In designing homes, one of the items that gets people excited, believe it or not, is countertops. While most homeowners do not have strong feelings about toilet fixtures, roofing material or exterior siding, their eyes always light up when the subject of countertops comes up for discussion. I think this is because of the visceral connection people have with their counters.
Countertops are touched every day, looked at every day, and, in recent years, have become a bit of a status symbol. Invariably, I am asked, "Oh, do you think we can afford granite countertops?!" Granite, for some reason, has become the countertop of choice for high-end builders and, thus, for high-end kitchens.
While granite is both lovely and natural, there are many alternatives equally beautiful. Many of these are environmentally friendly.
Below is a list of all of the countertop materials, both green and not, to allow you to compare and make the right choice.
As I often tell my clients, being green is not a black and white issue. All products have some green characteristics and some not so green ones. There is no material with zero impact on our planet. As you look through the list, try to figure out which material works best for your needs.
More about concrete
Concrete is a natural product and, as such, has a natural beauty. A chemical mixture of cement, sand and water, concrete is durable and will not offgas harmful chemicals. I have also noticed a strange extra benefit of concrete, visitors cannot help but touch the surface. Concrete, being a formed material, can have special features incorporated into the countertop, such as a drain board next to an under-mount sink, or casting metal rods near the stove to create a built-in trivet. With an infinite variety of colors, shapes and textures, concrete is one of the more unique surfaces you will see in a kitchen. The drawback is that it could be expensive depending on the shape.
More about terrazzo
Terrazzo typically consists of small pieces of marble set into cement and highly polished. Odds are that you have walked on a terrazzo floor. They are everywhere: museums, airports, etc. If glass is used, it is called vetrazzo (from vitreous glass) and reflects light in the most beautiful way. The result is a surface so beautiful you will not notice that this particular glass happens to be made from recycled Snapple bottles. You can choose the colors of the glass and the cement binder, giving you an endless list of possibilities. The surface is durable, heat proof and easy to maintain. The drawback is that it could be expensive depending on the shape (are you noticing a repeated theme here?)
More about wood
Butcher block countertops and cutting boards are traditionally made of hard maple because it resists nicks and doesn't splinter easily. Anytime you use wood in your house you want to make sure it is either certified to come from sustainable forests or reclaimed as wood used previously. Maintain your wood with a natural mineral oil so you can put food on it. Natural microbes in the wood will protect it from bacteria.
More about glass tile
These gem-like tiles are so gorgeous you will want them even if they weren't made from recycled glass. The glass is from broken, discarded windows, then crushed to a sand-like texture and mixed with other ingredients, including minerals that add color. This mixture is then heated until the glass particles soften and fuse on their edges. This "sintered" glass requires far less energy to produce than standard glass. It also uses far less energy than fired ceramic tile. The fact that these tiles were made from grains of crushed glass can still be detected. Although the surface is smooth, a slight pebbly "texture" appears to be embedded in the interior of the tiles. Tiles are not a great idea for countertops in general, since the grout lines are hard to clean. I recommend using the tiles as a backsplash.
More about laminate
In the 1950's, plastic laminate was all the rage. By the 1960's, it was beginning to shows it's age. Strange patterns, toxic glues, and frayed edges began to show the drawbacks of plastic laminate. Despite it's drawbacks, people still continue to ask about laminate.
The only laminate I will specify is made from recycled plastic and uses nontoxic glues. I also try to detail the countertop to use solid edges of some other material (wood, for instance).
More about stone
Stone has a natural and timeless quality. There is a misconception that stone is too expensive for the average person. The truth is that stone comes in a wide range of breeds and, thus, prices. That being said, stone also has varying degrees of environmental impact. Marble and granite are mined deep out of the earth, but other stones, such as sandstone, slate and soapstone, can be locally quarried without the same damage. Salvaged stone is widely available, but you will be limited in your color choices.
More about metal
Stainless steel is a combination alloy of steel, chromium and nickel designed to resist rust. The chromium is highly polluting and toxic. This can be avoided if you choose a steel with a high recycled content, which should be readily available. Both durable and hygienic, metal counters resist heat and staining. Using flat stainless steel sheeting and adding a natural wood edge will reduce your costs and ease your installation. One warning: metal scratches and fingerprints very easily, so be sure you like that look before you buy.
More about paper composite countertops (solid surfacing)
Made from paper and a resin binder, composite countertops have a warm, neutral look that fits well with most decorating styles.
This material looks similar to other popular solid-surface countertops like Corian, but because it's only about one-third plastic, it has a more natural look and feel. Many people compare it to soapstone. The material is also very practical. It is not hard enough to dull knives, yet it is dense enough to resist slice marks that can harbor bacteria. As with concrete or any formed surface, special features can be incorporated into the countertops, such as a drain board next to an under-mount sink, or casting metal rods near the stove, creating a built-in trivet.
For more information, see our Going Green at Home research center.
This blog entry was written by Eric Corey Freed, one of ProudGreenHome's many Approved Contributing Experts and founding principle of organicARCHITECT.