Umbra on countertops
With the home remodeling boom, we keep wondering: what is the best countertop choice? We’ve gone through a couple homes since getting married, and are now considering building our own. Laminate, Formica, butcher block, concrete, granite, plastic, composite, tile … they all have their own durability merits and drawbacks, but from creation to home health, which is the friendliest?
Leonie Mowat and Greg Overley
North Las Vegas, Nev.
Dearest Leonie and Greg,
I guess I’m missing out on the home remodeling boom, and after you finish this house, you should ignore future remodeling booms. Find something you like now and think you will like for the duration of your stay in the house. Duration is going to be the largest factor in whether your countertop is “friendly.”
These are the countertop choices of which I am aware: concrete, butcher block, laminate, linoleum, natural or engineered stone, glass chip, stainless steel or aluminum, tile, solid surface, paper composite. What I haven’t found is the always-hoped-for definitive ranking of these items. They all have pros and cons. But a great breakdown of most of these materials, including their environmental impacts and kitchen performance, can be found in my fair city’s sustainable-building program’s kitchens guide.
Of the available options, a few are available with recycled content. There are paper and resin composite sheets made with 50 or 100 percent recycled paper and water-based resin. The glass chip countertops I’ve seen are recycled glass bits embedded in resin or concrete. Recycled aluminum tiles look great in photos, and recycled glass tiles are also a gorgeous possibility. Search for these on the web using keywords, and you’ll see some good images and info without my bandying about one brand over the next.
Another idea — better than recycling, as usual — is reuse. (I suppose you could go all the way with the three R’s and reduce, but going without a kitchen counter would make food prep awkward.) Stone and stainless steel can both be found either secondhand from homes and restaurants at building salvage businesses, or in remnants at fabricators or restaurant supply companies. If you truly are in a remodeling boom down in Las Vegas, it should be possible to find decent cast-offs collected by some entrepreneurial environmentalist.
Something else to think about is the adhesives and substrates used in composite and laminate products. As usual, we want to look for products that use adhesives low in volatile organic compounds. The currently fashionable solid-surface countertops (Corian is a familiar brand name) don’t look so good from this vantage point; you’ll have to be cautious with laminates on this count as well. And look for wood — whether a substrate or a butcher-block counter — certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
Try to find locally manufactured materials if you can, since shipping heavy stuff around is part of the countertop problem. There may be locally manufactured tile or stone, for example. If you can’t find what you need locally, that makes longevity all the more important — after all, the fewer counters you replace over the years, the less stuff you ship, and the less impact you have.
I’m meandering a bit here, partially because there is no definitive answer to your question. I think linoleum and tile are two good choices for counters, if you can install them with less-toxic adhesive and finishes. They are both quite durable. As we discovered during floor days, linoleum is a great product. And tile, with recycled content or not, is so durable and replaceable that it can help compensate for shipping weight as it lasts and lasts in your lovely kitchen.
Obviously, personal taste is a driving force in countertop choice. Download the Seattle kitchen remodel guide, look at the photos and pros and cons, narrow it down to a few you would consider, and then see if they are available and “friendly” where you live.