Materials for the 21st Century
The latest in home product materials blend beauty with function and, most importantly, durability

By Jim Kemp

It always pays to stay on top of new developments, especially the rapidly changing options in building a house. Consider the materials developed over the past few years, from durable, easy-care laminate flooring to brass finishes on kitchen fixtures, as well as more energy-efficient appliances.

The pace of change continues today, giving families who plan to build a custom log home an ever-increasing array of building and decorating products from which to choose. The most recent developments in new materials run the gamut: finishes, surfaces and even refrigerator coolants.

Endless Choices
The recycling movement has been sparked through research to give metal cans, plastic bottles and yesterday’s newspaper new and useful lives. We are seeing the fruits of those labors in the development of a range of building products, such as new types of wallboard and insulation.

Even older man-made products are undergoing refinement. Kitchen and bath countertops made of solid surfacing, a man-made material, have been around for years under a variety of names, including Corian.

Regardless of the brand, solid surfacing offers the advantage of practically invisible seams between sheets when applied. It also is flexible, able to be molded into a bath vanity top that includes an integral sink. In addition, solid surfacing is colored throughout, making removal of scratches and stains easy with gentle buffing. Typically, solid surfacing is 1/2-inch thick and costs between $80 and $150 per linear foot installed.

In recent years, manufacturers have developed a solid-surfacing veneer (SSV). It is thinner, about 1/8-inch thick and correspondingly cheaper, costing about one-third less installed than traditional solid surfacing. The downside is that the veneer is not as durable as solid surfacing, and removing stains and scratches from the thinner material requires care.

Rock Solid
A surprising new countertop material is rock from volcanoes. Coated with enamel, the volcanic rock, called Pyrolave, resembles a slab of ceramic tile. And, like another high-end countertop choice—granite—it is impervious to heat, water, staining and scratching.

Concrete, more often associated with outdoor paving than interior decorating, has made a splash as a practical—though avant-garde—countertop material. Similar to solid surfacing, it can be molded to include a sink and even a drainboard. To compensate for the weight and expense of solid concrete, manufacturers are offering concrete tiles for flooring and backsplashes.

Indeed, the backsplash is receiving increasing attention to enhance its practicality and decorative impact in the kitchen. Practically speaking, the best backsplashes resist damage from cooking heat and are easy to clean, particularly greasy food spatters from the cooktop.

At the same time, the backsplash is a vertical design element that in the proper hands can enhance the look and stylishness of the kitchen. To make the most of this opportunity, a number of kitchen designers are specifying opaque glass that looks as if it has been sandblasted.

A few years ago, brass migrated from bathroom faucets to those in the kitchen. Finishes developed for the material over time keep brass kitchen faucets from developing a discoloring film, helping them stay bright as new.

The gleam of kitchen brass now has competition in the form of pewter and nickel hardware, which are becoming more and more popular. Not surprisingly, manufacturers are offering new coatings that also prevent these kitchen hardware items from losing their fresh-from-the-store luster.

Keeping Cool
In other kitchen news, refrigerator coolant determines to a great degree how much home owners pay in energy costs over the lifetime of an appliance. If you own a car, you doubtlessly know that air-conditioning gases made of chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), which the government associates with depletion of the ozone layer, have been barred for several years. Hydrofluorocarbon (HCC) is now used in its place.

What’s true for automobile air conditioners is true for the home refrigerator. Further refinement of the shift to HCCs as refrigerator coolant is slated for later this year. The good news is that home refrigerators will become even more energy efficient. The bad news: They’ll probably be more expensive and offer less storage space.

In addition to a greater selection of building products, recycling also has resulted in a greater selection of home furnishings. Some are mundane, such as filler incorporated into upholstery fabrics. Others, however, are far more noticeable. Forward-thinking manufacturers are making commercial and residential carpeting from, of all things, soda bottles. These containers incorporate polyethylene terapthalate (PET), which can be converted into fiber and ultimately carpeting.

PET-based carpeting comes both solid and patterned and is available in a range of weaves, including the ever-popular broadloom. A big advantage of the material is that it has excellent stain-resistance. And, because the plastic fiber is an excellent conduit for light, the resulting carpeting can be dyed in brilliant colors.

Even after you finish building and decorating your new log house, there are still options to take advantage of the latest new materials in outdoor spaces. Virtually everyone enjoys having decks or walkways. Wood—the traditional material for these amenities—can split, chip or rot. A new alternative is “plastic lumber.” It is made from the plastic contained in milk jugs called HDPE. It has several advantages, including the strength that results from HDPE’s high density. At the same time, it is flexible and easily can be shaped and sanded.

Products containing HDPE, available from various manufacturers, don’t deteriorate when exposed to weather. In addition, most of them are treated with ultra-violet light that minimizes fading. An added plus—these products require no maintenance.

Besides decking and related building items, plastic lumber is now made into outdoor furnishings, such as porch swings and rockers, as well as dining sets.

Another new innovation for decks is the use of engineered wood. This material is made from recycled wood and virgin polymers, offering the beauty of natural wood without the maintenance requirements. It is also moisture-resistant and will not rot, warp, splinter or decay.

The evolution of what we use to build and furnish our houses is an ongoing process, so look for even more new materials in the near future. •


Jim Kemp is a freelance writer living in Corsicana, Texas.