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The Green Countertop Dilemma

Remodeling your kitchen and looking for the greenest choice in countertops? The answer is easier than you think.

Posted on Nov 11 2010 by Ann Edminster

During a recent visit to Eco6Design in Half Moon Bay, California, I was drooling over all the fabulous “eco” options for countertops. Serious eye candy! Vetrazzo, Fireclay Tile, Stone Age, IceStone, Fuez. I was itching to go home, rip out my pale-avocado-tile-with-black-grout counters and start afresh. After all, at 30-plus years old, they’re beyond dated, they're scratched and chipped, and the grout is so eroded that we have a well-developed riparian system when we sluice down the counters after cooking.

And then, in the quiet of the next morning, before other humans in my household had awoken, my mind drifted back and stalled on the issue that has long frustrated me about countertops; to wit, no matter what they’re made of, they’re inherently non-green inasmuch as they are custom, adhered in place, and worse – they fasten cabinets to walls at the backsplash.

Just How Ungreen Are Countertops?

Stewart Brand, in his deservedly famous book How Buildings Learn, points out that the materials in a building that are least enduring – whether due to wear, changing technology, or changing fashion – should be most accessible and easy to swap out for new. It follows then that those items also should be those in which we invest the least: money, energy, and resources.

With rare exceptions, countertops score horribly on all counts:

1. They are appallingly expensive. I came home with a price chart for these wonderful counter options, and the low end is around $30/sq.ft. So new counters for my midsize kitchen would cost upwards of $500 — not including the labor to remove the old and install the new. Call it $1,500. Ouch! Not this year …

2. The embodied energyEnergy that goes into making a product; includes energy required for growth, extraction, and transportation of the raw material as well as manufacture, packaging, and transportation of the finished product. Embodied energy is often used to measure ecological cost. of countertops is typically very high. Most counter materials contain cement, are fired at high temperatures, contain a high percentage of synthetic materials, and/or may travel long distances (probably by truck) to get to their final destination. Obviously, the trade-off is durability. Brand’s admonishments notwithstanding, nobody wants flimsy, cheesy countertops that start to look battered within months. Even so, it’s hard to justify an astronomically high energy investment in materials that are highly subject to the vagaries of fashion and taste – all the more so for a speculative builder, whose choice may be rejected by a buyer and promptly replaced.

3. The investment may be disproportionate to the countertop’s longevity. Countertops may not require a lot of raw material in their manufacture, but their high cost is at least a partial reflection of all the resources — materials, labor, and energy — that go into making them.

What to Do?
Sad to say that, despite pondering this conundrum repeatedly, I have yet to come up with a truly great answer. The ideal solution would be modular (or resizable) rather than unitary, would be installed without glue or grout, and would decouple the horizontal counter surface from the backsplash. This would mean that, however great the investment, it would be readily reusable when removed for whatever reason.

Relatively large stone or ceramic tiles (12x12 or 12x24) might work but would require a clever (nonadhering) installation/deinstallation method, which I have yet to encounter. Even so, there would still be seams between tiles to deal with: Hard to imagine a seam sealer that would work well in service but also remove easily when the time came.

I suspect the best option is butcher block (FSCNonprofit organization that promotes forestry practices that are sustainable from environmental and social standpoints; FSC certification on a wood product is an indicator that the wood came from a well-managed forest. or reclaimed, of course), in good-size chunks, installed with screws from below for easy disassembly. Somewhat surprisingly, studies have shown that wooden cutting boards have good antimicrobial properties as well as providing a good work surface, hence their popularity in restaurant kitchens. Restaurant kitchens also provide a clue to a good second option: stainless steel. It’s not modular, but it can be cut easily to any desired length.

Sinks
Another countertop challenge is the sink cutout, which is problematic from a couple of perspectives: It’s not compatible with modular materials; plus you pay for – and then typically throw away – the material in the cutout area. If I were going to do over my kitchen this year, I would swap out the charmingly vintage avocado undermount sink (which along with the surrounding countertop are the only vestiges of the prior owner’s tasteful 1970s décor – the matching appliances having died welcomed deaths over the past decade) for a sink with integral backsplash and apron. These allow the countertops to butt up against them, eliminating the sink cutout. Hurrah! Problem solved. Well, mostly …

The Backsplash
I mentioned separating the backsplash from the countertop. Hmmm, another challenge. The reason for not having them separate is to avoid making a path for water to travel from the counter into the wall. In my ideal world, building new, what would I do about that?

A. Use non-paper-faced drywall in walls abutting countertops, whether in baths or in kitchens.
B. Develop a flashing detail for the joint where the counter intersects the backsplash.
C. Assemble the backsplash on an underlayment – off the wall – instead of installing it directly to the wall. Then attach the assembly to the wall in such a way that it could be later removed (probably in sections).

That all sounds perfectly reasonable (don’t you think?), but I haven’t actually attempted it. I’m betting there are some readers out there who may have some creative solutions to this dilemma, and I’d love to see them. Please write in!


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Image Credits:

  1. Lisa Damrosch Photography
  2. Mary Anne Clark
  3. signaturehardware.com

1.
Nov 11, 2010 1:02 PM ET

Keep it simple
by Martin Holladay

Near the kitchen sink, I've used pieces of marble which I picked up in Proctor, Vermont, from the miscellaneous and leftover pile at the Vermont Marble Co. (The quarry has since closed, I'm afraid.) I've done two kitchens with 100% marble countertops; in each case, the cost per kitchen was $100 for the marble. (Cheaper than laminate.) Marble can be cut with a circular saw (if you make repeated shallow cuts with a masonry blade) and can be sanded with a belt sander.

At another kitchen, the countertops that did not abut the sink were simply wide pine boards from the local sawmill. If you get a 24" wide board, you can do it with a single board. Simple and cheap. Let it get dented and stained. Replace it when you get tired of it.


2.
Nov 11, 2010 3:34 PM ET

What did you do for the
by Ann Edminster

What did you do for the backsplash, Martin?


3.
Nov 11, 2010 3:49 PM ET

Backsplash options
by Martin Holladay

Tile backspash with the marble -- plain 1x4 pine backsplash with the pine countertop.


4.
Nov 11, 2010 3:49 PM ET

Keep it small
by James Morgan

These are interesting questions you raise. I confess to being reluctant to butt countertops to sinks and backsplashes without a fully sealable overlap. Gaps + crumbs and debris = cockroaches and ants! We prefer to take the path of thoughtful design to reduce the likelihood of a tearout any time soon, careful choice of materials for longevity and good performance, and a layout which keeps the volume of 'committed' (i.e. fully fitted) perimeter countertop to a minimum, often incorporating a detached island. Keep cooktops and sinks in the 'committed' areas and the island top is then independent, free-floating and fully re-usable and the island cabinetry can even be on wheels for flexibility in use - in one kitchen we planned the island is regularly rolled into another room to make extra space for dancing and music-making.

Martin makes some good suggestions, as usual. We love wood countertops - if you want something more dense than pine, or can't get those wide boards from a local mill, Ikea sells some great solid oak countertops at terrific prices. We have installed them both in islands and around the perimeter with cutouts for stove and sink.


5.
Nov 11, 2010 3:52 PM ET

great tips
by Ann Edminster

Thanks, James -- both you and Martin have some very good ideas about this. Maybe I can do my counters sometime this decade after all!


6.
Nov 12, 2010 1:19 AM ET

Reassuring in an Odd Way
by Stephen Colley

Countertop choices has always been the weak link in green design with my practice for the same reasons you listed. Thanks for reassuring me that more experienced practitioners than me have the same dilemma. Thanks too to James and Martin for great insight for options. By the way, I came across an earthen countertop in a cob house near Hunt, Texas recently. The builder admitted it was an experiment, but after months of ordinary kitchen use, it looks great. Time will tell.


7.
Nov 12, 2010 3:40 PM ET

new (to me)
by 5C8rvfuWev

Ann, this may be old hat to you, but a recent article by a woodworker (Fine Homebuilding, "Kitchen & Bath Remodeling Issue") tells how he installed his 'Paperstone' countertops w/plain ol' woodworking tools. It's made of recycled paper and (the author said) it cost $40/sf. Still pricey, but about half the cost of granite in this area, I may be able to do my own install, and it's a recycled product ... or so they say. I haven't done any further looking, but you can start here if interested:

http://www.paperstoneproducts.com/index.php

Best wishes,
Joe W


8.
Nov 12, 2010 3:51 PM ET

Maintenance, aesthetics and enduring design
by Brennan Less

Counter tops are an interesting green building conundrum, which I think mirrors many of the other trade-offs that must be considered in good design. Counter tops are expensive because they serve numerous functions that are not demanded of other building materials. They need to be beautiful, long-lasting, water proof, stain resistant, heat resistant, etc. If we expected walls to perform similar functions, they certainly would not be built with gypsum board and latex paint. I also hesitate to call counter tops one of the least enduring parts of a building. Good counters can outlast the cabinets they stand on. These materials can last a hundred years with reasonably good care and a little maintenance. I think the real secret is quality cabinets, quality design, management of water and use of cutting boards. With these elements in place, the kitchen won't be redone in 10 years, the counters won't be torn out and tossed, and the whole kitchen can last 50+ years.

In my experience, there is tension between people's desire to have green materials (natural, recycled or local) and their desire for aesthetics and maintenance requirements. Synthetic recycled products typically look more like natural stone counter tops (marble and granite) and they have very little maintenance requirements. They are also mostly made of petrochemical plastic with bits of recycled materials sprinkled in there. These products never decompose and have little hope for being recycled. Concrete counter tops are the other popular green alternative, but they have higher maintenance and care demands. Staining can be an issue, and they must be regularly resealed. Additionally, these counter tops require a sort of leap of faith aesthetically, being a departure from the look of stone, particularly when recycled glass is included (will that white concrete with purple glass really stand the test of time?). My biggest hesitation with concrete is the use of fly ash concrete, which has numerous heavy metals and other toxins, which may or may not be fully entrained in the concrete. Natural stones have similar performance to concrete, though with a bit more stain resistance. They are natural, will return to the earth and don't contain any toxins put there by manufacturers (the sealant is an exception). Unfortunately, most of our stone comes from abroad and has very nasty mining impacts.

All in all, Martin's recommendation of local, natural stone, as well as the use of remnant pieces from counter top shops really is the best bet in my opinion. Options you didn't mention include ECO by Cosentino, Squak Mountain Stone, Marmoleum (as a laminate), 3-Form Chroma, EcoTer, custom concrete, Bamboo butcher block from Plyboo or Teragren...that's all I can think of right now.


9.
Nov 12, 2010 10:06 PM ET

Wood is the way to go
by Bob Ellenberg

In addition to the green considerations, the price gap between plastic laminate and everything else is huge with almost nothing in between--except wood. Environmentally friendly, beautiful, low cost without a cheap look and becaue they are easily refinished--last almost forever. In my last home I located heart pine bolted sections where a gym floor had been removed. My wife was originally reluctant but I reassued her a hard finish would easily last a year and I would refinish them and make them look new again. That was 2005 and they still look almost new and are used a lot. In our next home we are putting maple plank flooring on to 3/4" plywood. Last time we used tile for a backsplash.


10.
Nov 12, 2010 11:55 PM ET

Wood fans unite
by Ann Edminster

Great to hear so much support for wood countertops. I'm sold! Not to mention, I have a gorgeous hunk of butcher block my dad gave me, salvaged from an actual butcher shop. It's about the right size for our peninsula, so need to find complementing pieces for the balance. Or maybe go w/marble per Martin's suggestion. Thanks for all the great feedback.


11.
Nov 19, 2010 2:47 PM ET

Wood is good, but...
by Michael Maines

One of my favorites is a stainless steel countertop welded to a stainless sink with integral backsplash and a small drip-lip on the front.


12.
Nov 22, 2010 10:33 AM ET

re-using old countertops
by Mark

My finance replaced her old formica counters with granite. I've saved the old counters as they are really solid plywood and I'd like to cover them with a new material for our cabin. My finance doesn't care for tile with grout lines. What about other eco-friendly materials? How does your one reader propose to cover plywood with maple floors? I'd appreciate amy ideas.


13.
Nov 22, 2010 10:43 AM ET

Response to Mark
by Martin Holladay

Mark,
It's easy to use recycled (or new) maple flooring for countertops. They're just T&G boards. However, it's probably a little harder to drive blind nails through old laminate than it is to drive the nails into plain plywood. But I'm sure you can do it.


14.
Nov 22, 2010 12:07 PM ET

durability durability durability
by tom Barthelemy

One of the best things you can do to green your project is to build for the long run perhaps even [gasp] at the expense of some initial environmental impact. Countertops are big surfaces, so don't go for a wild color scheme - it's unlikely to be seen as daring and avant garde 25 or 40 or 50 years from now. The avocado tiles referenced in the article fall into that category, the ice blue synthetic surfaces also fall into the same category. You don't want the kitchen to be ripped out solely on aesthetic issues.

Durability - in terms of both style and substance - trumps re-useabilty in my book, although surfaces such as wood, stone, synthetics, do offer the possibility of re-use. Usually when materials are re-used they are trimmed or fitted to their new purpose, so there is shrinkage involved. A material like tile has lower transport impact as it comes in small dense packaging.

Also, since I'm poking holes, I am puzzled by the issue being made of backsplashes. Often they are joined to the wall by little more than a caulk bead and would come off quite easily if that was the desire. And allowing water to get into the wall cavity is going to have way worse environmental impact than a 6" band of tile or a backsplash glued/screwed to your countertop of choice.

Build for the long run, folks. It's the best way.


15.
Nov 22, 2010 1:07 PM ET

Durability ... of course
by Ann Edminster

A countertop absolutely should be sufficiently durable for its purpose and I completely agree that we should not install something too "unique." Even so, households move, different people have different tastes, and remodeling happens. I wasn't suggesting that we ignore fundamental design tenets such as durability, but rather that ideally we would consider the longer-term implications of our choice, too.

As for your puzzlement about my backsplash concern, the joint between counter and spash is frequently grout (in tile or stone installations), which complicates the process of changing out the countertop. Furthermore, keeping caulk in good shape requires maintenance. I think it's safe to say that most of us home-dwellers are not tremendously vigilant in that department, making it a less-than-ideal strategy for long-term moisture protection.

Just as with everything else in green building, we are eternally faced with tradeoffs when making good decisions about countertops. To some this may seem a trivial concern, but it's one piece of the larger home design puzzle.


16.
Nov 22, 2010 1:30 PM ET

Joint between countertop and backsplash
by Martin Holladay

Ann,
I disagree that "the joint between counter and spash is frequently grout (in tile or stone installations)."

I think most people would agree that you need to use caulk at this location, ideally a caulk that matches the color of the grout.


17.
Nov 22, 2010 3:36 PM ET

Stainless steel countertop w/ integrated sink
by Chris Herron

Michael Maines, you've got a great idea there, one I've thought about too. I've had a hard time finding a craftsman who can weld an existing sink to a new countertop. How did you solve that problem?

cherron@hrecn.net


18.
Nov 22, 2010 4:39 PM ET

Response to Chris
by Martin Holladay

Chris,
I think such countertops are made routinely by commercial fabricators for commercial kitchens.


19.
Nov 22, 2010 6:59 PM ET

"Should" vs. "Is"
by Ann Edminster

You raise an interesting point, Martin, which is that what is common varies considerably based on region and housing vintage ... and what's common isn't necessarily smart! Here in Northern California, most of our housing went up in the post-WW2 boom, and there are plenty of widespread practices here that are anything but what they should be. Even so, I'm a bit surprised that you're advocating grout in this location, but now that you have, I can see the pros as well as the cons.

I think using stainless with an integral backsplash option is very appealing.


20.
Nov 22, 2010 8:40 PM ET

Response to Ann
by Martin Holladay

Ann,
I think you misunderstood my post. I was advocating caulk, not grout, because of the possibility of differential movement between the countertop and the wall.


21.
Nov 22, 2010 9:10 PM ET

yep, I got that ...
by Ann Edminster

I guess I wasn't clear, but yes, I inferred that -- it's just that your comment made me realize the other point. Sorry to confuse!


23.
Nov 22, 2010 11:53 PM ET

stainless welding
by tom Barthelemy

It is not too difficult for a full-service welding shop to tackle a stainless job, don't expect it to be inexpensive though. There may be issues with matching the gauge of the counter to the gauge of the sink.


25.
Nov 22, 2010 11:55 PM ET

Tile counter top
by Willman

"Relatively large stone or ceramic tiles (12x12 or 12x24) might work but would require a clever (nonadhering) installation/deinstallation method, which I have yet to encounter"

Tavy tile products came out with a system for tile showrooms to be able to change out tile without a huge demo, kinda like pop off and restick.

http://www.tavytools.com/2010008.html

For a caulk free transition from horizontal to vertical check out Schluter company for this detail.
http://www.schluter.com/141.aspx

They have many different products for finishing tile edges.


26.
Nov 23, 2010 2:39 PM ET

SS
by Michael Maines

Chris, I've had skilled craftsmen take stock sinks and weld them to countertops so they look punched out of a single sheet (http://www.cumberlandironworks.com/index.htm, http://www.tigpro.com/). If you find somebody you might ask them what sink to get. It's hard to weld to thin metal.


27.
Nov 23, 2010 7:00 PM ET

Willman's tile tips
by Ann Edminster

Thanks for these tips, Willman -- very cool!


28.
Nov 25, 2010 10:46 AM ET

Word of warning
by James Morgan

If you're going stainless steel with a local shop, be sure they are fully experienced with stainless and keep a separate set of tools for the work. The smallest contamination with carbon steel particles e.g. from a grinder will leave you with ineradicable rust spots.

Also, re: durability, I just visited a home built in 1946 with its original formica countertops still in excellent condition. 64 years and counting.


29.
Dec 1, 2010 6:37 PM ET

I did a copper countertop
by Brian Carter

I did a copper countertop after seeing a tip on seeming and some discussion on this site last year.It worked out well.With a little effort it would be easy enough to make the sink as well.A carefully built substrate for both made from finish-grade plywood and careful fitting would support the soft metal well enough to avoid dings if the metal is fully adhered. The counter I made was formed to snap into place and it has gotten dinged-OK with the customer who likes the character it is acquiring.


30.
Apr 24, 2013 9:17 PM ET

Edited Apr 24, 2013 9:37 PM ET.

The Color Green
by Brian Godfrey

Your avocado counter tops sound pretty green to me! :-)

Seriously, the greenest alternative is always to use what you've already got, not to consume more, which would suggest keeping your formica as the environmental cost has already been paid. But of course our behavior never lives up to our values (mine, neither) so here are a couple of things to consider.

The first you may already have done: emphasize quality, durability, and timelessness. Repeatedly replacing counter tops can overbalance whatever greenness you might gain on each one as it's the cumulative consumption that really matters to the earth. Quality means people will be proud of it and not want to replace it, durability means they will feel less need to replace it, and timelessness means that they will feel less impelled by style to replace it.

I will offer as an example some counter tops I installed in a beach house in Oregon. People expect something better than formica in many upscale beach communities, but the budget was very tight. I priced out a lot of alternatives, then recalled ordering a workbench from a butcherblock countertop outfit in Maine. I called them and learned that they would not only build to my requirements, but would do so with food-safe glues and everything. What I ended up with were beautiful wood countertops over 2" thick. The only tools required for installation were a drill and jig saw for the sink cutout and a small amount of marine epoxy to seal the edges of the hole. I made the back splashes from maple to match, slightly rounded the edge with a 1/8" round over bit in my router, sealed them with polyurethane, and glued them in with silicone. They were the easiest counter tops I've ever installed - a piece of cake compared to granite - and were utterly beautiful. Total cost was slightly less than the total cost of the nicer formica surfaces on particle board, much less than almost anything else, used renewable maple trees, some, but not a lot of glue in the manufacture, a lot less than a tube of silicone and a pint of polyurethane varnish (in multiple coats) and some screws.

The new homeowners were ecstatic and ten years later are still so. I'm willing to bet those counter tops will be there for a very long time, and that contributes a lot to their greenness.


31.
Apr 24, 2013 9:35 PM ET

Stainless steel
by Brian Godfrey

My apologies to those who are currently installing it, but I think stainless steel is very much a current style which in the future will be seen as ugly and dated and will be ripped out. I would insist on it in my restaurant. I would not want it in my home.


32.
Apr 24, 2013 10:42 PM ET

countertops
by roger steinbrink

I have made many bar tops & counter tops in my career. Here's a couple of ideas ; I use 3/4 ' plywood for a base with a 1'x4" band all the way around.I turn it upside down and make sure it is caulked well.
I have gone to stone places where they sell big slabs of granite & marble. You can get the cut-offs cheap or free.When I do a mosaic with different types of stone, I simply drop it on the sidewalk & let it shatter into a million pieces, or I tap it with a hammer to break it into larger pieces. It's like putting together a jig saw puzzle. I then use mastic to glue it to the plywood.After it dries, (1 day) I gout the joints. I should point out that the 1"x4" band should be 1/8' to 1/4" higher than the material. I then do a pour with a 2 part acrylic (Envirotex ) is good, although there are a lot of similar products out there. I have also used fabric with a nice design. This I adhere by rolling a thin layer of carpenters glue,pull tight. smooth out, & staple on the side of the plywood before applying the band. The possibilities are literally endless.It is very important to make sure you do a good caulking job on the underside, so the coating doesn't leak all over the floor. I've done that too!
All of the tops that I made are still in great shape after 10-15 yrs. of constant abuse at busy bars. You can re-coat them if you want to freshen them up. You can adjust the thickness by the number of "pours" that you do. I've embeded bottle caps & coins, etc.You can usually only pour an 1/8" or so at a time, so to cover a bottle cap, it might take 5-6 pours, & they have to dry properly before doing another pour. Read the instructions. Most are non-toxic to food or drink.
Have fun!


33.
Apr 26, 2013 5:21 PM ET

Edited Apr 26, 2013 5:24 PM ET.

"look" vs function
by Derek Roff

It's interesting to see new life and comments on a three-year old discussion, thanks to the link appearing in the April 24, 2013 GBA eLetter. I agree with Brian Godfrey, that the high popularity of stainless steel now almost certainly dooms it to being removed as "dated" later.

We want a list of somewhat contradictory traits and functions from our countertop materials, but most kitchens compromise on some important parts of function, in order to attain the "look" that appeals to the owner. Durability is seldom sufficient to protect a counter during a remodel. I fear that thousands of expensive granite countertops will head for the landfill in the coming decades, after styles have changed, and the granite has too many superficial surface scratches (even though these could be repaired). We are a fickle society.

I'm fortunate to love the look of wood, while appreciating its selection of functional traits. I enjoy the needed maintenance, and can make any rarely needed repairs. I like a dense, fine-grained hardwood such as maple, and adding a few cherry accents cheers my aesthetic side. The anti-microbial features of wood that Ann mentioned continue to be documented as superior to plastic, steel, concrete, or stone.

Wood will meet my desires for "look" and function for as long as I am in any house. I don't think there is a way to protect my counters from the desires of the next resident, but at least when they are ripped out, they have a chance for reuse, and a lack of toxicity throughout their life.


34.
Apr 27, 2013 9:37 PM ET

let's hear it for wood!
by Ann Edminster

Derek, I couldn't agree more! In terms of timeless look, repairability (should the need arise), ease of installation, low cost, and extended life cycle, wood just can't be beat. In fact, I finally got around to replacing my countertops *with wood* and I'm very happy with the choice. And as to Brian Godfrey's assertion that, "the greenest alternative is always to use what you've already got," that's true as long as it's performing its function adequately. But the old tile countertops weren't -- they were a haven for crud and bacteria, and repairing them to correct that would have required more effort and represented a greater expenditure of embodied energy than changing them out for wood. For those of you on Pinterest, you can check out the project at http://pinterest.com/desave/remodeling-my-kitchen-feb2013/.


35.
Jul 18, 2014 11:35 PM ET

Flashing Detail at Top-to-Backsplash
by john walls

Ann,
Regarding your recommendation to "develop a flashing detail for the joint where the counter intersects the backsplash":
Sounds like a good idea. Would you share your thoughts on some specifics. If liquid leaks past the caulk, then the flashing would come into play, but where would it drain to?


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