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 energy 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 (12×12 or 12×24) 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 (FSC 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.
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 …
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!