Counter culture: Choosing the right material

Today's kitchens are the command center of the home, a place where families and friends gather to share more than just meals. For this reason, spending money on kitchens is still a good idea. Kitchen improvements continue to yield the best return on investment in a home.

Whether you are building a new home or renovating an older one, a large chunk of your budget will go to the kitchen, and for good reason. Appliances, cabinets and countertops are among the most costly features in a home.


A kitchen remodeling study released last month by Houzz, the online interior design site that is a favorite for homeowners, found more than 40 percent of the 7,800 surveyed were either updating or completely redoing an existing kitchen.

Most were aiming for a traditional or contemporary look with top-of-the-line cooking appliances — more than a third wanted a chef's stove — and soft, neutral colors.


While the choices are endless for appliances and cabinets, the prevailing countertop material continues to be granite. Houzz found that 94 percent of respondents planned to change their countertops and 50 percent favored granite, followed by quartz at 36 percent.

"I think that for lots of people, it's an equal concern about the aesthetic, how it fits into the color scheme and the durability," says Liz Dickson, an interior designer at Millbrook Circle Interior Design in Baltimore. "Kitchens are such an expensive renovation project, so you don't want to put in materials that you have to replace in five years."

While stone still reigns king, many are looking to unique alternatives that will help set their kitchen, or bathroom, apart.



Cost: $45-$200 per square foot

For a nostalgic look, many people are looking to wood as material for kitchen islands and sections of countertops. Dickson says wood countertops can be quite beautiful, "especially if you're using an interesting wood."

People often look to stunning pieces of reclaimed wood, but there are also intricate pieces of laser-manufactured blocks transformed into a striped or checkerboard pattern. Wood countertops range widely in cost, largely depending on the type of wood being used.

Michael Owings, president of Owings Brothers Contracting in Eldersburg, says he has had many customers inquire about wood, though interest is often stymied by the upkeep and worries about the porous material holding salmonella and other bacteria.

"The custom wood tops are lacquered, but even on those, it's still a product that needs maintenance," he says. "You're not going to want to put hot pots on them, and you need to be careful cutting on it. It's more for show than it is functional."

Dickson agrees, adding, "If you don't use cutting boards, you're going to wreck your wood countertops."


Cost: $80-$150 per square foot

Concrete countertops come in many forms and can be transformed to look retro or ultra-modern. The cost can range from budget-friendly to very expensive, depending on the concrete, sealant and mode of installation.

George Brown, president of Greenleaf Construction in Lutherville, says he's worked with concrete mixes that include sustainable materials, including recycled glass, which gives the surface an almost glittery look.

Concrete is also quite versatile and can be stained to a number of hues. Dickson says concrete can be installed in two ways: The countertops are either poured on location, or they are made in a shop and transported, pieced together like granite would be, and finished with a stain. The second option allows for more versatility, as manufacturers can then create custom edges.

While concrete is quite durable — it rarely cracks — there is some maintenance required, as it must be sealed.

Stainless steel

Cost: $70-$140 per square foot

Stainless steel is a sleek, sophisticated countertop option. Owings says he most often sees requests for stainless steel from gourmet at-home chefs.

"It's sanitary and makes for easy cleanup," he says. "It's practically indestructible."

Dickson warns that stainless will scratch, though scratches can create a worn look that is often desirable.

"It's really modern and industrial looking," she says.

For enthusiastic cooks looking for a clean, low-maintenance option, stainless steel is hard to beat — the surface doesn't absorb stains or smells, and it can easily be wiped down.

Everything else

Unusual materials are setting some kitchens and bathrooms apart. Owings says he has seen a small number of people setting interesting objects in epoxy — including pennies, bottle tops and cans.

Dickson says she has seen glass used often, though less glass tile and more often thick slabs of glass that are durable and create an interesting, reflective surface.

Set on stone

While many people are looking more at alternative styles than before, Michael Owings of Owings Brothers Contracting says about 85 percent of his high-end customers still opt for granite in kitchens and bathrooms.

Granite: Granite can range in price from $100 to $250 per square foot. The material is very durable — it's sanitary and relatively heat-resistant — but it's also heavy. The stone varies greatly, so it's not ideal for someone wanting a uniform color or look. Owings says many customers request a laminate edge, which achieves the look of a really thick piece of granite without the added cost. This look is often seen in bar areas or in bathrooms.

Marble: Marble offers a beautiful countertop option, with its stunning variations and polished surface. It's expensive — often the most expensive option — with a typical $125- to $250-per-square-foot price tag. An emerging option in marble is a honed version, which takes the sleek look of the usually shiny stone and gives it a duller, unfinished feel. Owings says the countertops are typically filed to a minimal 3/4-inch thickness, but as always with marble, maintenance can be a deterrent. Even when polished and sealed, marble can be scratched and stained by foods and liquids.

Engineered stone: Manmade stones, including Silestone and Caesarstone, Cambria and other quartz blends, are also emerging as a favorite to achieve the stone look without some of the maintenance issues seen with marble. The durable surfaces are typically stain- and scratch-resistant, though they generally aren't heatproof. Prices can range from an affordable $40 per square foot to matching or exceeding the price of granite and marble.

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