How Did Granite Become the Kitchen Counter Standard?

A woman wiping down a granite kitchen counter.

Grace Cary / Getty Images

Granite counters have been all the rage for a decade, but now it has come to this, an entire kitchen made of granite. I think it is incredibly ugly and probably ridiculously expensive, But seeing this image, and a recent discussion about counter choices for Graham Hill's LifeEdited project, reminded me of some research I had done into countertops a while back.

Granite is relatively new to the kitchen counter; back in 1987, it was pretty much available in only two colours, it was incredibly expensive and was not even considered good counter material because of its lack of resilience. Yet in less than a decade, it went from being luxurious to ubiquitous- it is in every new condo and apartment regardless of price. It became the cherry on top of the McMansion sundae. The price dropped so far and so fast that one can now order it online in Florida for $19.95 per square foot, almost as cheap as a laminate counter. (Although at the time of this writing no doubt there is a significant oversupply in Florida.)

How did granite morph from being a virtual unknown in the kitchen to a high end luxury to the de facto standard?

Like so many other parts of our daily life,

it got globalized.

Trucks working in a granite quarry.

vallefrias / Getty Images

Granite used to be a very local business- if you lived in the Northeast you got it from Vermont, in the midwest from Minnesota, in eastern Canada from Quebec. It is heavy stuff, and the main market was architectural stone, cut by craftsmen to exacting specifications for the commercial building industry. Taking it out of the ground was dangerous work; granite quarries were often ecological nightmares. However the industry provided a local material, and well-paying skilled jobs.

There is also a lot or waste in quarrying granite; it is not uniform and can often have significant cracks. You don't want to ship it halfway around the world, just to have to throw it out because it was flawed.

But granite is found all over the world, and it is cheaper to dig it out in India and Brazil. The environmental standards are not quite as high either; in the Bangalore district, one study shows that 16% of the workers have dust and water related diseases like tuberculosis, and the air surrounding quarries is hazy with dust. But the local real estate is cheap, as is labour.

It got Containerized

A person cuts granite with a saw.

danishkhan / Getty Images

Unlike architectural stone used on the exterior of buildings, the stone for counters and floors is a uniform 3/4" thick. By cutting the stone on site the flawed slabs can be separated before they are shipped, and can even be processed further into tiles, so that there is less transport of waste. Once sliced into the new standard, the 3/4 inch thick slab, it can be put into the standard solution for transport, the shipping container. So what if most of the container is full of air, the cost of shipping is more than compensated for by the low cost of the material. Suddenly granite was no longer just available in two colours, but in dozens.

It also got computerized.

Piles of granite slabs in a cutting factory.

Andres Victorero / Getty Images

Where cutting granite used to be a skilled craft working in three dimensions, as counters it became a simple matter of cutting the slabs in two dimensions. Often the slabs would be shipped from India or Brazil to shops in China with finishing and edging equipment. Now a kitchen designer in Toronto might send a CAD file to the shop in China where a computerized saw cuts the Indian granite into a countertop, which is then put into a container and shipped to Toronto and installed in a condo.

A heavy, local, expensive and luxurious material has been turned into cheap, ubiquitous, 3/4" thick wallpaper. A powerful industry has grown and thrived in the face of, and in fact in spite of, a rising interest in green and sustainable materials, for a granite counter is anything but green.

But there are a lot of other problems with granite that the consumer doesn't see, know about or often care about.

It is not particularly solid; granite is full of fissures and microscopic cracks that must be filled, and the counters must be maintained and sealed. Studies have shown that the crevices and fissures can become breeding areas for bacteria. A Brazilian/ portuguese study compared two plastic surfaces commonly used in cutting boards (polyethylene and polypropylene) to granite and found that "the two plastic materials were generally less prome to colonization [from salmonella] than was the granite."

Really, the stuff makes a lousy counter that is subject to contamination, the workers who extract it are exploited, it is shipped all over the world chasing the cheapest labour to extract and then cut it, and it may even be radioactive. I can't imagine why anyone wants it.