You Might Take It for Granite

by Dave on October 15, 2009

by Matthew Peterson

Over the next few weeks, we will be diving into various finishes.  Aside from the importance of what is hidden behind your walls, the level of interior finish out on your home or office is paramount to setting the aesthetic of your space and has a substantial impact on sustainability and earth-friendliness.  One of the most important and, typically, most difficult decisions to make are your countertops.  When you add a level of environmental wellness and health to it, the issue is further complicated.  Next to flooring, counters are one of the most noticeable finishes in your home.  Let’s look at a few of the common styles offered and their impact on the environment.  From there we will move the bar a bit higher by discussing environmentally friendly offerings.

By far the most common upgraded countertop request is granite.  While granite is a naturally occurring material, it is not renewable – after it is mined from the ground it is rather difficult to reuse for anything else.  The cost of granite can be high and there is quite a bit of maintenance including sealing and periodic cleaning with granite friendly products that needs to be done.  Should granite be your countertop of choice, use low or no VOC sealers, try to find a source of granite that is near your building site and stop by a few suppliers’ warehouses to see if you can find some remnant slabs.  With all the cutting and fitting that must be done on counters – you may be surprised at what is considered “waste”.  Much of the same applies to other popular “stone” countertops such as marble, engineered stone, and soapstone.

On most homes (before you choose the granite upgrade…) the industry standard is laminate.  Most of us that are not plagued by issues of using trade names in our descriptions call this “Formica.”  These are inexpensive counters that come in a wide variety of colors and patterns that are plastic coated synthetics.  This product sometimes uses formaldehyde (the smell most of us associate with high school biology).  Look for manufacturers that advertise they do not use this product and that uses recycled plastic for a more eco-friendly version.

Another popular counter top finish is ceramic tile.  This can be an affordable upgrade from laminate that produces a beautiful look that is potentially a do-it-yourself project.  Because tile ranges in texture, color and pattern, the sky is the limit.  If tile is your look, seek tile that is made from recycled content.  There are some great products on the
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market that use post industrial ceramics (from factory waste of making those “other” tiles) and recycled glass.  There is also a company that uses recycled light bulbs which is a bright idea…sorry, I had to.

Solid surfaces such as the trade names Corian and Swanstone are also fairly common products.  They are “solid” allowing scratches to be sanded out which is a nice durable feature to have.  They do not off-gas so they do not lower the indoor air quality (IAQ).  There are some debates happening within the industry about their ecological impact. One point of view states that because they are durable, do not off gas and can be created from plentifully occurring elements these counter tops do not negatively impact the environment.  The other side of the aisle views them as large pieces of plastic that are destined for landfills.  We see the reality somewhere in the middle.  Most people that seek solid surface will have it in their homes for years because there isn’t a need to replace it.

From a green perspective, there are truly exciting countertops being offered.  Some basics include concrete, various types of wood, metal, and composite materials.  We have always been big fans of concrete counters.  While somewhat pricey, the finishes and colors that can be applied make for a gorgeous finish in several colors and sheens.  Additionally, they are environmentally friendly because most sources are near to the job site.  Add to that low or no VOC sealers and you have really accomplished an earth friendly and healthy detail.  The look of wood on counters or portions of counters adds a level of richness and authenticity to a kitchen.  When using wood, look for FSC certification or use a rapidly renewable source like end-grain bamboo.  Metal casts an industrial look typically, but mated with the right cabinet, backsplash, flooring and appliances, it can take a kitchen to a new level of Food Channel-esque cooking.  Using either stainless steel or recycled aluminum, the end product is typically finished with a reusable abrasive or water and then clear coated.  The composites that are getting the most attention use recycled glass and cement.  The result of this combination can look like anything from terrazzo to solid surface.  Although somewhat pricey, the look is stunning.

Although not an exclusive list of product offerings, we hope that this gets the gears turning on what can be achieved with countertops.  Beyond the eco-friendliness of these, the look can be tailored to your style and perhaps even expand it.  Your imagination is the limit and if you research enough, you will find that cost is not always as high as you may think.  So, time to redo those countertops or specify something for your new home – and, always, if you have any questions, contact us and we will help in any way we can.

Matthew Peterson is the Principal of Element Design Group in Lewes. He can be reached at

This column first appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, July 23, 2009.

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