With low maintenance, high durability and endless color choices, engineered quartz offers a tempting alternative to natural stone countertops.
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Ever since the invention of Formica in the 1920s, kitchen countertops in America have been simply covered in laminates. During the past decade, though, natural stone surfaces have landed in ever more kitchens: granite, marble, soapstone and even concrete. But now there's a new countertop contender on the design scene: engineered quartz.
Boasting the best qualities of laminate and stone (along with its own special features), quartz began appearing in U.S. homes just a few years ago after gaining popularity in Europe for the past decade. Today, quartz countertops are exploding in popularity, with U.S. sales increasing 60 percent in 2004.
Although some quartz countertops are actually made of quarried slabs of the natural stone, the new engineered material is actually created through a manufacturing process that mixes approximately 95 percent ground natural quartz with 5 percent polymer resins. The result is a super-hard, low-maintenance, natural stone-look countertop available in a dazzling array of colors. And for many of the homeowners choosing quartz, those virtually unlimited color options are what sold them.
"Color was most definitely a huge factor," says Gay Lyons, a college professor in Knoxville, Tenn., who replaced the white laminate countertops in the kitchen of her 1970s rancher with blue quartz. "Our kitchen is part of a large area that includes dining and seating areas, as well as an adjacent sunroom. The countertops needed to coordinate with not only what was in the kitchen, but what was in those other areas as well. The color I chose coordinates perfectly."
Joe Everitt, an independent contractor who has spent the last decade remodeling New York City brownstones and lofts, says that homeowners love the fact that quartz allows color choices never before available in stone. But he says the best features of quartz are actually invisible.
"These countertops are close to indestructible," Joe explains. "They're so durable that most manufacturers offer a warranty, something you won't find with, say, granite. And quartz isn't porous like other stone surfaces, so these countertops are much more sanitary in a home kitchen. You can keep them 99.9 percent bacteria-free."
This durability also means that, unlike other types of stone countertops, quartz resists staining or corrosion from cooking oils, liquids and most household cleaning products — so there's no need for periodic resealing of the surface. Quartz can be damaged by excessive heat, however, so homeowners should use trivets or heating pads.
Quartz countertops allow for a variety of edging options, just like natural stone. Unlike stone, however, engineered quartz also offers other design possibilities. Because it's more flexible to work with and is held in place using glue and epoxy instead of screws, quartz can be used on larger vertical surfaces like backsplashes and even shower enclosures, without the fissures and seams often all too visible with natural stone.
Despite its many advantages, installation of engineered quartz countertops isn't a job for the average do-it-yourselfer; the companies that make and sell engineered quartz certify their own installation experts.
"Installation is a bit of a pain," says Gay. "You have to obtain it from a (certified) distributor. They send people to measure and then they send installers. There's a bit of a wait involved between each of these steps."
Also, because engineered quartz is significantly heavier than other stone surfaces, there are some special installation considerations.
"It's important to make sure that you look at structural issues before installing quartz countertops, especially on upper floors" says Joe. "The installer also needs to be sure that the cabinets are sound."
The cost of engineered quartz countertops appears to be dropping as they grow in popularity and as more manufacturers make them available. In general, however, they are more expensive than laminate and comparable in price to granite, ranging from $100 to $200 per square foot.
Common brand names include Cambria, Silestone and Zodiaq, and engineered quartz countertops are now available through most kitchen design firms, as well as the major home and garden centers like Lowe's and Home Depot.
Gay Lyons says she and her husband couldn't be happier with their decision to go with quartz.
"We know lots of people with granite, but we don't know anyone else who has quartz. We love the countertops. They are beautiful and indestructible."