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Alternative materials for countertops

QuestionWe are in the design phase of an addition on our 50-year-old brick Cape Cod house in Falls Church, VA. It will include a new kitchen, master bath, and later a deck. My plan is to use Corian countertops, but I'm wondering if there is a recycled material available I should consider? Ideally, it should be something easy to clean and attractive, not wildly expensive, and yet holds up well. It doesn't have to be "natural" material—I know granite is natural, but it's too cold to the touch for me.

AnswerWhen Corian first came out, I received factory training on its installation. Corian is beautiful when installed, but it's expensive and requires a factory-trained installer. Another (similar) product is SwanStone by the Swan Corporation, which also requires installation by a professional. Their price could be one-third or one-half less than Corian according to Swan Corporation. However, complications of installation and your choice of edging design can affect this price.

The new trend is exposed aggregate. It's earth-friendly because it's the sum of "minerals and natural substance." If you wish, you can add designs and patterns into the concrete surface. This product is very dense; if you occasionally drop glasses, cups, plates, etc., be prepared to replace them because they will surely break!

Installed, the product is either 1.5" or 2" thick. Some companies offer up to 24 colors. Sample colors can range from $25 to $50 with custom colors running $75 and up. Prices can be around $65 to $125 per sq. ft., which includes a beveled edge for 1.5". These prices, of course, depend on the contractor. There will be extra charges for an undermount sink cutout, drainboards, edge details, patterns, backsplashes, and a concrete single-basin sink. Installation of the countertop can run between $40 and $50 per hour, per person.

Countertops are either pre-cast or built on site. They also can develop hairline cracks, the result of natural shrinkage of the concrete. These cracks tend to be non-structural. However, these imperfections are the appeal and character that customers are looking for—the aged appearance that naturally occurs is preferred over Corian or plastic laminate countertops. Of course, this is all based on personal taste.

A third option would be to install glass tiles made from recycled windshields. TerraGreen Ceramics created their product using a sophisticated system called "glass fusion." This process combines recycled glass and minerals to create an entirely new ceramics material with a distinctive look and feel. The body of the tile contains over 55 to 58 percent waste glass, e.g., windows, mirrors, and post-consumer glass (bottles, jars, container glass). The remaining tile body is composed of select nonmetallic minerals, such as special clays, feldspar, sand, and silica. The manufacturing process is designed to have zero negative impact on the environment while providing a non-toxic environment for employees and the surrounding community.

Because of the handwork involved during different phases of the manufacturing process, these tiles exhibit their own personality in the sense of color, texture, and shape—no two tiles are exactly alike. This is even more noticeable in the TerraClassic line due to the hand-rubbing technique applied to the surface of each individual tile before firing. They make a great product for countertop applications. Field tiles run about $7 to $16 sq. ft., depending on color. Bull-nose and outside corners run about $5 each. The only way to really appreciate the beauty of these tiles is to see and handle them yourself. This product not only helps our environment but it gives you some unique handmade tiles with real character.

Good luck with your remodeling project! You've got your work cut out for you as you research earth-friendly countertops. Contact the manufacturers and ask for samples of their products so you can get a feel for the product.

More information on SwanStone and TerraGreen Ceramics can be found in my book Build Smarter with Alternative Materials. To order your copy, click here or click the purchase button below!

Click to Purchase

Copyright © 2002 LAF/C.R.S., Inc. All rights reserved.
Question answered by Leon A. Frechette. This question originated from greenhomebuilding.com.

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