Natural Stone versus Manmade Materials for Interiors
Comparing the performance attributes of natural stone with manmade materials
Styles may change from season to season, but Mother Nature creates unique designs in natural stone that are historically innovative and always on trend. This is why natural stone remains a timeless and flexible option for many interior applications including countertops and flooring. The variety of natural stone available is also beautiful, durable, and versatile, offering endless possibilities for interiors.
Manmade materials often attempt to emulate or replicate these characteristics and qualities. It is essential to understand how natural stone compares to some of the manmade materials used for the same applications in order to select the most appropriate material. It is also important to know how the material chosen for an interior project will perform under a variety of circumstances, conditions, and uses. At the same time, knowing how the material impacts the environment will ensure that you are choosing the most sustainable material for the application.
A material’s optimal performance is based on a combination of the attributes of the material itself, how the material is installed, and the conditions to which it is exposed. There are many different issues to consider for interior applications:
- How will the material react when it is exposed to heat and elevated temperatures? Some materials will scorch, while others may crack if they are heated too rapidly or unevenly.
- Can the material withstand exposure to chemicals without a visual change or performance degradation? Exposure to acids or alkali, quite common in kitchens, can potentially cause etching.
- How stain-resistant is the material? It is important that the material does not stain easily and that stains can be removed easily. Materials with lower absorption rates tend to be more stain-resistant. Using a sealer on more porous materials can lower their absorption rate, helping them to perform better and be more stain-resistant.
- Is the material slip-resistant? Slip-resistance is the level of traction needed for a walking surface to remain safe for those using it. The texture, porosity, surface treatments, and elements including water, dust, and a build-up of cleaning product residue can alter the slip resistance of the material. Slip resistance is impacted by the material’s texture and porosity, as well as any surface treatments used and elements it is exposed to
Performance attributes should be addressed no matter what material you are considering or what type of project you are working on. These factors play an even more important role in sustainability and in the long-term performance of the material. Let’s look at how natural stone compares to some manmade materials from the perspective of these performance objectives.
Interior Applications for Natural Stone versus Manmade Materials
The possibilities for countertops using natural stone are quite extensive. Granite, quartzite, marble, and soapstone are among the many options to consider for these hardworking elements in a kitchen or bath. Every natural stone slab connects directly to nature as a piece of Earth’s history. These stones are versatile, meaning they can be cut and finished into different shapes and patterns, and with various finishes, creating a cohesive aesthetic. There are typically more options for edging and surface textures available for natural stone than manmade surfaces. Because most stone is formed in nature through extreme heat and pressure, natural stone is inherently heat resistant. Granite and quartzite are also very durable and scratch resistant. Marble is particularly prized for its beautiful veining, although it may be susceptible to etching. Although soapstone can scratch easily, it can also be easily repaired. Some stones are porous which may cause the material to stain over time. Sealers are recommended for most applications.
In some cases, natural stone may cost more than manmade materials initially—but often, natural stone proves to be the most cost-effective choice due to its durability. This is especially true because natural stone can also be refinished, repaired, restored, or recycled. Stone also has a low embodied energy, an important consideration for sustainability requirements. This is because natural stone was created by the Earth and very little energy or additional resources are needed to quarry, fabricate, and finish it.
Manmade materials including engineered quartz, porcelain, sintered surface, acrylic/solid surface and cultured marble are also options for interior countertops. These materials typically do not need to be sealed. The patterns and colors of manmade materials are usually consistent within the same dye lot. Acrylic/solid surfaces are repairable, but it is often expensive to do so. Most of these materials do not last as long as stone. Porcelain can be more expensive to purchase and is more expensive to fabricate than natural stone. It is also difficult to repair since the patterns are not full bodied. These materials are typically made in thinner formats which also reduces the edge selection options. This results in the edges not having the same texture and pattern as the surface. The synthetic components of engineered quartz can break down when exposed to UV light. Acrylic, engineered quartz, and cultured marble are not heat or UV resistant. Variation between batches of manufactured materials may cause installation or customer service issues. Most of these materials also have a high embodied energy because they require a wide range of other materials and energy intensive processes to be manufactured.
Natural stones including granite, travertine, limestone, marble, and slate are good options for flooring. Again, one of the main performance aspects of using natural stone in this manner is its incredible durability. Design options abound with more edge treatments, surface texture, and color than most manmade materials. Most textures are slip-resistant and most natural stones are also UV resistant. Natural stone also comes in a variety of thicknesses and is easy to care for once properly protected. They will also maintain their color and patina nicely over time if maintained properly. In some cases, natural stone will cost less than porcelain or concrete imitations.
There are a few other issues to consider. Polished finishes may require a topical treatment to increase the slip resistance. Marble, limestone, and travertine can etch when exposed to acidic substances. Stones that have higher absorption rates will need to be sealed. Once again, the low embodied energy of natural stone makes it a great option for meeting sustainability goals. As previously mentioned, natural stone’s long life cycle makes it a very cost-effective choice.
Porcelain, ceramic, concrete, and terrazzo and plastic-based materials such as laminate and vinyl are among the most popular manmade flooring materials. A few of the pros of using these materials include the durability of ceramic and porcelain. Additionally, ceramic, porcelain, and vinyl are easy to care for. There are usage ratings available for specific applications, which helps make it easier to select the right option for the use you are considering. Terrazzo is a creative material because of the custom options available in production. Laminates are generally inexpensive while porcelain is more expensive than ceramic and other popular flooring materials.
There are a number of cons to using these materials. Porcelain is a heavy and unforgiving material, so specialized equipment is needed to cut it. The density of porcelain often requires that sub-floors and supports are strong enough to withstand the extra weight. These issues can also add to the cost of installation. Most manmade materials are only manufactured in thinner formats and the edges do not have the same texture or pattern as the surface. Their patterns and sizing are limited and they typically cannot be refinished. Porcelain and ceramic are susceptible to chipping and laminates and vinyl can be easily scratched or indented. Laminate and vinyl also require adhesives that off gas, and laminates are not moisture resistant. There will be variances across color between batches or lots of the materials. Many of the petroleum-based materials contain chemicals that are toxic, including those marked as Red List chemicals. These products also have high embodied energy, which creates a negative impact on the environment.
Natural Stone and Sustainability
Natural stone has demonstrated considerable durability in local and regional environments and applications. In many cases, these have lasted for hundreds of years, even millennia. Most of the manmade materials have not been around long enough to demonstrate that level of performance. The qualities of longevity and durability have proven that natural stone is a great choice for also meeting green building goals. The initial material and installation costs are off-set by the long life expectancy and the low maintenance requirements. Little to no cleaning or chemicals are required to maintain the material and as mentioned, natural stone can also be refinished, repaired, restored, or recycled. Natural stone is 100% natural stone. Engineered quartz, concrete, and porcelain require many different materials including chemicals to be manufactured and many of them are not recyclable.
So, as Oscar Wilde once said: “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness.” Choose natural stone and you will be contributing to the long legacy of great, high-performing, sustainable projects in the world.