New countertop products offer the opportunity to forge bold buyer memory points in model home kitchens and baths.

By Bill Lurz, Senior Editor | May 31, 2003


Kitchen and bath countertops are important. "It's one of the first options buyers choose," says Hope Flynn, merchandising coordinator for Houston-based Kathy Andrews Interiors. "They'll change countertops before they upgrade the kitchen floor to tile or hardwood. It's a big prestige point."

If you haven't kept up with the vast array of new options available to dress up your countertops, it's time to let your fingers do some walking on the Web. From amazing colors and textures in time-tested materials such as ceramic tile, plastic laminates and solid surfacing to wild new looks in heat-sculpted glass, stainless steel and fabricated quartz, you now have the opportunity to turn model home kitchens into memory makers that will stop shoppers in their tracks.


Familiar Surprises

Solid choice: "Cameo white" Corian counters mixed with a "golden beach" granite island, in Taylor Woodrow's 3,924 square-foot, $383,900 Carrington IV model at Julington Creek Plantation near Jacksonville, Fla. Design: Marc-Michaels Interior Design, Winter Park, Fla. Solid surfaces still dominate mid-range price points.

In the now almost frantic competition for your business, old reliables such as laminates, tile and solid surfacing are hitting the market with a constant stream of new colors and styles.

Product Attributes: Formica design maven Renee Hytry now has more than 250 styles in the laminate line alone. "Laminates are printed paper products," she says. "The reproductive processes throughout the industry have really improved. That's why the laminate countertops you see today are so much better than 10 years ago." The next step: reproducing the actual texture you feel when you touch a natural surface.

Ceramic tile is the standard entry-level countertop in West Coast homes, but it's anything but mundane. "We usually spec a 6x6-inch tile and then show an upgraded backsplash with some accent colors," says Julie Stark, design director of Creative Design Consultants. "In three models, we like to show the first in tile, the second in solid surfacing or quartz, and the third in granite."


Old faithful: "Granito" laminate counters by Formica Corp. in a Formations Collection sample product setting. Laminates now reach startling levels of authenticity in replicating the look of natural materials.

Solid surfaces remain the dominant choice of builders at mid-level price points centered around $300,000. But options are expanding dramatically as new competitors such as Formica, Staron, Swanstone and LG Hi-Macs now challenge DuPont's ubiquitous Corian brand. Cool and pleasing to touch yet softer than granite, solid surfaces are easier to install and can be sanded and buffed to repair much more easily. That reduces warranty costs.

Builder POV: Hope Flynn designs much of the merchandising for David Weekley's new Imagination Homes product line, which starts at less than $100,000. "The countertops are all plastic laminates," she says, "but Weekley allows a ton of choices, and it's just amazing what the manufacturers have been able to accomplish."


Cleveland-area builder Rick Puzzitiello of Puzzitiello Builders, whose average sale price is $400,000, says he uses solid surfaces exclusively "because that's what buyers at my price point expect."

Taylor Woodrow Communities north Florida division manager Ron Foster concurs. "Granite is the dominate countertop material at the next price level - above $500,000, but we much prefer working with solid surfaces below that. The volume of Corian used in this market assures we can get it at a price that allows us to deliver value to our buyers."


Count On Quartz

Bullish on quartz: "Beige Olimpo" Silestone counters with 1 1/2" bullnose edge, in David Powers' 3,303 square-foot, $289,000 Plan 2M2876 Tuscany model at Summerwood in northeast Houston, Texas. Design: Beth Huddle, in-house. Fabricated quartz is a whole new product category.

Manufactured quartz surfacing from Europe (Silestone, Avanza) and Israel (Caesarstone) claims the pricing niche between premium solid surfaces and the stone status symbol, natural granite. Category growth was enough to nudge DuPont into the fray with its own quartz competitor (Zodiaq). Minnesota-based Cambria completes the field of this entirely new product category.

Product Attributes: 93% natural quartz, which is combined with resins in an advanced manufacturing process that marries the hardness of quartz with a color consistency that quarried stone can't match. Does not require sealing and has greater heat, scratch and stain resistance than stone.


Builder POV: Beth Huddle, design center manager for David Powers Homes in Houston, says 30% of the firm's model homes now have Silestone countertops, which are standard. And she estimates 45% of the firm's 300-plus buyers (average sale: $325,000) now stick with the quartz. "Maintenance is the big issue," she says. "When people hear what granite requires, a lot of them just don't want to deal with it."

What Comes After Granite?

Mixed blessing: "Giallo Rubino" granite countertops with stainless steel backsplashes, in Empire Builders' 3,580 square-foot Veranda model at Old Cypress in Naples, Fla., for $890,000. Design: Sisler-Williams Interiors, Jacksonville, Fla. Mixing materials is a trend.

While builders don't seem eager for granite's long reign as the preferred high-end countertop material to end, designers are split. Some still love it. Others are looking for alternatives.

For those who can't afford slab granite, Stefan Markowitz, president of MBK Homes in Irvine, Calif., advocates 12x12-inch granite tile countertops. "I really like that look," he says. "It's probably the most common compromise out here. But slab granite prices have been coming down because of the volume commitments we're all making to buy so much."

To avoid drowning in a sea of sameness, many designers are mixing granite with a variety of other materials. "In bathrooms, mixing tile with stone gives us some beautiful effects," Creative Design Consultant's Julie Stark says. "In the kitchen, we're mixing granite with stainless steel backsplashes and countertop inserts, especially where the builder wants to show off commercial-grade appliances. It ties it all together."


Kathryn Dunagan, director of interior architecture for Marc-Michaels Interior Design in Winter Park, Fla., points to stained concrete countertops as a possible next hot item. "If contemporary architecture ever comes back, concrete counters will be more popular. They are very pricey now, but we see them used a lot now in loft condos."

Denver architect Mike Kephart is a big fan of concrete: "That's the latest rage in custom homes here and in loft buildings. The other high-end countertop material to keep an eye on is heat-sculpted glass. That stuff is really neat."


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