The other day I got a phone call from a good friend who had an interesting question for me: “What is the best cheap countertop I can get for my kitchen?” Flummoxed, I paused before saying, “It depends on what you mean by cheap, and what you mean by ‘is.’” (Because nothing is ever one thing, my answer to home questions is frequently “it depends.”) So I asked him to explain himself.
It seems that my friend, who had recently bought a house was talking to his real estate agent about doing some renovations when the agent advised him to make sure he uses granite in the kitchen because it would be best for resale. (Wait what? The ink is barely dry on the closing documents and she is already talking about resale!) Well, I told him that she’s kind of accurate, sadly, but not exactly right.
During the housing boom, the industry—everyone from the stone yards, “big box” home supply stores, and the builders—turned what used to be a luxury item found mostly in the best houses into something that became standard in even entry-level condos. Real estate agents then took this and ran with it in house listings, making sure ads noted that the “luxury kitchen comes complete with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.” As a result, buyers associate granite with quality. The problem is now self-fulfilling: buyers use granite because they think potential buyers will be looking for it.
The issue has become problematic for various reasons. Recently, a blog post on forbes.com posited that the granite craze has cost the country more than the first Gulf War—$12 billion. Yikes!
“I’m all for nicer kitchens, but it seems fair to wonder if we’ve overindulged,” Stephane Fitch wrote. “Granite is supposed to last, like, forever. But does anybody really believe all that glossy stone will stay in our kitchens permanently? When will we tire of it? We’re a fickle people, we are. Even our most costly investments can prove short-lived.”
I hear you talking Stephane.
American consumers have become so fixated on granite that they neglect to explore the rich possibilities that are available for their countertops. Forty years ago, options were limited—laminate, wood, stone. Laminate was seemingly the market leader until Wilmington, Del.–based DuPont came along with Corian (see figure 1) solid surfacing and changed the game. Low-maintenance and durable, Corian became as common as Kleenex.
Figure 1: DuPont Corian
Today, things are much different. Consumers can choose from any variety of stone—marble, soapstone, slate—quartz, concrete, recycled glass/concrete, recycled porcelain/concrete, bamboo, glass, composite resin, paper, aluminum, glazed lava stone, fiber cement, cork, stainless steel, and on and on.
If money is an issue, your options might be limited to laminate. It’s still an old standby and can be purchased in pre-made tops at the large home supply stores, or you (or your contractor) may buy it sheets and glue it to a substrate. There are now tons of colors and textures and patterns. Stay away from those that try to look like real stone. Terrible!
From laminate, you can step up to ceramic tile or wood. Ceramic is not as popular as it once was, especially when other materials give you a monolithic surface that can support an undermounted sink.
Wood is a great-looking product that is always in vogue. “Butcher-block counters have a warmth and resilience no other material can match, and you’ll never be without a cutting board,” This Old House writes on its website. It requires some maintenance—periodic oiling—but it can sanded and refinished so it will last a long time. And you can find affordable options from IKEA or Lumber Liquidators (see figure 2).
Figure 2: Lumber Liquidators
And new materials keep coming. One area of growth is in so-called sustainable countertops—those made with post-consumer recycled content such as paper (see figure 3), glass (see figure 4 ), or stainless steel, or offerings made from salvage material or from rapidly renewable sources such as bamboo and cork.
Figure 3: Klip BioTechnologies' EcoTop
Figure 4: Coverings Etc.'s BioGlass
Bainbridge Island, Wash.–based Teragren (see figure 5), which offers a stable of bamboo products, has expanded to include three new countertops—strand bamboo, end-grain strand bamboo, and traditional bamboo.
Figure 5: Teragren
These days, categories have layers of subcategories. Regular concrete begat lightweight concrete (Syndecrete and others like it), which begat concrete and recycled glass (IceStone among others), which begat concrete and recycled paper and recycled glass (Squak Mountain Stone, see figure 6), which begat concrete and recycled porcelain (EnviroMODE, see figure 7).
Figure 6: Squak Mountain Stone
Figure 7: EnviroMODE
We are awash in so many options that picking a countertop has become a headache-inducing chore, forcing us to fall back on the default option: granite.
To be certain, granite is a great material; overuse has made it boring. Besides, the stain resistance, heat resistance, and abrasion resistance of quartz (see figure 9)—a surfacing product made from 93 percent quartz and 7 percent resin and pigment—and granite are about the same, except quartz doesn’t need to be sealed and it comes in more colors.
Figure 9: CaesarStone Quartz Surfaces
So expand your horizons—and your options. Just remember a few things:
All materials have benefits and drawbacks. Wood and standing water don’t mix; paper-based surfacing scratches easily but can be easily repaired with sandpaper; stainless steel shows scratch marks very easily; and concrete stains easily.
A kitchen can feature more than one surface. It’s common these days to see a marble top for baking, wood for an island, and stone near the stove–all in one kitchen. It’s all about the intended use of the top.
Be realistic in the material you choose. You can’t put a hot pot on wood and expect it to stay pristine, and marble stains just if you look at it so if you have frequent wine tasting it’s a bad idea. Choose the material that is appropriate to how you live.