Choosing the Right Counter Surfaces for Your Home
As the most-remodeled room in American residences, the kitchen is vitally important to a home’s interior design. One of the key elements in the kitchen is the countertop—a surface that is used every day for a myriad of reasons. Because it plays such a crucial role in both the function and design of a room that is considered the heart of the home, homeowners take great care in choosing the countertop materials that best suit their kitchens.
“Because countertops come in such a vast array of materials, choosing the right material can be a daunting task,” says Larry Pulliam, president of Craftmark Solid Surfaces Inc. “The choice is important because the countertops are the focal point of the kitchen or bath and set the tone for the whole project’s design.”
Page Rien, a designer on HGTV’s Hidden Potential and the owner of Rien With An Eye Design Consultancy, and Jennifer Gordinho of Art Stone Granite and Marble Inc., suggest considering the following when choosing what type of countertop to install in your kitchen:
• Amount of everyday food prep. “If the kitchen gets a lot of food-prep traffic and a lot of people in and out every day, eating or working on the surface, it means the surface will be cleaned often and will receive a lot of wear and tear,” Rien says. “This should be calculated, and a highly durable surface should be chosen.”
• Cost. “Buy what you can afford; set up a budget and stay within your limit,” Gordinho says. “Shop around, do research and, most of all, feel comfortable with your fabricator. Sometimes a little more money pays for peace of mind.”
• Level of maintenance. “If you’re someone who has a lot of traffic on the countertop, but you’re not as interested in keeping certain products off of the surface, I advise against a product that is fussy, requires sealing or is at all permeable,” Rien says.
• Amount of light in the kitchen. When it comes to the aesthetics of the countertop, the amount of light in the kitchen can inform what countertop color and finish will work best. “I only suggest honed surfaces for kitchens that already get a lot of light,” Rien says, adding that, “Often, reflective/shiny surfaces work best for dark kitchens that rely on artificial light.” To make sure you see the countertop material as it would look in the lighting of your kitchen, take samples home before deciding on a material, color and finish.
• Personal preferences. “Your countertops should reflect your personality and taste,” Gordinho says. “Go with your natural instincts, and when shopping, bring along samples of your paint, cabinets, wallpaper, art and flooring; this will make the process easier.”
• Plan ahead. “Think about how the countertop will be used over time,” Rien says. “Bar-top seating doesn’t work for small children, but they aren’t small forever. Think about how your family will grow and evolve over the next 10 years, even if you don’t anticipate being in your home that long.”
After getting a good idea of the amount of use (and abuse) your countertop will experience, as well as understanding your maintenance and design preferences, it’s time to review your material options. “When choosing your countertops, consider what style you’re going for—it pretty much comes down to your personal preference and taste,” says Elizabeth Husmann, sales manager at AGM Imports Granite & Marble.
Easily the most popular countertop material in American homes today, granite offers the aesthetics of a shiny natural stone—a look that can be implemented into almost any design style.
“My best tip would be: When in doubt, use granite,” says Courtney Cachet, designer and TV personality with Cachet Enterprises. “It is one of the surefire ways to appeal to most homeowners.” Husmann agrees. “Granite comes in many unique colors and patterns, and it is easy to maintain with proper care and cleaning,” she says.
Fast Facts: Granite
The look: Natural stone; natural colors; varying degrees of movement; no two slabs are exactly the same
Design style: The variety of colors and edge options allow granite to be used in just about any style
Cleaning: Use water and mild dish soap or stone cleaner
Maintenance: Periodically seal the stone as needed
Low-budget options: Work with local fabricators; use remnants whenever possible; use 2-centimeter material instead of
3-centimeter, though keep in mind that it will be more prone to cracks and other issues
Similar alternatives: Marble (same look and care, more porous and more expensive than granite, not recommended for kitchens), engineered stone (similar look, more consistent color, easier maintenance), quartz (similar look, more speckled than marbled)
—Pete von Ahn, AIA, CGP, architect, von Ahn Design LLC
A popular granite alternative, engineered stone offers supreme durability, consistent color and a polished look that “often has a sparkle to it,” Rien says. It’s also a highly rated product. “Engineered stone gained popularity mainly because of its look,” Gordinho says. “There are no design flaws, and clients want that flawless look. Solid colors became popular as the younger generation wants a more contemporary look, and older clients don’t always want to deal with the upkeep of natural stone.’
Fast Facts: Engineered Stone
The look: Mimics natural stone with less organic movement and a more consistent colorDesign style: Is offered in a variety of colors and textures to work with any design style
Durability: Very high
Cleaning: Use any non-bleach, non-abrasive cleaner
Maintenance: Clean as needed; no sealing required
Low-budget options: Work with local fabricators; inquire about discontinued or soon-to-be discontinued colors and textures
Similar alternatives: granite, quartz, recycled glass
—Pete von Ahn, AIA, CGP, architect, von Ahn Design LLC; Paige Rien, designer, HGTV’s Hiddent Potential, owner, Rien With An Eye Design Consultancy
For a high-end, designer look, glass countertops are the way to go. A good glass countertop can provide a unique, striking element to your kitchen’s design; however, this style of countertop should be researched thoroughly before installing. “The quality of glass countertops can vary a great deal,” says Tim Czechowski, president of Jockimo Inc., a manufacturer of glass architectural products. “Working with a quality manufacturer with experience providing glass for countertop applications is crucial.”
Czechowski also points out that the type of glass you choose is paramount to its success in gaining the approval of you and your family. “Flat, non-textured glass will fingerprint easily and will be a nightmare to clean,” he says. “We recommend a textured glass to hide dirt and fingerprints [while making] the space visually appealing at the same time.”
Fast Facts: Glass
The look: High-end, carries light; options vary in texture, color, finish, laminating, edge polish and backlighting
Design style: Modern or theme-specific
Cleaning: Use a feather duster for light cleaning and a soft, lint-free cloth with a non-abrasive, non-ammonia glass cleaner for thorough cleaning
Maintenance: Review at least annually to ensure that related components are performing adequately and the glass is firmly affixed
Low-budget options: Use glass as a highlighted countertop for the island; use a more budget-friendly material for the perimeter
—Tim Czechowski, president, Jockimo Inc.
Increasing in popularity, wood countertops offer an organic, rustic look, and are often paired with traditional or eco-friendly design styles. There are several options with this type of countertop, including your choice of wood (the most common choices include oak, maple and teak), whether you’d like a plank, butcher-block or patterned layout in the countertop and whether you want a shiny or matte finish.
“Designers use wood countertops as focal pieces to add that ‘wow’ factor,” says Joshua Johnson, president of J. Aaron LLC. “Wood is a great-looking product that adds warmth and softness to a kitchen design.”
A current trend with wood countertops is to install them on an island and install another material, such as granite or engineered stone, on the perimeter cabinets. “I’m a big fan of alternating the counter surfaces,” Rien says. “Using two different surfaces adds visual interest and can also offer functional use (like a butcher block on the island for a cutting surface). Consider a variety of materials, especially if your kitchen is large.”
Fast Facts: Wood
The look: Earthy, functional; a chef’s kitchen
Design style: Traditional or eco-friendly modern
Cleaning: Wipe with a moist washcloth for daily cleaning; use mild dish soap as needed
Maintenance: Rub with oil at least once a month to protect against water damage
Low-budget options: Instead of finding an inexpensive product that may be more prone to warping or damage, use wood sparingly—only on the island, for example
—Paige Rien, designer, HGTV’s Hidden Potential, owner, Rien With An Eye Design Consultancy
Arriving on the mainstream countertop scene only in recent years, the appeal of a concrete countertop is its design versatility. A “shapeshifter” type of material, concrete can be molded, colored, stained and finished to create almost any look you want. Concrete countertops are a great option if your kitchen is an unusual shape or if you’re looking for a unique aesthetic.
Concrete can also be mixed with pieces of recycled glass to create a countertop that mimics the look of engineered stone. “Our stainless concrete has zero waste, as it is cast to size, versus cut to size like granite or marble,” Johnson says. “It is also extremely stain- and acid-resistant.”
Fast Facts: Concrete
The look: Modern, industrial, earthy
Design style: Urban contemporary
Cleaning: Wipe with a moist washcloth for daily cleaning; use mild dish soap as needed
Maintenance: Must be treated and sealed
Low-budget options: Shop around for specials, but expect to pay around $10,000 for the countertop, as installation of this material is very labor-intensive
—Paige Rien, designer, HGTV’s Hiddent Potential, owner, Rien With An Eye Design Consultancy
As the green movement continues to expand in popularity, manufacturers are taking note and creating more eco-friendly products. When it comes to countertops, one of the most environmentally conscious options is a recycled material. According to Cachet, this can mean recycled glass or recycled concrete (Portland cement and ash mixture). Or, one of the newest options in recycled countertops is made by a name brand with which many homeowners are familiar: ECO by Cosentino (the makers of Silestone).
“ECO by Cosentino is a new line of eco-friendly countertop and surfacing material composed of 75-percent post-industrial and post-consumer recycled raw material,” says Lorenzo Marquez with ECO by Cosentino. The countertop is made from:
• Mirrors salvaged from houses, buildings and factories
• Glass from windows and bottles
• Porcelain from china, tiles, sinks, toilets and decorative elements
• Industrial furnace residuals from factories in the form of crystallized ashes
• Stone scrap from mountains, quarries, manufacturing and fabrication
All of these materials are bonded together with an eco-friendly, corn oil-based resin to create the countertop, which mimics the look of granite or marble.
Fast Facts: ECO by Cosentino
The look: Similar to granite or marble
Design style: Versatile, can work with almost any design
Cleaning: Use soap and water or gentle house cleaners
Maintenance: A non-porous material, this countertop requires no regular maintenance beyond everyday wiping
Low-budget options: Available at Lowe’s stores nationwide for $68-$110 per square foot.
—Lorenzo Marquez, ECO by Cosentino
Aside from these options, additional countertop materials are available, including laminate, tile, solid surface, stainless steel and more. “Laminate is a low-cost alternative, and new designs coupled with new print technology make for a very realistic look,” says Joe Ochs, sales manager at Wilsonart International.
When choosing the countertop that best suits your needs, Gordinho recommends also keeping the return-on-investment value in mind. “Look at the area you live in and the value of your home,” she says. “There is nothing worse than putting a product in that doesn’t reflect the style of the house.”
For most homeowners, installing a new countertop is only done once in the duration of their stay in that home. This one-time-only decision puts a lot of weight on which choice is made, so be sure to research your options thoroughly and take your time making the decision. Once you’ve made your choice, you’ll be enjoying the countertop for years to come.