Countertops: Making the Green Choice

Going green in the home is hitting just about every aspect of remodeling, but sometimes it’s hard to distinguish green or make the correct choice. This month Susan Davis, CGBP, CKBR, CAPS, design principal and co-owner of Spectrum Fine Homes, Inc., Mountain View, Calif., and Chris Donatelli, CR, CKBR, Donatelli Castillo Builders, Inc., San Jose, Calif., help us sort it all out.

In order to determine what kind of countertop is appropriate for a project and a client, there are considerations to think about that are part of a sustainable design. It’s important to do research on the manufacturing process and what makes the product green.

“There are things to consider when making a green choice,” says Donatelli. “What kind of recycled content does it have?

How far away did the product come from? How energy intensive is the manufacturing process? How does it impact the environment?”

Using materials that aren’t depleting natural resources or harming the earth are essential to being green which eliminates using a stone product in a lot of cases. Looking at alternative materials may reveal something as equally beautiful and green.

Concrete countertops have become quite popular lately. There are two ways to use concrete countertops: either by purchasing slabs, or by using cast-in-place concrete. Most concrete takes a bit of maintenance and that should be considered when making a countertop decision. There is also composite concrete that is combined with a resin to make the concrete very durable and reduce maintenance issues.

“One of the products that we use a lot is tempered safety glass, which is a fairly green product because a lot of it is recycled glass,” says Davis. “There are usually glass makers local to most regions and it’s fairly gentle on the environment. It’s not necessary the material I would use in the most high-use area, but combining countertop material makes for a much more interesting space when you have a variety of countertops that coordinate and accent one another.”

There are also some interesting materials that are being produced by some companies, such as recycled glass mixed with clay, metal shavings mixed with an eco-resin and countertops made of recycled paper and eco-resin that becomes very resistant to staining and abuse and comes in a slab form.

“We like to use materials that are as local as possible because we don’t want to be buying something from halfway around the world that incurs large fossil fuel usage,” explains Davis. “It also does not support the local economy, which is another consideration for sustainable design and green building.”

Probably the most commonly used solid surface countertop now is quartz stones. Made by a variety of manufacturers, some can be green because of a company’s use of recycled remnants from quarries that are combined with resins to make a quartz stone product. This durable material doesn’t have to be sealed and is very impervious to any sort of abuse in the kitchen.

Another concern when remodeling green is to make sure the product doesn’t off-gas into the environment. You want to make sure the material doesn’t use off-gasing adhesives in the manufacturing process. Also be certain to use adhesives with low or no VOCs during installation to avoid poor air quality.

“It’s all a process of education for the clients,” adds Davis. “It’s important to know the clients’ tastes and introduce options that they won’t tear out in a couple of years. If you can’t dissuade them, you can try introducing a combination of materials to cushion the impact.”

Donatelli suggests putting together a matrix for customers based on different green criteria. Clients can see what the choices are, what they can afford, what looks good in the space they are remodeling and what fits their lifestyle.

“We have a nice resource library here with lots of samples and a variety of different materials to show people and get them excited,” says Davis. “The best thing to do is go to a local conference or trade show focusing on green materials. Ask company reps about the products, research the manufacturer and ask for samples.”

“The bottom line is, you want to create a top that is going to last a long time that’s going to look good. If you put in something that is going to be worn out in a few years, you haven’t made a very sustainable choice,” adds Donatelli.

Proceed to the test