Upon completing this section, you should be able to define the characteristics of concrete.

Concrete is a synthetic construction material made by mixing cement, fine aggregate (usually sand), coarse aggregate (usually gravel or crushed stone), and water in the proper proportions. The product is not concrete unless all four of these ingredients are present.


The fine and coarse aggregates in a concrete mix are the inert, or inactive, ingredients. Cement and water are the active ingredients. The inert ingredients and the cement are first thoroughly mixed together. As soon as the water is added, a chemical reaction begins between the water and the cement. The reaction, called hydration, causes the concrete to harden. This is an important point. The hardening process occurs through hydration of the cement by the water, not by drying out of the mix. Instead of being dried out, concrete must be kept as moist as possible during the initial hydration process. Drying out causes a drop in water content below that required for satisfactory hydration of the cement. The fact that the hardening process does not result from drying out is clearly shown by the fact that concrete hardens just as well underwater as it does in air.


Concrete may be cast into bricks, blocks, and other relatively small building units, which are used in concrete construction. Concrete has a great variety of applications because it meets structural demands and lends itself to architectural treatment. All important building elements, foundations, columns, walls, slabs, and roofs are made from concrete. Other concrete applications are in roads, runways, bridges, and dams.


The compressive strength of concrete (meaning its ability to resist compression) is very high, but its tensile strength (ability to resist stretching, bending, or twisting) is relatively low. Consequently, concrete which must resist a good deal of stretching, bending, or twisting—such as concrete in beams, girders, walls, columns, and the like—must be reinforced with steel. Concrete that must resist only compression may not require reinforcement. As you will learn later, the most important factor controlling the strength of concrete is the water-cement ratio, or the proportion of water to cement in the mix.


The durability of concrete refers to the extent to which the material is capable of resisting deterioration caused by exposure to service conditions. Concrete is also strong and fireproof. Ordinary structural concrete that is to be exposed to the elements must be watertight and weather-resistant. Concrete that is subject to wear, such as floor slabs and pavements, must be capable of resisting abrasion.

The major factor that controls the durability of concrete is its strength. The stronger the concrete, the more durable it is. As we just mentioned, the chief factor controlling the strength of concrete is the water-cement ratio. However, the character, size, and grading (distribution of particle sizes between the largest permissible coarse and the smallest permissible fine) of the aggregate also have important effects on both strength and durability. However, maximum strength and durability will still not be attained unless the sand and coarse aggregate you use consist of well-graded, clean, hard, and durable particles free of undesirable substances (figure 6-1).

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Figure 6-1.—The principal properties of good concrete.


The ideal concrete mix is one with just enough water required for complete hydration of the cement. However, this results in a mix too stiff to pour in forms. A mix fluid enough to be poured in forms always contains a certain amount of water over and above that which will combine with the cement. This water eventually evaporates, leaving voids, or pores, in the concrete. Penetration of the concrete by water is still impossible if these voids are not inter-connected. They may be interconnected, however, as a result of slight sinking of solid particles in the mix during the hardening period. As these particles sink, they leave water-tilled channels that become voids when the water evaporates. The larger and more numerous these voids are, the more the watertightness of the concrete is impaired. The size and number of the voids vary directly with the amount of water used in excess of the amount required to hydrate the cement. To keep the concrete as watertight as possible, you must not use more water than the minimum amount required to attain the necessary degree of workability.


The first requirement for good concrete is to use a cement type suitable for the work at hand and have a satisfactory supply of sand, coarse aggregate, and water. Everything else being equal, the mix with the best graded, strongest, best shaped, and cleanest aggregate makes the strongest and most durable concrete.

Second, the amount of cement, sand, coarse aggregate, and water required for each batch must be carefully weighed or measured according to project specifications.

Third, even the best designed, best graded, and highest quality mix does not make good concrete if it is not workable enough to fill the form spaces thoroughly. On the other hand, too much fluidity also results in defects. Also, improper handling during the overall concrete making process, from the initial aggregate handling to the final placement of the mix, causes segregation of aggregate particles by sizes, resulting in nonuniform, poor-quality concrete.

Finally, the best designed, best graded, highest quality, and best placed mix does not produce good concrete if it is not proper] y cured, that is, properly protected against loss of moisture during the earlier stages of setting.