Question

On a limited budget, am I better off spending money on truly green flooring or high-end green countertops?

Asked by vanessa bucy
Tampa, FL

I have been considering granite countertops, which are actually more economical than other green options. (I realize all the environmental implications of granite.) But I also want to change out the flooring in the rest of the home when I remodel the kitchen. Because this means 1500 sq ft of new flooring, the green options range around $6-7 a square foot. I am just curious from an environmental and health standpoint which would be more important to invest extra money. I can't really afford to do both.

Answer

Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP, CAPS

Answered by Molly McCabe, AKBD, CGP, CAPS

Bainbridge Island, WA

A Kitchen That Works LLC

April 19, 2011

Dear Vanessa,

I would recommend that you invest in green flooring rather than green countertops.

Here are some reasons why:

  • If you have children or pets at home, they are likely to spend time “lounging” on the floor -- provide them, and yourself, with the most healthful environment that you can.
  • The quantity of floor you require vs. the quantity of countertop you are likely to require is significantly different and, as such, the visual impact of these materials are not equal. You want to make sure you are really happy with the flooring. Replacing an unsatisfactory floor can cause you more anguish than replacing a countertop (not that I am advocating you choose an unsatisfactory countertop with the idea that you can just replace it a few years down the road, because I am not -- that goes against the basic tenants of being sustainable).
  • Given your budget constraints, you will likely have more product options with your countertops. For instance, consider taking a “wabe sabe” approach to your counters -- use more than one countertop material. For example, use the expensive granite on an island or raised bar and use a more economical countertop material on the perimeter such as solid surface, butcher block (realizing this is not the best countertop material around sinks) or laminate. (Wilsonart is GreenGuard certified and has some great colors/patterns. Formica laminate is another option, also GreenGuard certified.)

Make sure you consider maintenance requirements

The best baseline approach to selecting materials for your remodel is selecting materials that are characterized as highly durable with low maintenance requirements, as these products will look better longer, reducing the temptation to replace them in the future.

Make sure you understand the maintenance requirements of any one countertop or flooring material as well as how durable these surfaces are likely to be given your family’s lifestyle.

  • For example, I am a huge fan of cork flooring (for a multitude of reasons); however, if you have large dogs who run around the kitchen on a regular basis and don’t get regular pedicures, you may find that this material is not durable enough for your lifestyle (the protective surface can scratch).
  • If you live near the beach and don’t remove your shoes at the door, the finish on your hardwood floor will be compromised (sand is not the only reason to remove your shoes at the door -- probably the most important reason is to minimize tracking in pollens that can compromise your indoor air quality).
  • Setting items out of a hot oven onto a granite countertop can compromise the seal, as can allowing acids such as red wine, lemon juice, vinegar, etc., to sit on the counter. Once the seal is compromised, the stone will become porous, allowing fats and acids to be absorbed, which can change the appearance of the countertop.
  • So ask yourself -- “am I a methodical cook who cleans as I go, or am I more of a whirling dervish who hopes someone else will clean up the kitchen after dinner?” If you are the latter, I recommend you reconsider your countertop selection.

A word of caution on granite

Lack of environmental attributes aside, a word of caution on granite countertops.  Granite slabs typically come in two thicknesses: two centimeters or three centimeters.

  • Inexpensive granite countertops are typically two centimeters. These tops are prone to cracking and do not perform as well as three-centimeter slabs.
  • Additionally, granite is sealed with a noxious sealant at the fabrication shop – make sure you get the 15-year warranty seal, as most other sealants have only a 5-year warranty and having them resealed (at the location of installation) can be an expensive and very unpleasant experience.

Include installation costs in your budget

Lastly, the $6-$7 price range you mentioned for sustainable flooring would appear to be for material only. Make sure when you are setting your budget that you account for installation costs as well as disposal costs of your existing materials.

For more information on flooring, read these GreenHomeGuide posts

"What would be a good green kitchen flooring for our beach house? Will have sand and renters," answered by Cynthia Phakos.

"I am looking for low-VOC flooring to finish a basement. I am debating between carpet or engineered wood planks. What do you recommend?" answered by Kati Curtis.

"What is a reasonably priced hard-surface flooring with low VOCs?" answered by Randy Potter.

For more information on countertops, read these GreenHomeGuide posts

"For serious health reasons, I need to avoid inhaling chemicals. What should I try to use or avoid when installing kitchen countertops?" answered by Molly McCabe.

"I am looking for real-world performance information on green countertop options. How well do these actually function in a kitchen?" answered by Polly Osborne.

"I am wondering what is the most cost-efficient low-VOC or no-VOC countertop option," answered by David Edwards.

 

Good luck! 

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