When sculptor and art instructor Wanda Ellerbeck saw her university teaching assignments cut back due to budgetary constraints in the early 1990s, she turned to creating concrete benches and birdbaths to supplement her income. She was asked to create a countertop. Before she knew it, she was crafting one unique creation after another - and loving it.

"I pursued concrete with a vengeance," says Ellerbeck.

Ellerbeck now oversees Grotto Designs, which she founded in 1994. The decorative concrete company is based in Calgary, Alberta, and showcases Ellerbeck's mastery of materials, color, texture and shape - as well as her self-described occasional quirky sense of design.

Ellerbeck ventured down her professional concrete path at a time when decorative concrete was virtually unheard of. Now that the versatile material is popping up in retail and commercial outlets - not to mention home and garden television shows and national magazines - she is enjoying watching the material earn the praises of homeowners and designers alike.

As a renowned sculptor and Master of Fine Arts, Ellerbeck used concrete in her sculpting some 25 years ago. As she began fusing her artistic flair into countertops, sinks, vanities, furniture, and fireplace surrounds, she found herself smitten by concrete's potential.

"It's the design aspect that excites me," she says, calling concrete liquid stone.

"Concrete is one of the oldest, strongest and most durable materials that humans have ever made," she explains on her web site. "Because it is mixed and poured, its variations and design potentials are almost infinite. It is cast under controlled conditions therefore strength and durability is dependable. Applications are limited only by the imagination."

Ellerbeck assumes many roles - president of the company, designer, customer liaison, head of research and development, and master technician. Her husband and business partner, Tim Murphy, assists when he has time. He is a builder of fine homes across Canada.

She's seen a remarkable evolution in the industry over the past decade. Some of the most influential changes she's seen involve the amazing technical advances that give concrete its great versatility.

"Like the introduction of polymers and additives and the scope of colors now available," she says.

She says that back when she was starting out, the only colors available in Calgary were red, yellow, and black.

"I used a whole bunch of pigments to make my own, but they're nowhere close to the colors available today," she says.

Another major transformation is the growing awareness of decorative concrete.

"In the early days there wasn't a lot of information about decorative concrete," she says. "There wasn't the awareness that concrete can be an interior material. It's so exciting to see what's happening now."

And what's happening is that concrete is the perfect material for anything from high-end urban looking homes to log cabins to public countertops.


Grotto Designs has provided concrete-based project for a variety of commercial endeavors, including terrazzo stairs, reception desks, a Levi store, and a host of commercial-style countertops.

Canadians are seeing the concrete in high-profile areas and bringing the versatile material into their homes, says Ellerbeck.

"I've done a lot of powder rooms," she says.

When Ellerbeck embarks on a room, like a powder room, it often begins as a one-item project, like a countertop or vanity.

"But before you know it, we tie it all together and it's concrete-based," she says.

That - the interior design aspect - is what she loves most about the job. That and meeting with people and sharing ideas.

Ellerbeck recently introduced a line of sink models with such exotic names as The Apollo, The Juno, The Palomino, Luna, Terra, among others.

"Sink design remains an untapped universe of potential," she tells her web site visitors. "Concrete sinks, vanities, and pedestals add drama, style and grace to any bathroom or powder room. The strong clean lines and deep colors say 'elegance' all the way."

Bathrooms were at the heart of one of Ellerbeck's favorite projects - designing six bathrooms in an extravagant home in British Columbia. The project involved unique curved concrete shower walls, designing the powder room, driving through snowy conditions, and spending two weeks installing.

"It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime jobs," she says.

Ellerbeck is also excited about the possibilities that concrete's dimension brings to fireplace surrounds.

"A wide range of style options from old world ornamentation of Baroque or Victorian to the crisp, spartan lines of Post Modernism gives the homeowner an array of standard feature choices," she says on her web site. "Also, concrete offers the unique role as a strong mediator to bring out the best features in complimentary materials such as stone, tile or metals, fusing them together in a dramatic marriage of texture and shape."

Another strong point is that surrounds are now made with GFRC (glass fiber reinforced concrete), which means a thinner surface and greater design possibilities.

"You can go floor to ceiling with thin panels," she says.

While fireplace surrounds are still relative newcomers to the decorative concrete frenzy, the countertop is not. In fact, the countertop is one of the mainstays of Grotto Designs.

Grotto Design's standard 1.5-inch thick countertops come in a range of standard and custom colors. Edges can be smooth, ground or chipped, square, chamfered, rounded or dropped for a heavier, thicker look.

"We are developing a line of standard concrete products and accessories," Ellerbeck says. "We also use other materials with our countertops - stainless steel for inlays, wood, copper, glass.

"I like using other materials because it changes the look-it's a lot of fun," she says.

Color and texture also play vital roles in achieving individuality. Custom colors and stains are offered, and integral pigments and applied stains can be used together for exotic and extraordinary effects.

When it comes to textures, Grotto Designs can make a surface as smooth as glass. Ellerbeck can ground an edge to expose the aggregate, producing a dramatic effect. And for a more rustic feel, chipped edges can be integrated into the countertop.

As decorative concrete has developed and advanced over the years, Ellerbeck is keeping busy in a growing market.

"People are becoming more and more aware of decorative concrete," she says. "In the beginning it was very different. People just couldn't wrap their heads around this idea of concrete indoors."

Grotto Designs
Wanda Ellerbeck
1808 A 17th Avenue SE
Calgary, Alberta Canada T2G1K4
(403) 262-3940
(866) 262-3966 TOLL FREE
(403) 262-7305 FAX
(403) 512-3116 CELL

Michele Dawson writes each week on one of the contractor members of The Concrete Network (www.concretenetwork.com). She has written about the home building industry for several years and was on the public affairs staff of the California Building Industry Association.