Greener Pastures

Everyone talks a good green game these days. Of course talking green and shelling out the green to get those eco-friendly benefits are two different things, and one doesn’t always lead to the other. However, while the green trend may not have fully permeated the kitchen and bath industry yet in terms of spending patterns, in the world of countertops, sustainable design seems to be the hottest trend around. That’s according to manufacturers recently interviewed by Kitchen & Bath Design News, who maintain that the future of the countertop industry will be defined by durable, sustainable countertops with plenty of design appeal.

Indeed, sustainable countertops, new colors and patterns, countertops featuring a sense of depth and products designed with long-term cost savings in mind are clearly in vogue today, manufacturers agree.

“The future of our business is in creating quality products that are sustainable and have high performance, while not sacrificing design,” states Lorenzo Marquez, director of marketing for Cosentino North America, in Stafford, TX.

“Eco-friendly countertops are the way forward for the surfacing material industry,” he notes, citing the firm’s ECO by Cosentino line, which is composed of 75% post-industrial and post-consumer recycled raw material. “By utilizing recycled materials, we are ‘upcycling’ products that have reached the end of their lifecycle – meaning that they cannot be incorporated into any other industrial product and would otherwise collect in landfill sites,” he explains.

Marquez, like many of his contemporaries, believes it is more important than ever for manufacturers to produce a product that helps preserve the environment.

Maureen McGeehan, marketing manager for DuPont Surfaces in Wilmington, DE agrees, but believes that manufacturing countertops that combine sustainability and functionality is the way to go. “Each of these qualities on its own isn’t going to cut it in 2010 and beyond,” says McGeehan. “Consumers are looking to do good and feel good about their countertop choice.”

Ferron Dunham, marketing manager for LG Surfaces in Peoria, AZ, concurs, stating, “Surfaces that give back to nature and are on target with the color trends will be the best sellers.”

Taly Dunevich, director of marketing for the Van Nuys, CA-based CaesarStone, sees that trend toward a more contemporary look, with colors that are “consistent, rich and less ‘noisy’ than granite.” Dunevich also notices a movement toward surfaces that have some kind of pattern or texture.

While going green and adding new colors and patterns are popular, there also seems to be a more subtle change as consumers look for alternatives to granite.

“Now that granite is showing up in gas station bathrooms, I think that people are really looking for something new and different,” says Karen Righthand, director of marketing for Vetrazzo, in Richmond, CA. “We’ve seen this trend in countertops before. Historically, every 10 years or so, a new material kind of drives a wedge in and starts to open the door.”

That material may be quartz, according to Dale Mandell, North America sales director for Samsung Staron. “Quartz is beginning to rival granite in a big way,” he says. “Quartz surfaces use mined, natural quartz (one of the hardest minerals found in nature) that are blended with technologically advanced polymers. The result is a durable, stain-resistant, scratch-resistant surface.”

Green Light

Most manufacturers believe that green is the number one trend in countertops right now. “There is a call to action across the industry for sustainable products,” says Allison Williams, marketing manager for Imperial Marble Corp., in Somonauk, IL. “Sustainable products do two things: reduce waste and reduce costs over time for consumers.”

But while eco-friendly products are in demand, this trend goes beyond just product, extending into the promotion of greener company value systems, which create stories that seem to be resonating with designers and consumers.

For instance, in the creation of ECO, Cosentino advanced its environmental standards to include: minimizing dust emissions in all phases of production; purifying 99% of Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) factory emissions; optimizing water usage through water reclamation processes that allow the company to use 94% recycled water in production processes, and pursuing quarry restoration and mountain reforestation under strict stewardship programs.

In addition, all of the packaging and marketing materials created for the promotion of ECO are eco-friendly and made from recycled materials, Marquez notes.

DuPont has begun a sustainability journey of its own. “We are striving to continually improve and update our green offerings,” says McGeehan.

DuPont recently introduced four new colors in its Zodiaq Terra Collection, which all contain at least 25% post-consumer recycled content in the form of green, brown and clear glass bottles. “Our other colors in the Terra Collection contain pre-consumer recycled content, but our research suggested that consumers highly resonate with post-consumer, and we adjusted our new products to fulfill those preferences,” she explains.

Another way people seek an environmentally friendly surface is through its effect on air quality. The GreenGuard Environmental Institute has recognized the majority of Staron’s surfaces as low-emitting building materials, Mandell notes, stating, “This is particularly [helpful] for individuals with allergies or sensitivities to airborne contaminants.”

CaesarStone, Formica, LG Surfaces and VT Industries have also received GreenGuard certification, the companies note.

“Our participation in the GreenGuard program and LEED program, and support for the Sustainable Forest Initiative, form the foundation of our efforts to build a sustainable and responsible company,” says Bill Roush, spokesperson for Formica, in Cincinnati, OH.

Dunham notes that LG Surfaces is committed to adherence and enforcement of environmental regulations throughout its supply chain. “We are focusing on preventing the use of toxic contents in the raw materials we source from suppliers by demanding certificates of analysis on raw materials to determine environmental impact. LG Surfaces also conducts independent third-party evaluations to certify that our products provide the highest level of health and environmental assurance to our customers,” Dunham notes.

Dunevich explains that quartz is, by definition, an eco-friendly product, and adds that CaesarStone also uses recycled materials in its products. “I’m proud to say that we are the only quartz surface manufacturer that is ISO 14001 (environmental management system) certified,” says Dunevich. This certification entails a voluntary environmental management system implemented with appropriate goals and commitments. “Adhering to this standard improves corporate performance and provides an actual objective basis to verify a company’s claims about its green practices,” states Dunevich.

In addition to its GreenGuard certified Fine Laminate Countertops, VT Industries is promoting its EQcountertops, which use particleboard with no ureaformaldehyde added, the company notes.

While marble products are known to last for many years, Williams says that Imperial Marble evaluates its materials regularly to make sure that they’re as green as they can be. “Our focus, on top of maintaining sustainability, has been to give consumers more design options within these already sustainable products,”
she says.

Depth Perception

When it comes to design and color trends, manufacturers agree that depth appearance is very big right now. Consumers want a sense of three-dimensional movement in the look of their countertops, and flecks and sparkles add that feeling of depth.

“Many homeowners and designers are looking for something more interesting than just a flat surface option,” says Mandell. To address this demand, Staron’s Tempest series uses translucent particulates in the manufacturing process.

In many color choices, reflective chips have also been added to create an appearance consistent with metallic elements and minerals often found in nature, Mandell states.

Vetrazzo has taken that one step further. Labels from actual Corona bottles are visible in the firm’s countertops. “That’s one thing that is distinctive about our recycled glass product – you really do see the recycled material and you can tell it’s post-consumer recycled content,” says Righthand. Vetrazzo even sends the consumer a certificate of transformation that explains what the source of the glass in the countertop was, so the consumer can be connected to the idea of repurposing waste in a bigger sense.

Cosentino utilizes an exclusive five-color mix process, which allows the company to add depth while maintaining the quality performance of its products.

DuPont has introduced eight new colors to its Corian Private Collection this year that embody the depth appearance trend. “We’re able to create this look by combining natural base tones with golden and bronze shaded veining, dotted with harmonizing particulates,” explains McGeehan. “The veining has an aura of translucence, giving the countertop a softer feel and a sense of graceful movement.”

Formica claims to have started the trend of stone finishes on countertops back in 2003 with the introduction of its Etchings finish. The company’s 180fx features a multi-faceted, three-dimensional Radiance finish that reflects and refracts the light, while highlighting veining and quartz patterns. “180fx also uses a four-color process instead of the usual three colors – adding a fourth dimension of color realism,” says Roush.

Imperial Marble is creating a line of cast vanities with a textured stone finish. The firm’s new Impressions by Imperial line also allows the company to add an unlimited array of 3-D images to its products, from natural granite and travertine to city skylines and oceanfront views in shower surrounds, the firm notes.

Hanwha L&C USA in Atlanta, GA utilizes clear acrylic chips in its Brionne solid surface to achieve a 3-D look. Hanwha’s HanStone products are composed of 93% natural quartz and 7% resin to create the “natural” depth, the company notes.

“Thanks to new technology and design from major laminate manufacturers like Formica and Wilsonart, laminates now come with embossing and gloss finishes that really mimic natural stone,” states Rick Liddell, senior v.p. for Fine Laminate Countertop Division, VT Industries, in Holstein, IA. These laminates, which are postformed by VT Industries on countertops with ogee edges, provide the finishing touch to appear like stone, but without the maintenance and at a fraction of the cost, he adds.

Money Matters

In a struggling economy, budget countertop options have gained ground among some consumers. This has created new opportunities for the laminate industry. In response, laminate manufacturers are getting more creative with their designs, according to Rousch.

“The 180fx with the Radiance finish is causing a buzz in the marketplace [because] it has an exotic granite look, without the high costs. 180fx veining runs deep and throughout the countertop and options of an ogee, beveled or rounded edge add to the realism.”

Liddell agrees that both consumers and builders are looking for value and are returning to laminate countertops, but with premium edges and laminates. “The talk at the cocktail party is no longer, ‘Look what I spent on my countertops,’ but rather, ‘Look what I saved on these beautiful countertops,’” he says.

Of course in many markets, high-end products continue to flourish. Additionally, high-end products may be incorporated into mix-and-match applications to cut costs.

While McGeehan says that DuPont is still experiencing demand for all of its products, she has noticed a few trends that reflect the state of the economy. “We’ve seen consumers take on smaller projects,” she says. “Instead of redoing an entire kitchen in the highest-end countertop material, consumers will instead reserve that material for just the island.”

Additionally, she notes, “Countertop replacement is a way consumers can get the feeling of a full remodel, but for less of an investment.”

Dunevich agrees, noting, “If consumers really want to make an impact by changing their kitchen without doing a complete remodel, changing countertops will do the trick!”

Bright Future

While the past few years have been challenging all around, most manufacturers expressed optimism about the future, citing pent up demand for new kitchens and a changing consumer mindset that values products that promote eco-friendly living.

Dunevich anticipates consistent growth in the usage and desire for quartz, along with continued growth and development in the sustainable products arena.

“The economic situation we’re in is painful, but it has sparked a revolution of sorts,” adds Williams. “It requires designers and manufacturers to really evaluate and pay attention to consumer needs and to think way out of the box.”

Williams sees more innovation in affordable, sustainable and recyclable materials in the future, as well as a lot of interesting new designs as the styles and tastes of the younger generations influence the industry.

“There will be a thinning of the herd, but the herd will come out of this much stronger,” she concludes.

Righthand anticipates that products made in the U.S.A. will become “a big thing going forward,” noting, “Going green and made domestically should go hand in hand. We need to recycle local materials. Do we really need to go to Africa and recycle their content? What about here at home? We need to rebuild our economy, so I expect ‘Made in America’ to be an emerging trend.”

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