affects the cost of concrete is the amount, and whether you plan on purchasing pre-mixed concrete to be delivered in a truck, or in bags.

Calculating Concrete Needs

Whether you plan on purchasing bags of concrete that only require water to activate, or ordering pre-mixed concrete from a supplier, use this concrete calculator to help you determine how much you need for your project. If you plan on creating a slab, you will only need to know the width, length, and thickness of your desired slab; for concrete footings, you need width, length, and depth, and for columns, you need diameter and height.

The calculator will tell you how many square yards you will need to cover for concrete if you need to order premixed concrete, in addition to an estimate of the number of bags you will need if purchasing individually. The below table shows an example of the calculations for a concrete slab six inches in thickness, and 10 by 10 feet in width and length:

Dimensions (Slab)Total Square YardsNumber of Pre-Mix Bags
Width = 10 feetLength = 10 feetThickness = 6 inches1.85 square yards40lb Bags60lb Bags80lb Bags
16711184

(Source: Concrete Network)

Why is Concrete Work Expensive?

Concrete work can easily become expensive because there are many factors that go into it besides the cost of concrete and labor. Other things considered in the final price include the type of concrete job and project elements that could result in additional work and materials required to complete it.

Types of Concrete Work

Similarly to the concrete itself, the cost of a concrete project will depend on the kind of work that needs to be done. The following is a list of common concrete projects, both for residential and industrial sites:

  • Interior Concrete Projects
    • Countertops
    • Floors
    • Fireplaces
  • Exterior Concrete Projects
    • Pool Decks
    • Patios
    • Walkways
    • Driveways
    • Walls
  • Concrete Repair & Maintenance
    • Foundation Repair
    • Crack Repair
    • Sealants
  • Industrial Projects
    • High-Rises
    • Roads
    • Parking Lots
    • Bridges

Concrete Job Components

Within each type of concrete project, there are specific elements involved that can add to a job’s price.

Concrete Type Needed & Amount

If you do not plan on purchasing concrete separately to work on a job on your own, the business or contractor you hire will provide the materials for you. Most of the time, the price of the concrete mix and other materials will be included in your final cost.

Similarly to purchasing concrete individually, this price will differ depending on the type of concrete and amount needed for the job.

Grading

Some exterior concrete jobs require dirt removal or movement to create an even surface to pour the foundation on. For extensive grading, businesses and contractors may charge hourly for the use of a tractor as well as to cover compensation for the equipment operator. The average cost for grading can range between $50 to $70 per hour.

Subbase

For large projects, such as industrial work, a subbase may be required. The subbase consists of gravel or sand that is delivered to the site to serve as an even foundation for concrete slabs. A project that needs a subbase will add $12 to $18 per cubic yard to the final cost.

Forms & Finishing

Larger concrete jobs usually require forms to be set up. The concrete forms are used to prevent wet concrete from flowing beyond the project site and helps mold its final foundation once it has hardened and dried. The process of setting up concrete forms usually adds to a job’s final labor costs more than the supplies used for it. The overall cost of concrete forms can range between $1.50 to $2.00 per square foot.

Added Concrete Reinforcement

Some concrete jobs, such as driveways, require a level of reinforcement to prevent cracking. If you need additional steel bars (rebar), mesh, or fiber added to the concrete mix to make the hardened form more stable, the cost will run you an additional $.15 to $.30 per square foot.

Decorative Options

If you want stamping, staining, or any other type of special finishes done (e.g., polishing) to the concrete (typical for interior jobs), there is usually a significant rise in cost. Ultimately, the final price you end up paying will depend on the project size as well as decorative complexity, but here are a few features to keep in mind that will influence the cost:

  • Number of colors used
  • Number of stamping textures used
  • Amount of detail
  • Specialty form or mold work
  • Level of polishing

A Note on Decorative Finishes & Price

Decorative finishes are additional features you can add to poured concrete for a unique look. The most commonly used finishes include stamping and staining.

  • Stamped Concrete – The cost of stamped concrete will vary depending on the colors and patterns you end up choosing for the finish. Basic installation costs for stamping can range from $8 to $12 per square foot, and usually includes one patter and one color. Of course, the more colors and patterns you add, the higher the cost. High-end stamped concrete finishes can cost beyond $18 per square foot.
  • Stained Concrete – Stained concrete involves adding color to the surface of the concrete, rather than blending it all the way through the material. Because this process is not as extensive as stamped finishes, you can expect to pay around $2 to $4 per square foot. This amount covers the application of one color as well as a protective sealing. Like with stamped concrete, this price range can rise with the addition of more colors and extensive designs, exceeding past $15 per square foot in some cases.

Ready-Mix Concrete Delivery

If you plan on having ready-mix concrete delivered to your site via a cement truck, be prepared to pay additional delivery fees. The expense here is used to cover the distance the truck has to travel to deliver the concrete, in addition to any loading fees.

For example, some providers charge a “short load” fee if the amount they order is not enough to fill a truck (usually under 10 cubic feet). The average for this fee is often around $17 per cubic yard. If you want to have concrete delivered over the weekend or on a holiday, you may get charged a premium.

Labor Costs

Finally, the costs of labor can add to the final price of completing a concrete project. As evidenced by the number of elements needed to finish different types of concrete jobs above, there is certainly a lot that goes into concrete work. However, more goes into the actual preparation and pouring of concrete:

  1. Site Preparation – During site preparation, the area receiving the concrete is cleaned or cleared. In certain projects, this is the time when a subbase is created. How the site is prepared will affect how evenly the concrete will eventually set.
  2. Concrete Forming – After the area or subbase is ready, forms are set using wood, metal, or plastic materials.
  3. Concrete Placement – A mixing truck or a crew/crewmember with buckets or wheelbarrows will begin to dispense wet concrete into the forms created. While the concrete is being placed, the crew may use shovels, rakes, or other tools to move the concrete around to ensure air pockets do not form.
  4. Early Finishing – After the concrete is poured, it is “screed” using a large metal or wood board: the process helps smooth and level the top of the concrete. Next, the concrete is floated using a special trowel tool: floating helps compact the concrete and create a smooth finish.
  5. Troweling – Then, a trowel is used to create a hard, even finish on the concrete surface as it dries (only used for concrete work that will not have a rough finish).
  6. Final Finish – After floating and troweling, a final “broom” finish may be used to create a rough-textured surface. In some cases, this is done to prepare the concrete for the application of epoxy. Other finishes may include stamping or texturing.
  7. Curing – After finishing is complete, the concrete can then rest and begin the process of curing. Some accelerants or retardants may be added at this time to adjust the concrete’s setting time. Following curing, a sealant may be applied for added protection.

Ultimately, once you have added up the amount of work required to create a quality concrete project, it makes sense why labor costs can make up a significant amount of the final price.

How to Save Money on Concrete & Concrete Work

Although both concrete and concrete work can be on the pricy side, there are ways you can reduce costs for future projects.

Saving Money on Concrete

Concrete can get expensive fast, but you can easily lower the amount you have to pay for it by following these tips:

  • Know precisely how much concrete you need. Many people who purchase concrete often expect they will require much more than they actually need. Use the concrete calculator mentioned above for ready-mix concrete to determine the amount you will need.
  • Decide if you need ready-mix concrete or bagged concrete. Ordering ready-mix concrete from a provider is usually easier (and cheaper) for large projects such as driveways and foundation slabs, compared to mixing individual bags by hand. On the other hand, if you need concrete for smaller jobs like a sidewalk or setting a post for a mailbox, it will be less expensive to purchase bags of concrete. Keep in mind that if you are considering purchasing the bags that you will need to factor in potential additional costs such as delivery fees and equipment rentals to mix the concrete.
  • Ask stores or contractors if there is concrete with large aggregates such as river gravel available. Usually, if there are large aggregates present in a concrete mix, less cement is needed. As mentioned previously, cement is often the most expensive ingredient found in concrete, so the less of it present, the cheaper the concrete becomes. However, keep in mind that concrete with larger aggregates may differ in strength compared to traditional aggregate ratios.

Saving Money on Concrete Work

If you are looking for a contractor or business to help you with a concrete project, there are a few things you can do to ensure you get the best deal on a job:

  • Do your research. Your concrete needs should be at the center of your research. This starts with thinking about the kind of work you need to be done. Is this an interior job or exterior? Is it small, like concrete crack repair, or is it big, like building out a brand new patio? What about the details? Will you need additional concrete reinforcement? The more specific you can get, the better.
  • Consider the concrete features you want. Some may want to add a unique concrete finish to their site. This is considered a “decorative finish,” and many contractors and businesses will charge an additional fee for this. A common option for a finish is stamped concrete, although it usually costs much more than stained concrete, which offers a similar result. The only difference between the two finishes is that stamped blends colors throughout the mix, while staining is only applied to the concrete surface. If you are not particular about the method and want to save money, stained concrete is the way to go.
  • Make your own estimate. Try making up a rough estimate of the work you need to be done. Factor in the hourly work that may be required by the contractor as well as the cost of concrete. Also, add in additional costs that may come from dirt removal or addition, concrete reinforcement, forms, and finishes.
  • Contact multiple contractors or businesses. From there, research businesses or contractors in your area that specialize in that type of work or can provide that service. It is important to ask local companies and contractors because some prices may change depending on the region you are in. A local organization or contractor will be able to provide you with the most accurate quote for your needs, and will also likely be less expensive than going with someone who is based outside of town.
  • Get a written estimate. Once you have found a few candidates, give them a call or send an email to request an estimate for your project. For a more accurate estimate, be sure to mention any special conditions about your project, such as dirt that requires removal before pouring a slab, or a strict timeline that you need it done by.
  • Ask for samples. Most people do not realize that some concrete contractors and businesses offer concrete samples to clients. If a significantly low price has you concerned about the actual quality of work, a contractor or business can provide, ask if you can look at samples from similar projects.
  • Compare your options. After you have gotten a few estimates, compare them. If you find that the cost of using one business is cheaper than the rest, but you would rather get the quality of another—consider contacting your preferred business to see if they do price matching. Chances are, they will be willing to work with you to at least get the costs lower if they cannot offer price matching.
  • Choose your delivery method wisely. If you do not plan on ordering enough concrete to justify having a full-sized cement truck deliver it, consider alternative delivery methods to save on costs. Many companies offer short load services that involve mixing smaller batches of concrete (usually between one to nine cubic yards) on-site with a freestanding mixer. The rates for this includes a service charge ranging between $85 and $100, in addition to the cost per cubic yard (typically $5 to $10). Alternatively, for very small jobs that require under one cubic yard of concrete, you could purchase your own bags of concrete and transport them home yourself.

There is no denying that concrete and concrete work can be very expensive, regardless of how commonly it is used in projects. For concrete, its type and amount needed can drive up its cost, while the work that is done with it can be even more pricy once you consider the various elements that go into each job.

Although the price of concrete and concrete work can add up quickly, there are many ways to reduce your costs. However, when searching for inexpensive options, it is important to keep in mind the level of quality you want to maintain. High-quality concrete and work can last you years, so it may be worth spending a little more now than paying even more for repairs later.

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