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Topped Off with Flair
by Mike Dahl, LC/DBM


A backyard makeover in Newbury Park, Calif., featured an outdoor kitchen with themed countertops destined to be used for cooking classes. Also included was a custom fireplace that was built following the engineering plans from the contractor, Scott Cohen's book "Outdoor Fireplaces and Fire Pits." It is made from cinderblock veneered with split-face travertine. The crew cast the hearth, mantle and cap in place using Styrofoam forms. A custom-fabricated iron door was then installed. Cohen designed the flower pot to the left of the fireplace, which was then hand carved by Mexican artisans out of a block of Cantera stone: a quarried, volcanic rock from Mexico and Central America that is durable in spite of having a softness that allows for detailed sculpting. The pot has its own drip irrigation line and a separate drainage line to prevent pooling water from causing iron stains on the hardscape. Cohen's crew built the columns of the pergola out of cinderblock that was grouted solid and reinforced with #5 steel rebar. The stained tongue and grove roof was subcontracted. Electric heaters and outdoor speakers were added. The homeowner provided the furniture, TV and chandelier.
Photos: design by Scott Cohen for


To create the intricately decorated countertops and tabletop, The Green Scene crew built Styrofoam molds into which was put a very dry blend of cement-rich concrete. For a dense and strong final product, the workers employed a large concrete vibrator that removed the air and voids in the concrete. Pieces of crushed wine bottles were set into the drying surface by hand and then tamped down with a steel trowel. The 42" grill's backsplash is veneered with travertine tiles.

An opportunity to dazzle customers with a a little extra display of craftsmanship can be what sets a standard installation apart from an exceptional one. Scott Cohen of The Green Scene has been doing that for years.

In his spare time he does training sessions and speaking engagements, acts as a certified expert witness with the California Contractors State License Board, has hosted programs on HGTV, and authored nine books about landscaping including "Scott Cohen's Outdoor Kitchen Design Workbook," "The Big Book of BBQ Plans," and "The Candid Contractor: Lessons Learned From The Construction Defect Expert Witness Files of Scott Cohen".


A rolled concrete top retaining wall was built with protruding, arched portions capped and veneered with travertine tiles. The hanging planters are made from Cantera stone. In the raised planters made of cinder block and travertine are citrus trees, ivy geranium, scaevola and bacopa. The Green Scene subcontracted the artificial turf installation.


Before the concrete was poured into the molds, larger pieces of glass and whole wine bottles with fiber-optic cables glued to their undersides were positioned and secured with dollops of concrete. Later, the 350 cables were connected to an illuminator with a color wheel.


An authentic wine barrel was used as the base of a table at the end of the counter. To install it, the crew poured a concrete footing with #4 rebar set vertically. The barrel was placed over the footing and rebar, and almost completely filled with concrete. The pieces of rebar that were left exposed were bent horizontally, then integrated into the countertop. The wine bottles set in the cast concrete tabletop were first melted by Cohen in his ceramics shop.

One of those opportunities surfaced during a backyard build in Newbury Park, California that encompassed an outdoor living area with a kitchen, fireplace, pergola, Cantera stone planters and columns, paver pathways, faux wood deck and a pond.


The faux wood deck with a cantilever edge over the moss rock pond was fashioned by using wood stamps on the concrete and coloring it in multiple steps including using acid-based stains. As a final touch, small markings that mimic recessed wood screws were tamped into the concrete. Each of the sunshade's columns is made from six blocks of lathe-turned Cantera stone that were epoxied together on site. They are for decorative purposes only as wooden posts that run through their hollow centers bear the weight of the Douglas fir top.

The customer is a vegan chef and wine aficionado that planned to use the outdoor kitchen to teach healthy cooking. To add some real zest to the instruction area, Cohen designed and built an attention-grabbing countertop and table, complete with a wine motif and glowing accents.

First the U-shaped counter was constructed out of cinderblock leaving cutouts for the 42-inch grill, wine refrigerator, cabinets and open storage. The cells of the cinderblocks were filled with concrete. At the end of one side of the counter, a wine barrel was installed to serve as the base of a table.

To build the countertops, the crew fashioned molds onsite out of Styrofoam and then set large pieces of glass with fiber optic cables attached to them within the mold using small portions of concrete. After they cured, a cement-rich concrete in a very dry blend was backfilled into the molds. Next, a large concrete vibrator was used to consolidate the concrete.

"The vibration is key as it removes air and voids, providing a very dense and strong finished surface," reports Cohen.

For the colored accents spread throughout the top, bits of crushed wine bottles are hand seeded into the surface of the concrete and tamped down flush with a steel trowel.

The same process was used for the round tabletop except in addition to the glass accents; wine bottles Cohen melted in his home ceramic studio were embedded, also with attached fiber-optic cables, in a concentric pattern. After curing the countertops and tabletop for a week or two, the crew grinded, honed and polished their surfaces using granite-finishing tools.

A total of 350 fiber-optic cables were used for the radiant display. They are connected to an illuminator that houses one bright bulb and a color wheel. For extra eye appeal, the counter also has lighting underneath. The results capped off this extensive project vivdly.

Keep Weep Screeds Clear

By Scott Cohen, The Green Scene


In this case, the weep screed is above the deck only on the left side. To the right, it had been buried. As a result, mold grew undetected for three years. Stucco and drywall had to be removed in order to install a new, higher weep screed that accommodated the decking contractor's error.


To make the repair, the flagstone patio pavers were cut away from the house and a planter was created. Drains were added in the planter area. The weep screed was raised and the base of the home was re-stuccoed.

Over the years, many of the mistakes I've seen that result in the most severe consequences can be remedied by very simple fixes. Indeed, the simplest and best "fix" is to avoid making these mistakes in the first place. One example I've observed time and again has involved weep screeds.

The Scenario: This one begins with a simple explanation of what weep screeds are and why they're used. When you have a home built on a concrete slab and the framing is bolted to that slab, the builder will put up some type of a waterproof material, usually tarpaper. On top of that, he or she will install a metal lath (wire mesh) over which stucco will be applied in three coats to achieve a thickness of seven-eighths of an inch.

We know that stucco is not waterproof. Water penetrates the stucco, hits the waterproof membrane (that is, the tarpaper) and then flows by gravity down to the bottom of the wall. At the bottom is a metal guide, the weep screed, which acts as both a guide for stucco application and, because it's perforated, allows moisture to escape rather than accumulate at the base of the wall. As a rule, weep screeds need two inches of clearance above a solid surface and four inches above soil -- distances that reduce insect damage and water penetration.

In one scenario I inspected, a swimming pool had been installed two inches above the level called out in the design. Thus, the decking was two inches higher and as a result covered the weep screed.

No one discovered this problem until three years later when the homeowners were selling the house and an inspection revealed toxic mold in the wall along the side of the house where the pool deck came into contact with the house. Because the weep screed had been covered, water had accumulated and caused a severe mold problem. Remediation involved hiring a mold-removal company to come and pretty much tear down an entire side of the house -- at a cost of about $150,000.

The entire article is available in THE CANDID CONTRACTOR: Lessons Learned From The Construction Defect Expert Witness Files of Scott Cohen. All of his books are available on Amazon or The Green Scene's website.

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February 16, 2020, 9:30 pm PDT

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