Here's a quick and easy way to upgrade your home: Install new countertops. Installing new countertops does not require moving walls, making structural changes or imposing drastic disruptions to your life. The actual disruption can be limited to just one day of switching out the old and new. New counters can be considered for bathrooms and laundry rooms, though today we will focus on kitchens.
While this is a quick and easy upgrade, it is important to have the big picture in mind before making even small upgrades. If you need to make larger changes, like replacing cabinets or reconfiguring the kitchen, it would be unwise to start with new countertops. Countertops are not flexible — they can rarely be reused in a different location or with different cabinets. But if you plan to keep your cabinets and configuration for some time to come, then new countertops might be the perfect update to your home.
Be sure to keep the function of your space in mind so you can choose the material that will work best for you. Consider issues of durability, maintenance and the general aesthetic impact associated with how you use your countertops and what each material has to offer.
Ceramic tile is a popular choice and can make a nice do-it-yourself project. Tile is impervious to heat and it won't stain if it is glazed. Tile comes in a wide variety of colors, shapes and special accents, so it easily accommodates individual design. Sealing the grout is required to keep it in mint condition. New epoxy grouts are expensive but far less apt to absorb dirt and stains. Tile can also be unforgiving with glassware and china, and the surface will not be perfectly even. The cost is $10-$100 per square foot installed.
Historically, wood was a common kitchen countertop material. It fell out of favor as tile became more affordable, but it's making a comeback. Wood has a warm feeling and soft texture. It won't dull knives and is forgiving on falling glassware. The countertop surface can be renewed by sanding and re-oiling or re-staining. However, wood burns easily and can absorb food odors and stains. The cost of custom wood kitchen countertops is $50-$200 per square foot, installed. Prefabricated pieces of butcher block (commonly available in 6- and 8-foot lengths) are a less expensive option.
Laminate counters are commonly called Formica because this was one of the first manufacturers to produce the material. Laminates are made by binding layers of printed paper and resin under high pressure to create a rigid sheet that can be cut, shaped and glued onto medium-density fiberboard. Many patterns and colors are available, including some that mimic stone or wood. Laminates are easy to clean and maintain but are susceptible to cuts, scratches and burns. At $10-$30 per square foot installed, this is by far your least expensive choice.
Solid surface counters have been around since 1966 and offer a luxurious look with low maintenance. Often referred to as Corian (an early brand name), this type of counter is manufactured by blending acrylic polymers and stone-derived materials. Solid surface counters are not heat-resistant, but the process produces a finish that is resistant to staining and can be renewed by professional polishing if an accident does occur. Many colors and designs are available at a cost of $35-$100 per square foot installed.
Natural stone is another countertop option that adds beauty to any kitchen or bathroom. No two pieces are identical. All stone is porous and therefore requires sealing. Granite, an extremely hard stone, is the most popular choice for countertops. Slate and soapstone are much softer and less porous. Marble and limestone are beautiful, but they are easily stained by food and cosmetics. Stone is resistant to heat but tough on glassware. The cost is $50-$200 per square foot, installed.
Within the last few years, concrete countertops have also become a popular option. A concrete countertop is extremely versatile in terms of shape and color. However, it is heavy and can present support issues if it is more than 4 inches thick. A concrete countertop is fairly porous, so occasional waxing is required to prevent stains. Also remember that nonstructural hairline cracks are part of a concrete countertop's character. A concrete countertop will cost $75-$200 per square foot, installed.
Engineered stone countertops are becoming more popular and are more durable than real stone countertops. Engineered stone countertops are made as real stone is broken into pieces and mixed with resin and pigments to make a uniform mixture. Engineered stone countertops don’t have the veins or other imperfections of natural stone countertops and are available in any number of colors and combinations. The toughest of these products is made from quartz, and softer versions are derived from marble. Quartz is a surface highly resistant to stains, scorching and scratches, and has a low level of fluid absorption. Engineered stone delivers distinctive depth, clarity and a cool, solid feel unique to natural stone. Costs for engineered stone countertops range from $40-$125 per square foot, installed.
When replacing your countertops, you will also need to consider the edge treatment of the counter. Many countertops are edged with the same material, but some counters such as tile and concrete can be trimmed with wood or metal. The profile of the edge can be square, rounded, or curved. Besides the look, think about the comfort and durability of the trim you choose.
You will also have to address the backsplash on the walls adjacent to the countertops. This can be the same material as the countertop, or something different that coordinates well with the color and pattern you have selected for your counters. The backsplash should be a minimum of four inches high, though it is common to run the backsplash from the counter up to the underside of the upper cabinets.
As we stated before, make sure your cabinets are worthy of having new counters installed, and remember that you are committing to the existing layout for the next decade or two. You will probably want to include a new sink and faucet in the project, so your kitchen will have a nice face lift that will cheer you each time you walk into your "new" kitchen.
Ann Robinson and Annie V. Schwemmer are the Principal Architects and co-founders of a residential architectural firm focused on life-changing remodeling designs at RenovationDesignGroup.com. Send comments or questions to ask@RenovationDesignGroup.com