Cement and concrete are two terms that people innocently use interchangeably in conversation.
While they look, feel, and act similarly, cement and concrete are two very different building materials.
Cement is actually an ingredient in concrete, although it’s used by itself in many cases.
This leads us to some questions:
When do you use concrete over cement?
Is one of these materials more durable or versatile than the other?
Which is better for tighter budgets?
Which dries faster?
Read on to learn about the differences between cement and concrete. We’ll also discuss when each makes the most sense for commercial construction projects.
Before we go any deeper, let’s demystify the confusion surrounding cement and concrete.
What are the real differences between these easily confused building materials?
Here’s a basic breakdown:
Cement is a binding agent that starts its journey as a fine powder.
The cement-making process begins with several ingredients:
The ingredients are combined into a rocky mixture and fired in a high-temperature kiln.
The firing process produces tiny, 3–25 millimeter cement pebbles, which we call clinker.
After the clinker has the chance to cool, it’s ground into a fine gray powder.
Mixing this powder with the right amount of water sets off the hydration process — a chemical reaction that causes the mixture to harden.
Concrete is cement with a few extra ingredients. More specifically, it’s a mix of Portland cement, water, and aggregate — like crushed stone, gravel, or sand.
The process starts with creating a cement paste from powdered cement and water. This paste makes up 25–35% of the total concrete mixture.
Next comes the aggregate (65–75% of the concrete mixture), which the paste binds together to create a much coarser, stronger mix.
Despite being two different materials, cement and concrete do share one striking similarity: rich backstories in the history of commercial construction.
Cement dates back more than 12,000 years to ancient civilizations.
Ancient Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians mixed aggregates like lime and volcanic ash with water to form a tough building material that resembled an early version of cement.
In 1824, Joseph Aspdin invented a blend of heated limestone, clay, and water, and sparked a cement revolution. One hundred and twenty years later, Isaac Charles Johnson perfected the process to create Portland cement as we know it.
Cement exploded in popularity across the globe. Portland cement was suddenly one of the top materials used to build homes and waterways — like the Erie Canal.
The mass production of Portland cement later inspired what we now know as concrete.
In the 19th-century, French gardener Joseph Monier poured concrete over a wire mesh to develop more resilient flower pots. This patent set the stage for rebar — or steel grids that add reinforcement to concrete.
Before we compare the durability, timeframe, and cost of these materials, let’s talk about when we use each in commercial construction.
Cement is rarely — if ever — a standalone construction material.
There are a few exceptions. For instance, cement is sometimes mixed with fine aggregates and used as mortar in brickwork. It’s also used as grout to fill cracks in foundations or concrete slabs.
PVC cement is also useful for connecting pipes together, while traditional fast-setting cement comes in handy for setting fence posts.
In most cases, cement’s use in commercial construction flies under the radar as one of the three main ingredients of concrete.
As you may have guessed, we use concrete for just about everything else:
As one of the most popular building materials on Earth, it’s no shock that some of the most famous structures are made primarily from concrete. That includes the Hoover Dam, the Pentagon, and the Pantheon.
Both concrete and cement are extremely durable materials. However, one has proven itself far more durable for commercial construction purposes.
Cement is remarkably durable compared to some other construction materials, but its strength is still nowhere close to concrete.
Cement tends to crack and crumble under pressure, making it far from a concrete alternative, at least in the construction of large warehouses or office buildings.
Cement grouts and masonry can last 15–20 years.
Concrete’s durability is determined by a few factors:
Freshly poured concrete typically cures to max strength in 28 days. When cured at the 55-degree Fahrenheit “sweet spot,” a slab may achieve 110% of its maximum strength.
Rebar only increases the durability of man’s favorite building material. Reinforced concrete can withstand pressures of 3,000–5,000 PSI before crumbling or losing its strength.
Adding more coarse aggregates and less water strengthens concrete mixes even more.
It’s so durable that it’s one of the most trusted materials for building large skyscrapers, like the 390-meter-tall CITIC Plaza in China.
Both concrete and cement dry and harden within 24 hours. But how long until that grayish sludge is usable, walkable, and reliable?
Cement dries relatively quickly, especially when used as a mortar or to connect PVC pipes.
Freshly poured cement hardens within 10–40 minutes and reaches full strength within 24–48 hours.
In terms of drying and curing speed, cement is the clear-cut winner.
However, concrete is still a remarkably fast-curing material, making it a popular option for large commercial structures like manufacturing facilities.
We have construction innovations like precast and tilt-up walls to thank for that. These methods allow concrete and cement to cure under optimal conditions.
Precast walls are poured in smaller panels in a concrete plant to avoid rain, snow, or unstable humidity. Later, they are carted to the job site on the back of a flatbed truck and tilted into place with a crane.
Tilt-up walls are poured into molds directly over the building’s foundation. They are given time to cure to full strength, after which they’re hoisted into place with a crane.
In most cases, the panels are ready to lodge into place in a few days, and it’s not unusual to see a massive concrete building sprout up in 2–6 months.
The difference between concrete and cement becomes really clear when considering large-scale construction projects.
Concrete doesn’t exist without cement. Any skyscraper or distribution center with “concrete” columns or tilt-up walls is technically cement.
Simply put, cement isn’t commonly found on construction sites by itself unless it’s used for details and side projects.
For example, if there are cracks in the outdoor walkway or chips in the foundation, a crew may use cement to touch up the slightly damaged concrete.
A crew might also use ready-mix cement as tiling grout or to bind bricks together for a classy building facade.
The size potential for concrete buildings is practically limitless — really.
Precast walls alone can be 15 feet wide, 50 feet tall, 12 inches thick, and weigh in at more than six tons.
Typical concrete-based foundations often require more than 200,000 pounds of concrete.
It’s no surprise that concrete (in direct competition with our personal favorite — steel) essentially runs the commercial construction industry.
How easy is it to get your hands on these materials to kickstart your next commercial construction project?
The availability of cement is actually on an upward swing in recent years.
The U.S. produced more than 89,000 thousand metric tons of cement in 2020 alone.
Globally, that number stood at a mind-blowing 4,100,000 thousand metric tons, with China leading the way.
It’s safe to say that cement is widely available for your project.
In 2020, the United States consumed 103,000 thousand metric tons of concrete. That number has been climbing since 2010.
It’s no wonder Chemistry World dubs it “the single most widely used material in the world” for its use in buildings, roadways, and other architecture.
On a positive note, no matter how your project manager decides to use concrete or cement in your project, it’s likely to last a long time.
When used as a grout, a mortar, or to link piping together, properly mixed cement can last 15–20 years.
Properly poured, cured, and maintained concrete can last for centuries.
Our final concrete vs. cement comparison is the cost factor.
How much of your budget will you have to sink into buying materials and supplies?
The cost of these mixes depends entirely on the type of cement needed to complete the project.
A 70-pound bag of Type N masonry cement — commonly used as a mortar to bind bricks and stones together for a classier exterior — costs around $13.
A 20-pound pail of all-purpose cement mix for concrete repair costs about $15.
This is certainly less expensive than concrete, but that doesn’t make it a viable alternative.
The concrete line of your SOV will have a much higher dollar amount than the cement line.
Basic concrete — such as the type used for a walkway — costs around $4–$7 per square foot.
A large tilt-up wall could weigh a massive 300,000 pounds. That, plus the rental costs for concrete mixers, delivery trucks, and cranes to hoist the walls in place, add even more to the budget.
Both materials are equally important in the commercial construction industry.
After all, concrete mixtures simply wouldn’t exist without cement, but cement on its own is a rarity of sorts.
On top of everything we’ve already covered, the case for concrete is simple:
If your project manager recommends concrete for your warehouse, distribution center, office building, or plant, there’s no reason not to use it.
(Unless, of course, your alternative is steel!)
But rest assured, the terms cement and concrete do not mean the same thing.
Don’t forget to call FMP for commercial construction services in Colorado!