Category: Kitchen

Engineered Stone Countertops: A Buyer’s Guide

Beautiful, hygienic, and low-maintenance, engineered stone makes an ideal eco-friendly countertop surface.

Engineered Stone Countertops

Photo: Sliestone

Many Americans nowadays care about making eco-friendly choices. And when it comes to countertops, engineered stone is one of the most environmentally sensitive choices you can make. But this type of surface offers a host of other benefits, too. It’s durable, beautiful, hygienic and easy to care for. We asked Princeton, NJ-based architect Joshua Zinder for his take on this versatile surface. Read on for his insight.

What kind of engineered stone can be used as a countertop?
Most engineered stones are fantastic for high-wear uses such as kitchen countertops. There are a variety of products on the market, including Silestone, Caesarstone, IceStone and many more. The products should be acid-resistant and non-absorptive. The size and types of materials used to make the engineered stone will determine its best uses. For example, an engineered surface with large chunks of marble will be limited in performance to the pieces of marble it contains.

What makes engineered stone good as a countertop surface?
Unlike solid surfacing or plastic laminate, which are temperature-sensitive and can catch fire, engineered stone resists heat well. And unlike some other surfaces—even natural stones—engineered ones resist stains from liquids like wine or coffee.

Engineered StoneWhat are its primary characteristics?
Strong, durable, and attractive, engineered stone is very consistent in look and pattern. It is also heat-resistant and does not accumulate bacteria or mold. The surfaces are easy to maintain, too. They can be specified with bacteria-resistant surfaces, but since they are non-absorptive and resistant to heat anyway, they should not be collecting bacteria in the first place.

What are its pros?
Pros include brute strength and heat resistance, as well as varied colors and styles. Some engineered stone products are made to look like limestone or marble, enabling you to get the look you want but with better performance. If you like using recycled materials or protecting natural resources like real marble, engineered stone counters will do the trick. The products may have natural colors or added colors with various textures. Many contractors are familiar with the products and will install them properly.

Slideshow: 12 Top Names in Engineered Stone

Its cons?
It’s hard to create curves with engineered stone, but as far as typical countertop designs go, there’s nothing you can’t do with these products that you can accomplish with conventional stone. In fact, we’ve pushed the limits with edge and corner details and other shapes in engineered stone materials.

How much does it cost?
Generally about $60-$100/square foot installed.

Why is it so expensive?
With engineered stone, you pay for good performance and a long lifetime. Some colors and patterns are more expensive than others. But some can be quite affordable (I even put one of these in my own house). So it’s expensive but no more so than many natural stone slabs and solid surface materials. It’s definitely more expensive than plastic laminates. But consider this: For years we were specifying white marble with no veins, which looks great but is very expensive. Now to get that white look, we can use engineered stones, which look exactly the same as marble side by side but don’t cost as much. There are lots of suppliers, and the product delivers a consistent look.

What are its installation requirements?
Work with people who know the material, and look for those who are recommended or certified by the material manufacturers.

To see architect Joshua Zinder’s work, click here.

Countertop Care 101

When general clean-up fails to keep your countertop shipshape, consider these material-specific solutions.

Countertop Care

Photo: Gast Architects

Perhaps never before have there been so many enticing countertop options to fit every budget, décor, and culinary need. Today’s popular

Butcher block surfaces should be rubbed with tung, linseed, or mineral oil anywhere from monthly to quarterly, depending on how much use your kitchen gets. Small burns, cuts, and scratches can be sanded out of butcher block. Remove stains by sponging on a mixture of one teaspoon of lemon juice or hydrogen peroxide per ¼ cup of water. For tough stains, use wood bleach (oxalic acid); follow package directions and rinse thoroughly.

Non-butcher block wood countertops are usually finished with marine oil, which boosts stain resistance. Brooks recommends refreshing marine-oiled countertops monthly with Weiman’s Furniture Cream.

Naturally nonporous and stain-resistant, soapstone doesn’t need sealing. But cooking oil—or even just skin contact—can tarnish the surface color. Keep the countertop color uniform with sealer or by rubbing with mineral oil. Mineral oil will darken soapstone’s natural gray hue; sealing will not.

Soapstone is relatively soft, so it will nick, scratch and chip, lending the surface a natural, organic quality. Scratches can be buffed out with fine sandpaper or left to create a patina.

This manufactured countertop material is typically nonporous and doesn’t require sealing. Depending on the brand, quartz is scratch-, stain-, and heat-resistant and stands up well to normal use. Not all brands are created equal; reading your product warranty could contain some tip-offs as to what you can expect. If scratches aren’t covered, that’s a strong hint to be extra mindful about knives and rough-bottomed cookware.

To fight stains, mix two tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide, a cup of flour, and enough water to make a paste. Apply to the stain, cover with plastic, and let the mixture dry for up to 24 hours; remove with warm water and a soft cloth.

Cad Kitchen Plans Stainless Steel Machine Hammered CountertopSTAINLESS STEEL
Count on stainless steel to scratch. Minor scratches can be buffed out using an abrasive pad applied in a circular motion. Whether a stainless steel countertop will dent depends on the thickness of the material and how it is installed. 14-gauge metal bonded to a waterproof core is “so solid you could park a Hummer on it,” says Brooks.

Even good-quality stainless steel can pick up rust marks from metal scouring pads, cast iron pans, and other rust-prone items. A mild abrasive cleanser or a homemade paste of lemon juice and baking soda will banish rust.

Treat stains on laminates with a paste of baking soda and water; let the paste sit for three to five minutes, then gently rinse without scrubbing. For tough stains, try rubbing for a minute or two with a cotton ball dampened with household bleach; rinse and dry.

Remove fine scratches or stubborn stains by applying a mild abrasive in small circular motions on the entire surface. These solid surfaces can acquire a plastic-y patina, which can be removed professionally.

A stainproof finish should be applied before installation by the fabricator or manufacturer; the surface cannot be retro-finished. A seasonal application of tung oil can boost the stain resistance of sealed concrete; paste wax lends a warm, slightly glossy look.

When it comes to maintenance, it’s not the tile but the grout that needs attention. Clean stained grout with a toothbrush and mildew-fighting cleaner or bleach diluted with water; rinse carefully. Sealing grout fends off stains and mildew. Tiles can also be re-caulked with mildew-resistant silicone products.

Perhaps the most important step in countertop care is accepting that every surface will eventually accumulate a few scratches and dings with regular use. “There’s a myth that there’s an indestructible countertop material that requires no maintenance,” Brooks says. “There is nothing like that.” He believes that attitude is everything. “If you look at a surface and recognize that it’s OK, then it is OK.”

materials are tough and durable, so keeping kitchen work surfaces in good shape relies more on common-sense daily use than on occasional onerous upkeep rituals.

Certain “dos and don’ts” apply to just about every readily available countertop material. Among them:

• Clean counters regularly with a sponge or soft cloth and a mild, non-abrasive cleaner such as dish soap and warm water; rinse and dry to nix smudges and water spots.

• Head off stains at the pass by wiping up spills promptly, especially notorious villains like tea, coffee, soda, red wine, oil, tomatoes, vinegar and lemon.

• No counter material appreciates puddles. Standing water can leave a film or mineral deposit; it dulls surfaces, causes grout to mildew, damages laminates’ seams, harms wood and shortens the lifespan of sealers.

• Knives and high heat are not any countertop’s best friends. Keep cutting boards and trivets (or hot pads) handy. Protect surfaces from warm appliances like toaster ovens.

• If jumbo-size canned goods drop from your overstocked pantry like bombs, or you juggle with cast iron frying pans, expect serious dent, chip, and crack issues.

• “You can damage any counter if you really try,” says Richard Brooks, owner and president of Brooks Custom, a Westchester County, New York, countertop manufacturer.

Newgreekmarble Marble CountertopGRANITE AND MARBLE
Sealing is the least understood granite- and marble-care checkpoint. Sealer makes a counter stain-resistant—not stainproof—by creating a barrier that delays how quickly the surface absorbs a spill.

There’s no hard-and-fast resealing schedule, but there is a simple test: Put a few drops of water on your counter and they should bead up. If the water is still on the surface after 10 or 15 minutes, your sealer is in good shape. But if the drops have spread and leave a dark mark on the stone after you blot off the excess, it’s time to reseal.

Most hardware stores and home centers carry countertop sealers with detailed application instructions on the packaging. The work typically consists of cleaning and drying the surface, then applying the liquid sealer with a brush or cloth. Let stand for five to 15 minutes, depending on the product, then remove the excess with a dry cloth and buff with a microfiber. Done.

To tackle oil stains on marble, try a non-abrasive liquid cleaner with bleach; mineral spirits, acetone, or ammonia are also effective, but do not mix these substances! Clean up food stains with a solution of hydrogen peroxide and a few drops of ammonia.

Removing stains from granite and marble may be as simple as a trip to your pantry. For oil stains, blot up any excess oil, then sprinkle the mark with cornstarch and let it sit for 18 to 24 hours. Vacuum up the cornstarch and repeat the process if necessary.

For food and drink stains, mix five tablespoons of dish soap with a cup of flour or baking soda. Add enough water to create a paste-like consistency and pread the paste over the stain. Cover it with plastic wrap and let sit overnight. Gently remove the mixture with warm water and a sponge. Do not scrub: Baking soda is a mild abrasive that can scratch shining surfaces. For persistent stains, beef up the paste with some hydrogen peroxide (or a few drops of ammonia) and reapply.

Etching is perhaps marble’s biggest problem. It mimics rings left by glassware, but etching is actually a type of corrosion caused by chemical interactions, which eats away the surface shine. To make etching less noticeable, wet the surface, then sprinkle on marble polishing powder and rub it in with a damp cloth or a buffing pad on a low speed drill.

For more care tips on wood, soapstone, stainless, laminates and other countertop materials, click here.

Granite Countertops: A Buyer’s Guide

Are granite countertops right for you? Here is some expert advice.

Granite Countertops

Photo: Sophisticated Edge>

Granite. It’s the most popular natural countertop surface for kitchens and baths in America. And for good reason—it’s durable, easy to maintain, and beautiful. It’s also a relatively simple upgrade in an old kitchen that will add value to your home should you choose to sell it. For more insight on this appealing material, we turned to contractor Gencer Hepozden, owner of Perspective Construction in New York City. Read on for his insights on this favored product.

What is granite?
It is a natural, sturdy stone that is more durable than marble.

What makes it so popular? The fact that it is more durable than marble makes it a good choice for kitchen counters. And because granite comes in a wide range of colors, it appeals to most people. In fact, granite is the most sought-after choice of countertop material. The color choices of black pearl and absolute black are widely popular among consumers for use in the bathroom and kitchen, on floors and walls and counters as well.

Modular Granite Countertops Granite Colors What are its primary characteristics?  It comes in a wide range of colors, and a wide range of edge treatments are also available. Compared to marble, it offers a more uniform pattern is more sturdy.

What are its pros?  It is durable, acid-resistant, moisture-resistant and scratch-resistant. Also, it comes in a wide range of colors.

Its cons? It absorbs oils fast, and the lighter colors show stains more than darker ones.

Why is it so expensive? That is a common misconception. Granite is actually inexpensive compared to many other alternatives. Marble, for example, is higher in price, especially due to certain kinds (like White Thassos) not being available. Since marble prices have increased, customers have come to prefer granite. Blue granite is the most expensive.

How much does it cost? The cost of granite can range anywhere from $10 to $170 per square foot. Fabrication and installation costs vary between $40 and $100 per square foot. Elements that reflect on the price include the thickness of the slab, the type of edge treatment, whether or not a backsplash of the same material will be included, and the color of granite (blue being the most expensive).

What are its installation requirements? First the cabinets have to be installed in order for a granite countertop to be templated for a proper fit pre-installation. Once the template is made, the granite is cut to fit and should be installed by a pro to ensure it is level. After installation, granite needs to be sealed. We prefer to use Miracle sealer. The right sealer can make granite oil resistant, too.

Counter Intelligence: Choosing the Right Countertop

All kitchen countertops are not created equal. Here are the pros and cons of today's more popular choices.


Countertops pull double duty as a visual design element and a hardworking surface. Cost depends on materials, with prices ranging from $2–$250 per square foot or more. Today’s popular countertop options support a strong natural theme with stone, wood, and renewable materials. Look for surfaces that can stand up to the demands you’ll dish out, and mix them to personalize your space. For instance, put quartz or granite on the main countertops, then use a butcher block on the island to chop fruits and veggies. Here are materials to consider:

The Naturals. Durability and good looks keep granite and quartz in high demand, but other natural materials are also gaining ground. In luxe kitchens, timeless marble is coming on strong, though it’s not as durable as granite, and the more historic-looking soapstone has also become more popular. Semi-precious gem slabs, such as agate, amethyst, and rose quartz, are also gaining attention for their dazzling good looks. Limestone and sandstone are alternatives for those who want a more natural, soothing palette. As for prices, granite and soapstone begin around $40 per square foot, and low-maintenance quartz begins around $120.

Du Pont Corian Solid Surface Kitchen Countertops Cirrus White Rev Sustainable Choices. Going green is always in vogue and manufacturers now offer countertops fashioned from renewable and recyclable materials like ground glass, metal bits, bamboo, stainless steel, and concrete. Repurposed architectural salvage offers one-of-a-kind countertops. And on the budget-friendly end are laminates made with recycled-wood particle board and non-VOC adhesives.

Woods. Take a look at hardwoods like maple, mahogany, and cherry, as well as current popular choices like madrone. Not only do these time-honored materials add a warm, cozy feel to any style kitchen, but they can be refinished numerous times and will age beautifully. Cost ranges from $30–$100 per square foot.

Laminates. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly countertop or a retro look, simple laminates keep costs in line (prices begin around $5 per square foot). The material is fairly durable but not heat-resistant. Installation is relatively quick, helping to keep costs down.

Tile. Durable and affordable, tile comes in various colors, sizes, and textures and can be made of porcelain, ceramic, or stone. Prices vary, with the least expensive choices beginning at $2 per square foot. Seal any grout used between the tiles to ward off bacteria buildup.

Solid Surfaces. Made of durable, man-made acrylic, solid surface countertops are designed to withstand years of wear and can include an integrated sink with seamless installation. Solid surfaces resist stains, moisture, sunlight, and heat and can be repaired with light buffing.

Planning Guide: Kitchen Remodeling

Take the stress out of kitchen remodeling by becoming more familiar with your design, material, and budget options.

Kitchen Remodeling

Kitchen designed by Chris Novak Berry and Emily Castle, Brooksberry & Associates. Photo: Alise O

Kitchen makeovers remain popular as homeowners continue to invest to create a warm, stylish, comfortable, and efficient heart of the home. In addition to improved aesthetics and organization, kitchen remodels also hold reasonable resale value. According to Remodeling magazine’s 2011-2012 Cost vs. Value Report, midrange minor kitchen remodels—new countertops, appliances, cabinet fronts, and hardware—have an average national cost just shy of $20,000 and get 72% return on investment. Midrange major remodels, which include new appliances, cabinets, countertops, flooring, and lighting, have a mid-range average of $57,824 and a nearly 66% return. High-end renovations can easily cost $100,000 and up.

Though aesthetics are important, the driving remodeling force is functionality. Start by doing some research and tour show houses and kitchen show rooms to see product up close and personal. Next, set a budget that reflects your main priorities for the new space and familiarize yourself with basic elements of design.

Planning Your Best Kitchen
Today’s kitchens average 200–300 square feet and are increasingly part of an open-floor plan. Other trends include a move towards simplicity, uncluttered looks, energy efficiency, and natural materials. Look to design books, magazines, and websites for ideas. And check out the helpful Kitchen Planner by the National Kitchen and Bath Assocation (NKBA), which is available as a free download.

Here are some key points to get you started:

How will you use the kitchen? Before you do anything, determine how you like to cook and entertain in your kitchen. Do you cook alone or with someone? Is your kitchen a multi-purpose room where kids do homework and friends love to gather? Keep track of what currently works well and what doesn’t. For instance, if you’re forever crawling into the back of lower cabinets to retrieve something, jot that issue down.

Stop the clutter. Now is your chance to take inventory of everything you need to store, then plan accordingly. Fortunately, cabinet makers realize storage and organization features drive sales, and they’ve responded accordingly.

G Shaped KitchenThink about efficiency. If your kitchen feels more like an obstacle course than an organized work place, consider two tried-and-true kitchen layout basics:

• The Work Triangle. This imaginary triangle features the stove, refrigerator, and sink at the points. The old “26-foot rule” dictates that the perimeter of this triangle should not exceed 26 feet and that each side should be between four and nine feet long. Make sure that the triangle doesn’t intersect an island or peninsula for more than a foot. (To see additional layouts, select Galley, L-shaped, Corridor, and G-shaped floor plans.)

• The Work Station. Create separate stations for food prep, cooking, baking, and cleaning. Each area is centered around a major appliance and needs at least 15 inches of counter space.

Stick with a Budget. In all likelihood, you’ll need to make some choices on where to save and where to splurge. “Keep your priorities front and center,” advises the NKBA Kitchen Planner. “A $500 range or a $10,000 one? A $100 sink or one that’s $3,500? A $4 polished brass knob or a $98 crystal model? What’s important to you?”

As for budget breakdown, the NKBA Kitchen Planner notes that you can expect cabinetry and hardware to run about 29% of your investment, appliances and ventilation can be 14%, countertops typically run 10%, and installation is about 17% of the total project cost. Set aside 10% or 20% of your budget for contingencies.

For more on kitchen planning, consider:

Fresh Ideas for Kitchen Flooring
Counter Intelligence: Choosing the Right Countertop
Kitchen Cabinets

Small Kitchen Design

Make the most of your space by using a smart small kitchen design.

Small Kitchen Design


The best of small kitchen design focuses on function and flow. No matter the size of the kitchen, smart appliance placement can help create a comfortable, workable environment. Good design dictates that the refrigerator be near food preparation counters, and that sinks be placed next to dishwashers for easy loading. Meanwhile, stoves want workspace and handy storage for cooking accessories, cupboards for pots and pans, and drawers for utensils.

In the food preparation area, the kitchen triangle is the usual standard. It’s actually an arithmetic formula: The sum of the distances from sink to stove to refrigerator and back again should not be less than 12 feet nor more than 22 feet. Furthermore, the kitchen triangle rule specifies that no one side of the triangle should be less than 4 feet nor more than 9 feet. This rule works for almost all kitchens, with the exception of tiny galley kitchens and giant professional ones.

Another standard that can be integrated into small kitchen designs is the center island, a staple in modestly sized and large kitchen layouts. The island can function as a food preparation, dining, or homework station. Counter peninsulas also do service for baking, dining, and food preparation.

Important Details
For those who cook frequently, the option of having a counter with a drop-down surface is often appealing. Another space saver is an integrated sink, which allows fruits and vegetables to be cleaned and scraps disposed of right at the preparation center.

A food prep area might include a wood chopping block or a stainless-steel surface. Raised strips of metal set into a countertop support hot pans and protect the counter against scratches. Drainboards, too, can be integrated into the sink-side countertop for convenient cleanup.

For those interested in baking, a proper countertop is essential. That might mean installing marble or granite countertop sections that will maintain the cold for proper dough rolling. Depending on the height of the home baker, the tasks of kneading and rolling dough can be made more comfortable by lowering the countertop from the standard 36-inch counter height. Experts recommend a rolling counter that is 7 to 8 inches below the elbow for a baking and mixing countertop.

Mix It Up
Busy lifestyles mean that many families are solution-driven. The key to contemporary design is to find a way to do it all in one room. Homeowners are taking advantage of today’s innovative marketplace to create a “mix and match” approach that gives them the utility they need with the aesthetics they want.

The mix-and-match approach is actually a new rule of thumb in kitchen planning and design—“The richer the mix, the better,” says Gin Guei Ebnesajjad, manager of product styling and development, Dupont Surfaces, Corian and Zodiaq. Customers are selecting mixes of colors, textures, and surfaces to meet their individual needs.

In rethinking your colors, go for a 60-30-10 color scheme, which means 60 percent of a main color, 30 percent of a complementary color and 10 percent for an accent color like a backsplash or a trim detail.

Recommended kitchen colors often include shades of tan, peach, yellow and all the many off-whites. Keep the big-ticket items like cabinets on the neutral side and accent with easily interchangeable elements like wall paint, window treatments, and small appliances. That way, changing the look of your kitchen in another few years won’t have to be a major investment.

Get the Job Done
If you have the time and energy, designing and remodeling your kitchen can be fun and a money-saver. However, sometimes it’s better to leave the planning to a pro.

Most retailers and manufacturers of kitchen cabinets offer a free design service. Kitchen designers spend their lives planning kitchens, and they know exactly what their brand products can do. If you have decided upon purchasing cabinets from a manufacturer instead of having them custom built, it is probable that the manufacturer’s own designers can help to work out how to plan the kitchen. The only disadvantage is that these representatives work for the manufacturer and probably will not be impartial.

You might also consider hiring an independent Certified Kitchen Designer. Like their counterparts in the retail kitchen cabinet business, these professional designers work day in and day out designing kitchens and are skilled at making the most of your available space and dollars. Additionally, as industry specialists, they are often the first to hear of new innovations and cutting-edge products. Like architects, they too can do as much or as little as you wish—from simply drawing up a plan to working with the building contractor until the job is completed.

Case Studies in Kitchen Design: Smart Layouts for Family Kitchens

A trio of case studies sheds light on functional kitchen designs especially for families.

Kitchen Designs


Kitchen designs are increasingly important; these days, the kitchen is the busiest room in most houses. Even where cooking isn’t a top priority, the kitchen is usually a gathering place for after-school snacks and snatches of conversation. Guests at parties seem often to gravitate to the kitchen, whether for the drinks and hors d’oeuvres or to enjoy the warmth of the household. Yet there is no one model for a kitchen space that suits all needs.

Function and Flow
The best kitchen designs focus on function and flow. Layout works together with appliance placement to create a comfortable, workable environment. Good design dictates that the refrigerator be near work space and food preparation counters and sinks be placed next to dishwashers for easy loading. Stoves want workspace and handy storage for cooking accessories, cupboards for pots and pans, and drawers for utensils.

Floor Plan #1: The Jacobsons
The way a family cooks and lives will determine their appliance needs and finishes. Kelli Jacobson loves to cook and entertain, so her layout, appliances, and finishes all enhance how she lives in her Cape Cod-style home. “I like how everything’s open,” Jacobson says. “I love the layout because it goes right from the living room to the dining room to the kitchen.”

In Jacobson’s house, the kitchen is the cook’s domain, so her appliance choices and finishes reflect her love of cooking. “I’m really into cooking, so I chose stainless steel for a more modern, professional look,” she says of the Kenmore refrigerator, stove and dishwasher she selected.

The moveable center island opens to provide extra space for stool seating and storage. The island and counters are grey, while the cabinets are a frosted, light wood with the stainless-steel finish that pulls it all together.

Floor Plan #2: The Thompsons
The Thompsons own a Colonial home, a layout that lets family space flow while keeping public space separate from the mess of busy lives. With small children and lots of toys, it works best for their family to use the dining room as a playroom adjacent to the kitchen while the living room remains a public entry space. “I do like the fact that you have more of a welcome area — no toys — with more of a playroom off to the side,” Ann Thompson says.

She opted for clean, simple lines in the kitchen. The cupboards are maple with a warm, autumn finish. “It’s light; it brightens up the room,” Thompson says of the cabinet color. “They have clean straight lines but aren’t modern,” she says of the design.

Overall, the feeling is warm, neat and clean. The appliances are all white, from the Kenmore side-by-side refrigerator and freezer to the stove and dishwasher. This light, open feeling continues throughout the family spaces, which include the kitchen, dining room, breakfast area, and first-floor laundry. “The layout is good for entertaining,” Thompson says, and the openness gives a big, airy feel to their family space. Having the dining room separated from the living room lets this family put a playroom out of sight while putting their best face forward for company.

Floor Plan #3: The Browns
The beauty of a ranch layout is that it keeps family and public space together. Kimberly Brown, the homeowner and mother of a toddler, also likes the openness of her layout. The 440-square-foot dining room and kitchen area lets Brown keep an eye on her daughter while living and working in the house.

Her finishes are relaxed yet sophisticated, with maple beadboard cupboards and soapstone-colored laminate counters. Her black appliances complement the counters and provide an easy-to-clean, kid-friendly finish. The Kenmore refrigerator, stove and dishwasher unify the design scheme and give a sleek look to this open kitchen.

Task-Centered Thinking
All three home plans feature first-floor laundry rooms that are made modern with a Whirlpool side-by-side, heavy-duty washer-dryer combo. These energy-saving front-loaders are built to handle large loads but work in small spaces like the closeted laundry area in Brown’s ranch-style home. Putting them on the first floor, in the center of family activity, makes the whole process more efficient and family-friendly, according to all of these homeowners. “I’m really looking forward to the first-floor laundry,” says Thompson.

Family-friendly layouts, open space, and good task allocation, along with fluid kitchen designs, make these small homes work.

Kitchen Countertops 101

Options abound for homeowners planning to install or replace kitchen countertops.

Kitchen Countertops

Photo: Tervola Designs

Consumers have a great deal of choice when it comes to kitchen countertops. There are options available from moderately priced to expensive; there are natural surfaces and manmade; the range is wide. The principal choices, from least to most expensive, are the following:

Laminate. This is the most popular category. Many colors and patterns are available, and the price is in the range of $15 to $40 per linear foot of countertop. Most consist of a core material with a surface veneer applied. Formica is one common brand name. Disadvantages? The surfaces can scratch or burn, and they are not easily repaired.

Ceramic tile. Like laminate kitchen countertops, ceramic tiles are available in a wide range of colors. In addition, tile comes in various sizes, textures, and finishes, and the grout that seals the joint between the individual tiles can also be tinted to add emphasis or highlights. Ceramic tiles can be installed by capable do-it-yourselfers, which can make them even more affordable. Costs vary from $10 a square foot or less to $50 or more, depending upon the tile selected and the installation costs. I’d recommend buying glazed tiles (they’re less likely to stain or scratch) and an epoxy grout. Disadvantages are that tiles can break (though repairs are relatively easy) and the grout will need to be renewed periodically.

Solid surface. These synthetic surfaces are manufactured of polyester or acrylic resins and mineral fillers. They are available in many colors, textures, and patterns, some of which resemble other materials, including wood, stone, and even glass. Thicknesses vary. One advantage of such solid surfaces as Corian and WilsonartGibraltar, two of the common brand names, is that scratches and nicks can be buffed out using an abrasive pad. These surfaces are unlikely to stain, but can be scarred by knives or discolored by exposure to heat. Installation is best left to the professionals. The price range is broad, from roughly $50 to $200 per linear foot.

Wood surfaces. The range of colors is much narrower than with laminates or ceramic tile, but most people who opt for wood kitchen countertops do so because they like the color of a natural finished wood. Maple is most often used as a counter surface, but cherry, birch, mahogany, and other woods are other choices. Most often wooden counters are so-called butcher-block surfaces, consisting of glued up strips of solid wood. They can stain, dent, or burn, but usually sanding and resealing will restore a uniform finish. Wood is also vulnerable to variations in humidity (producing swelling and even changes in shape), so careful sealing near sources of water and moisture are critical. The surface should also be periodically treated with a wax or varnish suitable to food-preparation surfaces. Costs are moderate, in the range of $50 to $100 per linear foot, and do-it-yourselfers may well be able to install these surfaces successfully.

Stone. Granite is the most popular stone countertop, but marble, soapstone, and others are also available. Stone kitchen countertops are extremely durable, but also very unforgiving—one slip with that antique China teapot of Grandma’s and it’ll be reduced on contact to a pile of shards. Stone is unlikely to nick, scratch, or scorch, though coffee, cooking oils, and liquids with natural pigments can produce staining, especially with marble counters. Soapstone requires periodic sealing to maintain its good looks, so granite is the closest to being a care­free stone surface. While stone is a great option if you want your kitchen counters to last forever, it’s also an expensive route to take, as the prices range from about $100 to $250 a linear foot installed. And the installation is best left to the experts.

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Bob Vila’s Guide to Kitchen Cabinets

Things to know when buying or refurbishing kitchen cabinets.

Kitchen Cabinets

Maple Heirloom Kitchen Cabinets by Thomasville Cabinetry. Photo: Thomasville Cabinetry

Books have been written about making kitchen cabinets—and one could be written about buying them, too. But there are some key considerations and terms you should know. Here are a few brief guidelines to help in your shopping.

New or refaced. Perhaps the least expensive option in a kitchen remodeling is to replace existing cabinets. This means the boxes that contain the shelves and drawers remain in place, saving demolition, construction, and purchase costs. Only the fronts of the cabinets are replaced, which usually involves new doors, face frames, and hardware. If you’re happy with the layout and the number of cabinets you currently have but want to give them a new look, this may be the right way to go.

Thomasville Cabinet Door Villa C Nt S.D2.RetMaterial choices. Whether you’re buying all-new cabinets or just refacing, you’ll need to decide whether you want all-wood, wood veneer, or laminate doors and face fronts. With veneer cabinets, a thin ply of wood is applied to a substrate of plywood or a composite material like particle board (plywood is better, but more expensive). Laminate doors are often fabricated of polyvinyl chloride sheets that are heated, molded, and applied to a substrate to give a seamless appearance.

Buying the boxes. If you are buying all-new cabinets, you’ll want to know of what materials the boxes are made. Solid wood cabinets these days are rare and expensive; even plywood boxes are becoming pricy and less common. More likely, you’ll encounter melamine, a reasonably sturdy composite material made of resins. It will chip but is stronger than the lesser choices, which are little more than paperboard, sometimes surfaced with vinyl. When shopping for cabinets, ask to look at a cabinet box; a little visual examination will reveal how sturdy the secondary materials are. How well are the pieces fastened together? Are nails or screws apparent to the eye? It doesn’t take a cabinetmaker’s training to distinguish the wobbly and shoddy.Kitchen Cabinet

Look, too, at the construction of the boxes. Are the doors fastened directly to the sides of the box (frameless) or to an applied facing of horizontal and vertical members (framed)? Are the drawers dovetailed? Do the drawer bottoms flex noticeably when you put weight on them? What about the drawer slides? Do they work smoothly when you put a book or two in the drawer? Do the hinges and other hardware elements look well made and sturdy? Are they adjustable? (Look for slots and set screws.)

In general, the quality you get is a function of the money you’re willing to spend. Solid wood cabinets cost more than cabinets made of composite materials. Hand-rubbed finishes, Euro-style hardware, mortise-and-tenon joinery, and other top-of-the-line qualities come only at added expense. Remember, too, that accessories can add both to the convenience and the price of your new kitchen: sponge drawers, lazy susans, gadget garages, glazed doors, recycling bins, and built-in pantries are only a few of the options available.

Kitchen Remodel Ideas

Practical, stylish, and eco-friendly kitchen remodel ideas.

Kitchen Remodel Ideas


Busy lifestyles mean that many families are solution-driven in all they do—even renovating their kitchens. Here are some kitchen remodel ideas to bring your family’s cooking, eating, and socializing hub up-to-date, making the room more stylish, practical, and eco-friendly in the process.

Creating Kitchen Activity Zones
One solution is to “zone” the kitchen. Homeowners are no longer tied to the traditional kitchen countertop. They’re taking advantage of today’s innovative marketplace to create a “mix and match” approach that gives them the utility they need with the aesthetics they want.

Today’s zoned countertops are true taskmasters. Some get a daily workout as the center of busy family meal preparations or cleanup. Others are essential spaces for baking or fresh food preparation. Some serve as showpieces. Yet others have become one-stop home offices with room for phone, computer, and work space for parents or kids.

By creating activity zones with counters of appropriate heights and materials, the traditional matching countertop look is disappearing from the kitchen. Even backsplashes, which always used to match the countertop, are part of the new mix and match.

Build with Environmentally-Friendly Materials
If you’re replacing or updating your décor, such as countertops, flooring and tile, look for sustainable materials like bamboo and cork, which come from plants that re-grow quickly from the same source (as opposed to wood; it takes decades to grow back a tree) or recycled content from companies like Green Sage and Green Building Supply.

Designer Stelmack says other renewable materials are also finding their way into cabinets. Kirei board, for example, is an engineered product using the stalks of sorghum plants, and bamboo is used in a laminated plywood under the trademark Plyboo®. Reclaimed wood is also popular, she says.

“Re-using existing cabinetry is always preferred, especially if the cabinets are in good condition and pose no threat to the health of the people living in the home,” says Ashley Katz, communications manager for the U.S. Green Building Council based in Washington, DC. “Using salvaged cabinetry can be a way to reduce the impacts of manufacturing new goods, as well as reducing the amount of material entering landfills. While the variety of cabinetry materials once was sparse and limiting, now the choices for environmentally friendly cabinetry materials are endless, and we expect this trend to continue,” says Katz.

Blend Things In
Call it the great cover-up. In a trend fueled by manufacturer innovations and designer imagination, appliances are the sight-unseen heroes of the home. Refrigerators, dishwashers, and TVs are melding into the woodwork — and that’s just where many homeowners want them. Kitchens are looking more like extensions of living rooms; small appliances are being streamlined to fit in just about any room.

Custom pieces often come with big price tags. Troy Adams, a Los Angeles-based kitchen and bath designer, introduced the TansuChill refrigerator as part of his hidden furniture line. The unit is a Sub-Zero refrigerator-freezer encased in traditional Japanese-influenced cabinetry. It can cost more than $24,000.

Camouflaging appliances, rather than tucking them off to the side so they don’t overpower the space, is just plain practical. Relegate them to the recesses, and you can lose the efficiency inherent in the traditional work triangle. But make them a focus and you won’t mind putting them front and center. “Wherever they go, they’re going to look great. Whether that means paneled sides, handpainting on a surface or using interesting door handles, it’ll make a statement,” Salerno says.

Use Energy-Efficient Appliances
When measuring the greenness of your kitchen, the first thing to look at is your appliances. “Outside of heating and cooling, the refrigerator is the main energy hog in the home,” says Jennifer Powers, media manager of the National Resources Defense Council of New York, NY. “The great thing about [today’s] refrigerators is that automatically, no matter what kind you have, it’s probably a good 70 percent more efficient than the old gold or green version from your childhood.”

With any appliance, you’ll want to look for two things: the Energy Star and Energy Rating Number. The higher the energy rating number, the more efficient the appliance. Energy Star ranks appliance efficiency—any appliance with the Energy Star label is in the top 25 percent of energy performers.

Trust Your Judgement
There’s been a change in consumer attitude, marked by people following their own style sense, rather than the trends. “Consumers have become more assertive,” says Gin Guei Ebnesajjad, manager of product styling and development for DuPont Surfaces, Corian and Zodiaq. They are smart and color-savvy, too, she says. As a result, their kitchens carry a creative punch that standard kitchens just can’t match.