Familiar surfaces, new trends

TAKEN FOR GRANITE Often used for kitchen countertops, granite has recently come under media attention due to reports that some types of granite may produce relatively high levels of radon. But the EPA has debunked those charges.

For kitchen countertops, granite, marble and other natural surfaces remain popular, with new colors and textures around the corner in cement, engineered stone and other solid surfaces.

A survey released by the National Kitchen & Bath Association showed that 94 percent of kitchen and bath designers named granite as the most popular countertop material for kitchens, an enduring trend in the remodeling marketplace. Engineered stone surfaces are becoming more popular, with 65.1 percent of designers reporting usage in projects (designers were able to name multiple building materials in the survey).

But granite has had more than its fair share of attention, as the venerable kitchen material was at the center of a media firestorm this summer, following a New York Times article and subsequent heavy media coverage of reports that some granites emit relatively high levels of radon. A number of other studies refuted the claims, and the Environmental Protection Agency weighed in on the issue, stating “The EPA does not believe sufficient data exists to conclude that the types of granite commonly used in countertops are significantly increasing indoor radon levels.”

Jim Martinez, a spokesman for the natural stone trade group Marble Institute of America, said the institute has compiled a large number of studies, as well as conducted its own research, showing that granite is a harmless surface, with average radon reading thousands of times below EPA standards.

“It hasn’t hurt that some of the state organizations, the Florida Department of Public Health, for example, have issued their own statements,” he said. Those include state health departments in Texas, North Carolina, New Jersey and others.

Paul Nickols, president and CEO of Neptune Fine Granite, a fabrication and installation business in Kansas City, Mo., said the issue has been “overblown.” He said that his business, which deals in both natural and engineered surfaces—such as DuPont Zodiaq and CaesarStone—“has not necessarily seen an overwhelming spike in granite sales as much as they’ve noted consistent, interested business that is in tune with past years.” He said the radon coverage “has been almost comical.”

Jeffrey Crane, president and CEO of home-building consulting firm Concept to Creation, said in his experience, worries about natural stone have not surfaced.

“I do not view it as any greater concern than many other environmental issues associated with other home construction materials,” he said. “Granite is still the primary material of choice, in my experience, for both luxury custom and high-end production homes.”

Indeed, aside from the spike in media attention, granite and other natural stones still are one of the most popular choices for kitchen renovations, retailers and wholesalers report.

“The trend I have seen as an ‘old school’ granite fabricator is that people are moving to very ornate, upscale fabrication,” Nickols said. “On the commercial end, condos, senior living communities and the like are including granite as a part of the initial design and price. It used to be an upgrade, but now it’s expected.”

In Phoenix, for example, granite is the most popular surface at Kitchen & Bath Solutions, according to owner Brian Simpson. Colors of granite are typically chosen to contrast with cabinet colors, darker surfaces for lighter woods and vice versa, he said.

Engineered stone surfaces are coming to be more popular as well, he added. “Just due to the economy, I’m doing more in laminates,” Simpson said, and also because ease-of-maintenance issues are top-of-mind in his middle class market.

By contrast, in upscale condo developments in downtown Chicago, marble and limestone are seeing a surge in popularity in spite of the fact those materials are more difficult to care for, according to one Chicago builder.

Lighter colored marble, such as white carrera marble, is just one example, said Geoffrey Ruttenberg, CEO of Chicago developer Brixton Group.

“We’ve also seen a lot of limestone recently,” he said.

In his business, it’s the opening price-point condos—$100,000 to $400,000—where he sees the most granite. Those trends are mostly “developer-driven” he said, while more adventurous granites, marbles, stones, glass and colored concretes are popular with the higher-end home buyers.

“That’s where the trendy consumer really comes into play,” he said.

Jonathan Zanger is president of Walker Zanger, a national tile and stone business with 17 company owned showrooms in the United States. Catering to a more upscale, urban clientele, Zanger concurred that lighter colors in marble and granite remain popular choices in the big city.

But those trends sometimes merge, he noted. A recently completed condo development in New York City featured “Costa Esmerelda” granite, a green-colored granite that “has a lot of the characteristics of marble.”

“It’s not the traditional, speckled kind of granite, it’s more of a veined granite. It has more graining and more movement to it,” he explained.

Finishes are also a consideration. Matte finishes were more popular in the 1990s, but glossier finishes that show off the stone’s characteristics have seen a resurgence this decade. More exotic finishes, such as a “leather” finish that creates a more textured countertop, have also seen an increase in popularity.

Golds, greens and browns in natural stones are popular, while glass surfaces are also gaining notice. Engineered stones or solid surfaces are more popular in the mass-production market, he noted.

An important trend to watch, even while the renovation market is slow, is the generally increasing surface area in kitchens. The NKBA survey notes that two-thirds of designers reported they are being asked to install multiple cooking stations, including kitchen islands. And with more surface area in the kitchen, warmer business opportunities will surely emerge in coverings as the overall market comes back from the cold.

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