Polished Concrete Floor Reveals Natural Beauty

American Eagle Outfitters uses polished concrete flooring in retail spaces as a sustainable and appealing option.

American Eagle Outfitters developed its store design with BAR Architects, San Francisco, who helped move the retailer to polished concrete flooring.

Polished concrete flooring is an aesthetic Michael Smith, director of store design for American Eagle Outfitters really likes. Side-by-side, in combination with inlaid wood pads, is really beautiful, he says.

American Eagle Outfitters developed its store design in 1998 with BAR Architects, of San Francisco, who helped move the retailer to polished concrete flooring. The look is achieved through a multi-step, progressively finer grinding system using specialized equipment with industrial fine-diamond tooling to hone and polish a concrete surface.

According to David Schwing, an architect with BAR Architects, polished concrete is a practical material that develops a nice patina over time, while it’s integral, through-body soft color conceals gouges and scrapes that occur in high-traffic environments. Its neutral coloration provides a good backdrop to a retail space and the merchandise that needs to be the focus of attention.

As a result of the success in three New York City flagship stores, most American Eagle Outfitters mall stores now combine polished concrete flooring slab with real wood inlay pads, explained Smith. Using a unique technique developed with the BAR architectural firm and their national flooring contractor, QuestMark Flooring, Canonsburg, PA, they were able to achieve “some really wonderful textures — like a poor man’s terrazzo,” said Smith.

American Eagle Outfitters, a nearly 40-year-old clothing retailer, has grown to more than a thousand stores by managing to remain hip despite aggressive and fashion-savvy competition.

“We used to say that we had a beach house aesthetic,” said Smith, “a natural earthiness with some industrial overtones.” He compared the look to white shiplap, the wooden board for barns and seasonal homes.

As an architect by training, Smith abides by the modernist design principle “form follows function,” contending that the combination of inlaid wood pads and polished concrete floor visually organizes the space and defines patterns for walking and fixture placement. But, just as important, he said, the flooring is a “great background for our clothing.”

A typical American Eagle Outfitters mall store is about 7,000 sq. ft., of which 4,000 sq. ft. is polished concrete with 3,000 sq. ft. of real-wood inlay in the center of the store.

Polished concrete is a practical material that develops a nice patina over time, while it’s integral, through-body soft color conceals gouges and scrapes that occur in high-traffic environments.

Design History

Between the years 2000 and 2012, beginning with their 2000 all-white store design, American Eagle Outfitters experimented with various combinations of wood and polished concrete flooring, which included a 2004 and 2008 design. It was with the introduction of their 2012 store— which actually began in 2009— that polished concrete flooring became more central to design. The 2012 store had a greater focus on polished concrete with the retrofits of their major New York City flagship locations.

“Once we made the decision, we were off and running with it,” explained Gary Staso, the retailer’s director of construction. “It polished up really well.”

Furthermore, Staso said, since some malls don’t have air-conditioning when closed at night, there is no control over ambient temperature and humidity. Wood flooring can expand and contract, affecting durability and surface quality. Compared to primarily all-wooden flooring, Staso said, “I put concrete in. I don’t have to worry about it.”

Design Process

Smith described a collaborative design process of small groups within the company, but, “it’s definitely not just a one or two person-driven design process. I manage the process, but then we get a lot of input from our partners.” Those partners include marketing, visual, and store operations groups.

BAR Architects presented various flooring options, such as rough wood, reclaimed lumber, and concrete. The retailer’s group bought into the polished concrete flooring after prototyping it in their warehouse, said Staso.

While initially the aesthetic, and eventually the lower cost, were the driving forces, the American Eagle Outfitters Corp. also wants to be a “positive partner for the environment. That is part of our brand DNA,” explained Smith. Both the installation and maintenance of polished concrete flooring have positive environmental benefits and can contribute to potential LEED points.

Flagship Stores

Ultimately, the New York City flagship stores were the proving grounds for the polished concrete flooring. These locations “tend to be the laboratories for developing new ideas,” explained Smith.

The flagship store on 34th Street in Manhattan received a major remodel in 2009, a complete gutting of the space. The façade was removed and the second floor was raised. “Aesthetically that one came out really, really nicely,” said Smith.”

Tens of thousands of shoppers visit the store each week. BAR’s Schwing explained the polished concrete floors work well because they are a hard-wearing, neutral-toned walking surface for such high-traffic locations. The natural oak plank inset “carpets” delineate departments and visually organize the space. Walk-off mats manage rain or snow brought in on foot from the street.

Flagship locations require more time and more effort because of the custom detailing, but eventually design elements in the flagship stores find their way into the mall stores. An “A plus” or “A double-plus” mall is likely to get the special elements. But even American Eagle Outfitter locations in the “B” malls received polished concrete flooring, because the costs tend to be lower than other flooring options, especially once maintenance is included in the equation.

Expertly polished concrete flooring requires substantially reduced maintenance compared to, for example, clear-coat epoxy floors. And unlike tile or carpet there is no material replacement cost. It doesn’t wear out, so there is no need for anything to be replaced.

The outlet store locations, now the fastest growing segment for American Eagle Outfitters, feature polished concrete flooring without the inlaid wood pads. And nearly half of the 900 mall stores have been remodeled with polished concrete flooring in the last five years.

“If you do a really beautiful job of polishing, I think it’s a stunning floor,” says Smith.

In addition to its aesthetics and ease of care, polished concrete flooring can contribute to potential LEED points.

The Construction Process

While the final product looks extraordinary, the starting point can offer numerous challenges and requires a systemic approach, explained John Scanlon, executive vice president for QuestMark Flooring.

When American Eagle Outfitters takes over an existing mall space from a previous tenant the flooring may consist of any number of materials: ceramic tile, wood, sometimes even polished concrete. When that floor is ripped up, according to Staso, what is revealed often looks like “machine gun blowouts.”

After the demolition of an existing store, the concrete placement is laid out, with slurry strips to partition the inlaid wood pads. A topping of anywhere from 3/8 to 1/2 in. is poured and needs to set before floor polishing can begin. Once the concrete is polished, framing out the store commences.

Part of the magic that makes the American Eagle Outfitters’ polished concrete floor especially appealing is that aggregate particles are scattered into the topper when poured. Smith compares the process to “scattering chicken feed,” and says it gives the floor a “really beautiful texture and tone.”

At this level, the polishing is almost an art. According to Smith, the retailer’s construction department had to be very careful about who they chose to get the quality and finish they want.”

Of course, Staso’s concerns go beyond the aesthetic. “In retail it’s all about getting the best look at the best price,” he explained. Polished concrete is “relatively inexpensive with no maintenance. That’s kind of nice.”

Environmental Benefits

In addition to its aesthetics and ease of care, polished concrete flooring can contribute to potential LEED points in at least two categories. In the Energy and Atmosphere category, polished concrete could contribute to LEED points because it doesn’t employ VOC materials and because the sheen actually increases the room’s ambient light. In the Materials and Resources category, the technology increases the life span of the already existing concrete floors.

Beyond its environmental benefits, the primary purpose of polished concrete floors at American Eagle Outfitters is to create a store aesthetic that can increase sales. “It’s got a lot of character,” Smith said of the flooring technology. According to Schwing, the unpretentious, utilitarian qualities of concrete “convey honesty and integrity, which reflect the core values of the American Eagle Outfitters brand.”

— Learn more about polished concrete.

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