House hunters have long understood the hidden meaning in the granite countertop. It's not just a slab of stone you chop vegetables on. It's luxury and status. It's often the central element in an "updated kitchen" -- a kitchen that can cost $30,000 and tack at least that onto the sale (and resale) price of a home. Granite, to most people, means "top of the line."
But is it? It's expensive, yes, and it's beautiful and unique and quite hard to damage. But to say granite is the best countertop material, you'd have to compare it to a material that has been gaining momentum for the last decade or so and is as edgy as it is luxurious -- concrete. "Luxurious" is perhaps not the most common word used to describe a concrete product. "Industrial" or "dirty" might be more familiar. But the concrete countertop has little in common with the concrete slab that is a sidewalk.
Concrete and granite countertops typically cost about the same (more on prices later), but that's really where the similarities end.
Concrete is basically a mix of cement and an aggregate. An aggregate is something like sand or crushed limestone that is added to the cement mix to impart specific qualities, like increased strength or a certain color or texture. In countertops, the list of potential concrete aggregates expands almost indefinitely, allowing homeowners to customize their countertops to a whole new level we've never seen before.
Granite may not have all the inherent customization of concrete, but there's a reason why it's often the upgrade of choice. Polished granite has a very luxurious look, with deep hues and all sorts of natural variations. And the fact that it's natural stone, pulled from quarries dug deep into the Earth, has a certain je ne sais quoi that many people find hard to resist.
So when you're looking to upgrade your kitchen, how do you decide on the countertop material? Since granite and concrete are all the rage right now, we'll focus on those. In this article, we'll find out which makes the better counter. There are lots of factors to consider, including durability, weight, aesthetics and even health concerns. We'll start with the first thing we notice about a countertop: the aesthetics.
A Granite Countertop or Concrete: Looks and Curves
When it comes to appearance, there's simply no matching concrete in terms of range. You can do anything with it. Mixing blue pigment and broken glass into the concrete can create a luminescent, sealike look. Neutral pigments and river stones can turn a kitchen counter into a sleek dry riverbed. Irregular pigment mixes can mimic granite, marble or any other type of stone. The possibilities are endless, especially when you consider that since concrete is poured into the countertop mold as a fluid, it can take on any shape at all. A concrete countertop can have all sorts of curves and all sorts of built-ins and embedded objects: drain boards, sinks, trivets, knife slots, your old coin collection or even a water feature running along the backsplash.
Granite has its own aesthetic draws. While it doesn't boast the malleability of concrete, granite does have the depth and beauty that comes with natural stone. There's tremendous color and pattern variation both within a single piece of granite and between granite quarried from different parts of the world. You can find blue granite from Brazil, gold granite from Italy and shimmering black from Norway.
And what about that shimmering black -- is it going to show every scratch? In terms of strength, durability and maintenance, there's no clear winner. Yes, that black granite might show scratches, but so might black concrete. Acidic products like lemon juice might eat through a concrete sealer over time. It can also damage a granite finish. Both products are strong enough and hard enough to handle whatever culinary activities you can throw at them. The main utility issue distinguishing the two materials has to do with maintenance. Concrete is a porous material, so it tends to be more susceptible to staining than granite. The sealers used on concrete countertops have not yet completely solved that issue, so concrete will probably need to be resealed more often than granite.
Besides staining, the concrete countertop has been also been plagued by weight rumors. Some claim that concrete is heavier than granite, and that even cabinets that are strong enough to support a granite countertop might buckle under the weight of concrete. But this appears to be untrue. They weigh about the same [source: BobVila.com]. At 1.5 inches (3.81 centimeters) thick, a square foot of concrete and a square foot of granite both weigh in the area of 20 pounds per square foot [sources: Brimo-Cox, NSI]. If your cabinets can support granite, they'll probably survive concrete just fine.
The question is, will you survive?
A Concrete Countertop or Granite: Carbon Dioxide and Radiation
As with so many building and decorating materials (think asbestos insulations and lead paint), certain health concerns have surfaced with the use of concrete and granite as food-preparation services. The concerns are not considered to be dire, and both materials have made the news -- granite for emitting possibly unhealthy levels of radon, and concrete for the heavy metals present in some pigments and finishing materials [sources: CBS, Kolich]. And neither one pulls ahead in terms of environmental health. Both products have to be dug out of the ground, and both have the potential to emit polluting particles into the air and water through the grinding and the sealing processes. Producing the cement for concrete produces a lot of greenhouse gasses. Transporting concrete from, say, Italy to New York produces lots of greenhouse gasses, too. (If you're looking for a truly green countertop, best to look to something like bamboo or recycled aluminum.)
Granite and concrete are both high-quality options. Perhaps granite will wear a bit better. Maybe concrete will finally let you have that LED-embedded countertop that looks like a starry sky. No matter which material you choose, you won't get off cheap. Both granite and concrete are going to run anywhere from $50 to $100 per square foot installed. That price will go up with custom concrete built-ins or high-end, single-slab granite. In the end, it's all about your personal needs. If the idea of countertop maintenance chills you to the bone, you might do better with granite. If you're dying to chop some broccoli on a sparkling night sky, concrete's the only way to go.
For more information on concrete, granite and other countertop materials, look over the links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Countertop Options. BobVila.http://www.bobvila.com/HowTo_Library/Countertop_Options-Countertops-A1579.html
- Granite Countertops a Health Threat? CBS News. July 25, 2008.http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/07/25/earlyshow/health/main4292754.shtml
- Kolich, Heather. "How Concrete Countertops Work." HowStuffWorks.https://home.howstuffworks.com/concrete-countertop.htm