Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why take stone counters for granite?

 About a week ago the Washington Post ran a highly amusing article in the Lifestyle section on the subject of granite countertops—which, it claims, have gone well beyond a mere decorating trend to almost a way of life. The article quotes a Virginia real estate agent as saying that it's become impossible to sell or even rent a house without granite counters; it would be "almost like trying to sell a house without a toilet." But the real question that author Monica Hesse seeks to answer is: why? Just what is so special about this material that now every house, in every price range, has to have it?

The article offers several possible answers. The most basic: granite is easy to clean, unlike, say, tile (one homeowner says her decision to replace her old tile counters with granite was based on the fact that "the grout was all yicky"). An HGTV host, Anthony Carino, suggests that "People wanting granite countertops is people wanting to sound like they know what they’re talking about...like listening to two guys talk about hot-rod cars." And Richard Trimber, president of a retailer called Counter Intelligence, says that the purpose of granite is to make "a statement about who you are and where you are in life." Granite, in Hesse's words, "says: I am not living in a group house in Mount Pleasant anymore. It says: I am not holing up in my parents’ basement. It says: I will throw parties in my open-floor-plan great room, refilling the hummus for the kitchen island while chatting with my guests. I will buy the hummus from Trader Joe’s." In other words, it says that you have made it.

The article does note that the granite craze may have passed its peak; the real "forward-looking design snobs," Hesse notes, consider granite passé and now prefer "poured concrete in swirling designs." But the one question Hesse doesn't really attempt to answer is whether granite actually is, in any meaningful way, better than other materials. Aside from its beauty, which is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, what does this substance actually have going for it?

Despite being a natural material, granite has definite drawbacks from an environmental standpoint, according to the U.S. Building Council's Green Home Guide. It's not a renewable resource, and it's also very heavy, which means that transporting it consumes quite a lot of fossil fuel. According to the editors of the Green Home Guide, granite is only really a green choice "in states like New Hampshire where it is quarried." On the plus side, it produces no VOCs, and it is a durable material that can last a lifetime if properly treated. Proper treatment includes sealing it once a year to protect it from stains, wiping up all spills promptly, and avoiding acidic cleaning products like that ecofrugal standard, vinegar and water. This means that "easy-to-clean" granite actually requires significantly more maintenance than much-maligned laminate. And, of course, it comes with a significantly higher price tag. The August 2010 issue of Consumer Reports, which focuses on kitchens, puts the price of granite at anywhere from $45 to $200 per square foot. Although some other counter types cost more than a low-end granite, really top-of-the-line granite is more expensive than any other option. By contrast, the cheapest countertop materials, tile and laminate, cost only $10 to $30 per square foot.

Overall, it seems clear that to an ecofrugal homeowner, granite should not be the default choice for countertops. But what should?

Carino, the HGTV host quoted in the Post article, is "trying to turn people on to quartz, which is even harder than granite, even less porous." Consumer Reports finds that engineered quartz has fewer disadvantages than any other countertop material: it's stain-resistant and heat-resistant, and unlike natural stone, it doesn't require sealing. Its only drawback is that "edges and corners can chip," and choosing rounded edges can mitigate this problem. Moreover, the editors of the Green Home Guide agree that engineered quartz is a truly green material: it's nontoxic and produces less waste throughout its life cycle than natural stone. Although its price tag is high—comparable to granite's, in fact, at $50 to $100 per square foot—it is a long-lasting material that shouldn't need replacement. (It might seem like terrazzo, a material made largely from recycled glass, would be a still greener choice, but the eco-benefits of recycling are partly offset by the epoxy or concrete base that the glass chips are set in.)

This probably makes quartz the most ecofrugal choice for those who are building a new kitchen from scratch. However, most of us aren't doing that. When homeowners decide to spring for granite countertops, it's usually because their old countertops are, as the homeowner quoted in the Post article put it, "yicky"—not because they're completely unusable. So I submit that the most ecofrugal choice of all is to salvage as much as possible of your existing countertop and replace only the "yicky" part: the visible surface. You can lay tile right over top of an existing laminate counter, or you can simply re-cover your existing laminate surface with a new sheet of laminate. A four-by-eight sheet (which would be enough to cover all the counters in our little '70s kitchen) costs around 50 bucks at Home Despot—less than half the cost of an entire new countertop. True, the material itself is petroleum-based, but there's not that much of it; even the Green Home Guide points out that laminate counters can be an eco-friendly choice. And if you don't care for the visible joints created by putting a vertical strip of laminate on the front of the countertop, you can replace it with a strip of finished wood molding instead (a favorite trick of Sarah Susanka, author of the popular "Not So Big House" series). The Natural Handyman warns that wood edges are "more vulnerable to moisture and wear," but DIY Network claims that wood molding actually offers "a more durable edge" than laminate, so it seems to be a question of what look you prefer.

Re-laminating a counter requires far less new material than installing a new counter of any kind, it keeps your old countertop out of the landfill, and it also saves you a bundle of money. From an ecofrugal standpoint, doesn't that beat a massive slab of stone hands down?
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