New and Affordable Surface Options for Housing

Paper-based high-pressure laminate surfaces make a comeback with improved quality and a flair for style
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Sponsored by Formica Group
By Rebecca A. Pinkus
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Surface Materials: Characteristics and Uses

Let’s take a look at the various surface material options available, along with some of their benefits and disadvantages.

Natural Stone

Natural stone such as marble, granite, quartz, soapstone, and slate are often considered for mid- to high-end countertop design, but all can be used for surfaces in other spaces as well.

Marble is a beautiful surface material and is often coveted for high-end projects. While beauty may be its selling point, the material stains easily, and it is especially prone to the acid in wine, citrus, and vinegar. Even tomatoes can cause a stain. As such, marble may be best used for surfaces that don’t involve food preparation, such as backsplashes, fireplace surrounds, and bathrooms.

laminate surface conter tops in kitchen.

Natural stone, such as marble, granite, quartz, soapstone, and slate, are often considered for mid- to high-end countertop designs. High-pressure laminates can have high design that looks natural and allows for infinite options when it comes to coloration and creative edge design.

Granite is a more durable natural stone, which makes it a logical choice as a countertop. Unfortunately, because it is a natural surface, the designs and colors available can be limited. It also needs to be sealed and deep cleaned regularly as it is porous and susceptible to the growth of bacteria. The surface provides a sleek and reflective look, but it can carry a hefty cost both for material and installation, depending on where and how it is fabricated.3 Granite comes from a variety of quarries around the world, and not all granites are equal in terms of quality and durability.

Soapstone and slate are both limited in their color palettes, but they have other qualities that make them good choices for surfaces as long as they are treated. For example, soapstone, which is porous, needs to be sealed with a mineral oil in order to prevent staining. Slate, on the other hand, is a fairly soft stone, and so it can scratch easily—but those scratches can be buffed out with steel wool. Both materials rank in cost close to a mid-range granite, depending on their fabrication.


Wood offers a more traditional surface option. Between different wood types and finishes, this material is often used for surfaces such as cabinetry, bookshelves, and butcher-block countertops. Some of the key benefits of wood include its design flexibility, recyclability, heat resistance, and overall appearance. It is also naturally antibacterial, with studies showing 99.9 percent of bacteria die within three minutes of exposure to a wood cutting board.3 Though it should be noted that not all woods are as smooth as a cutting board, and cracks and fissures in natural wood can collect dirt and grime. Unlike materials such as concrete, it won’t scratch glasses or dishes. Wood, however, does require considerable maintenance to keep it looking new: It must be kept dry and requires regular polishing. It is also easy to scratch and can be dented.

Other Surfaces

Stainless steel gained popularity in commercial settings for its low maintenance, easy cleaning, and antibacterial properties. In addition to the qualities that make it ideal for commercial kitchens, stainless steel is moderately durable, heat resistant, and nonporous—all qualities that make this surface type a good choice in residential properties as well. The downside for this material is it readily shows fingerprints, can be easily scratched and dented, and shows its age with time. While stainless steel may be a choice a family wants for its kitchen, it is not necessarily for everyone, making it a poor choice for rental spaces.

Concrete is another increasingly popular surface option, but again, its use is limited primarily to countertops. Concrete has the benefits of being customizable, recyclable, durable, and heat resistant. The negative aspects are that the porous nature of concrete means that even with sealants, it can be easily stained and hold moisture, the latter of which means the slabs can eventually crack. Concrete can also scratch glassware and dishes. So, while it can offer a unique style for a kitchen counter, it may not be the best choice for heavy-usage applications. For multifamily properties, concrete’s bulky nature makes it more difficult to remove and replace.

All of the materials above fall into the higher end of the cost range and are generally limited to countertop surfaces. Other materials lend themselves better to a wider range of surfaces and offer more options for residential projects.

Manufactured Surfaces: Acrylic or Polyester

Acrylic, polyester, or a combination of the two can provide a lower-cost option in surfacing. These surfaces have gained popularity thanks to their incredible range of colors and patterns, including those that mimic natural stone. Solid surfacing sheets come in a variety of widths, as thin as ¼ inch, making it usable for a variety of applications. These surfaces are also stain resistant, and while they do scratch, they can be both renewable and repairable. For example, burned or scratched surfaces can be repaired through simple sanding, and more significant damage often can be filled in. Moreover, the nature of the material means installations can look seamless.

Manufactured Surfaces: Engineered Stone

As an alternative to more costly natural stone, engineered stone can provide almost an identical look but with virtually no maintenance required, making it a rock-hard, worry-free surface. Included in the engineered stone category are composite surfaces, such as those made with quartz. This engineered stone material is usually made of 90 percent quartz, and bound with 10 percent acrylic or epoxy. The material is impervious to water, very hard and durable, and available in both glossy and matte finishes. These characteristics mean it is stain and crack resistant, easily cleaned, and naturally antibacterial. The downside is that it isn’t a heat-resistant material and has a seam, which can lead to chipping. Also, it is costly—again on par or slightly above granite.

High-Pressure Laminate

Laminate came into fashion in the 1940s and held its place in the surfacing world through the 1970s before other materials came into fashion. But high-pressure laminate has returned to the market with some innovative technologies that make it a strong contender for budget-friendly projects. As the most affordable surfacing option, designers may overlook this material, but it offers many qualities that make it an excellent choice in residential projects. It’s lightweight, durable, and easy to install. And with new high-resolution printing technology, laminate offers a world of design possibilities to meet the aesthetic sensibilities of any designer. We’ll look at this material in more depth later in the course.


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Originally published in Architectural Record