By Mason Nichols
What’s the first adjective that pops into your mind when you think of precast concrete products?
If your answer is strong, reliable or trustworthy, you fall right in line with the many contractors, engineers and architects who have come to discover just how useful the building material can be in a vast array of projects and applications. If your answer is “sexy,” then you may be one of a number of forward-thinking designers – like Carla Pienaar – who is on the cutting edge of product development and understands the seemingly endless design aesthetics that can be achieved through specifying precast concrete.
The winding road
Pienaar, a designer in the product development department for Barkman Concrete of Steinbach, Manitoba, has always been fascinated by homes, furniture and the possibilities created in planning spaces. Pienaar began working on her first interior design book when she was 10, a compilation filled with unique spins on design inspired by her parents’ appreciation for the unusual.
“My parents have a bit of a quirky style,” Pienaar said. “They have always been interested in angled walls. So when I think back to that sketchbook and my furniture placement in my own room, I always had my bed on an angle. It was never just against the wall, but always coming out from the corner of the room.”
In many ways, Pienaar’s career path mirrors her first sketchbook: though filled with unconventional angles and turns, the traveler ultimately reaches the desired destination. While Pienaar initially set out to work in the marketing industry, she quickly recognized that the field wasn’t a match, because it limited her imagination and stifled her creativity. “I realized that I didn’t want to sit behind a computer for the rest of my life and that I really needed to do something with design, something tangible,” she said.
As a result, Pienaar shifted her focus back to her original love, ultimately ending up in a master’s degree program at the University of Manitoba, where she currently studies interior design, object design and landscape architecture – all while developing innovative products with Barkman Concrete.
If a career in the marketing industry suppressed Pienaar’s creative juices, working as a designer for Barkman Concrete opened up a whole new world of possibilities, thanks to the flexibility and versatility of precast concrete.
“For Barkman, the bread and butter has always been paving stones, trenches and similar kinds of products,” Pienaar said. “But they are interested in pushing the boundaries, trying new things and getting creative. As a designer, that’s great.”
Barkman Concrete supports Pienaar’s creativity by encouraging “blue sky thinking,” a process whereby employees generate new product ideas to spur creativity in existing lines. This approach speaks to Pienaar’s innate desire to experiment with unconventional ideas. Throw precast concrete into the equation, and the result is a perfect fit for a designer wishing to invoke myriad emotions through her work.
“The diversity of what each type of precast can instigate in someone is actually the most exciting thing for me personally as a designer,” Pienaar said. “In terms of concrete, it’s great because the world is your oyster.”
Over the past year, Pienaar’s main focus has been on developing a new line of wet-cast site furnishings falling somewhere between Barkman’s traditional exposed aggregate products and the more high-end glass fiber-reinforced concrete line. To further diversify the line, the company chose to leverage the power of mixed media, adding additional materials such as wood to the mix.
The result is a family of precast concrete benches that incorporate black locust, an insect- and rot- resistant wood that is one of the strongest domestic timbers in the U.S. (1)
Pienaar noted precast’s ability to “play nice” with other materials as crucial to her continued education in the field. “Again, as a designer, part of what’s really interesting with precast concrete is because of its diverse applications, you’re learning about all kinds of other things, including wood,” she said. “Working on this particular line was a great opportunity for me to be able to use all of my different thought processes and perspectives.”
For a designer whose focus is the quirky and unconventional, precast concrete provides the perfect solution in an infinite number of situations. Perhaps even more importantly, it establishes a world where restrictions cease to exist. For Pienaar, using precast is design nirvana.
“The fact that there are really no boundaries is a constant source of inspiration,” Pienaar said. “The diversity of materiality and applications that concrete provides means that there are many, many more years of exploration to be had with it as a material.”
Mason Nichols is NPCA’s external communication and marketing manager.