You might turn your nose up at them now, but once upon a time, everyone had plastic laminate countertops. Introduced to U.S. consumers in the early 20th century, they were all the rage for decades [source: Countertop Specialty]. If you wanted to be a little fancy, you could edge your laminate counters with wood stained to match your cabinets, but that was about it. The next major countertop innovation came in the '70s with the advent of solid-surface acrylics like the popular Corian and Avonite [source: DuPont]. Touted as stain- and heat-resistant, they quickly became favorites of those who could afford a higher-than-laminate price tag. And then, in the 1980s, granite came on the scene [source: Alter].
One of the hardest natural stones on Earth, granite is even more durable than Corian, and more heat- and scratch-resistant [source: Weber]. Despite its initially very limited color selection and hefty price tag -- roughly $70 per square foot or more, compared with about $40 for Corian and $20 for laminate -- people immediately fell in love with granite [source: Alter, Weber]. In fact, they romanced the stone so quickly, that within a decade, granite was the standard countertop material [source: Alter].
In the 2000s, granite has evolved. Now it comes in many different colors and patterns, and because it's a natural stone, no two pieces look identical, which many people find appealing [source: Angie's List]. When installed, there are few seams, and sometimes none. Perhaps best of all, the once-pricey countertops are now very affordable, with prices starting at about $20 to $35 per square foot -- although you can still pay up to $80 or $100 per square foot, too, depending on the granite's color and complexity of fabrication [sources: Alter, Truini, Weber]. The main downside of using granite is that you do have to seal the porous stone annually, with a targeted granite stone-sealer product, to prevent stains from seeping in.
Although a 2012 survey by the National Kitchen & Bath Association shows granite remains the overwhelming countertop choice for both kitchens and bathrooms, there are signs that its popularity may have peaked [source: Captain]. Concerns about potential health hazards may be partially to blame. There have been reports that granite countertops emit radon gas, the second-leading cause of lung cancer in America [source: EPA]. Although manufacturers admit granite contains uranium and other radioactive materials such as thorium and potassium -- which decay over time and release radon gas -- they attest that the amount of radioactive material in countertops is so puny, they don't pose any health risks [source: CBS News]. While health and radiation experts agree most granite countertops emit radiation and radon at very low levels that aren't likely to be harmful, some note that even low levels present a risk [source: Murphy].
However, while the radon issue is scaring some away from granite, that's not the main reason behind its dip in popularity. No, it's simply that the market may have already zeroed in on the next, best thing: engineered quartz.
Quartz: An Up-and-comer
Engineered stone, or engineered quartz, is made by setting ground quartz into a resin, then polishing it to a fine sheen. Its best-known trade names are Silestone, CaesarStone, Cambria and Zodiaq. Quartz is a little more expensive than granite, with prices starting around $45 per square foot, but more and more people are favoring it because it's even more stain-resistant and durable than granite, comes in a much wider variety of colors, and has a uniform appearance lacking in natural stone [source: AZ Central]. In 2010, Consumer Reports rated quartz the top performer among countertop materials as far as resisting stains, heat and scratches. And a boon for time-pressed people everywhere -- it doesn't need to be sealed annually, like granite does.
While granite is still the number one choice for countertops, quartz is number two and gaining in popularity quickly [source: Captain]. A 2011 Freedonia Group Report on countertop industry trends shows quartz is the industry's fastest-growing market segment, with 13 percent growth compared to 5 percent for granite [source: Enid News & Eagle]. Its surging popularity appears to be based on the fact that quartz has all the advantages of granite, and then some. It's not only very durable -- actually more than twice as strong as granite -- it also isn't porous. So, in addition to not having to seal it against stains, as mentioned above, this also means the surface of quartz won't promote the growth of mold, mildew or bacteria -- an important benefit to some [source: Enid News & Eagle].
Other countertop materials gaining in popularity are marble and glass, but their overall share of the market is quite small. If granite eventually gets toppled as king of the countertops, quartz will likely be its successor.
Author's Note: Are granite countertops on their way out?
During a recent trip to Israel, my group stopped in Caesarea. Visitors head to this upscale town north of Tel Aviv to visit Caesarea National Park, which is home to spectacular Ottoman and Crusader ruins, plus a Roman aqueduct and theater. That's what we were there to do, too. As we drove up, our tour guide noted that Caesarea is where the popular countertop material CaesarStone originated, and pointed out a factory next to the ruins that produce the engineered quartz. I'd never heard of CaesarStone before, and wasn't sure if he was exaggerating its popularity out of hometown pride. After researching this article, I learned he wasn't exaggerating a bit. Long live Caesar(Stone)!
- Alter, Lloyd. "How Did Granite Become The Kitchen Counter Standard?" Treehugger. Aug. 8, 2011. (April 13, 2012) http://www.treehugger.com/green-architecture/how-did-granite-become-the-kitchen-counter-standard.html
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