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Episode 09 – Sinter is Coming

Discover how you can green your life by building a knowledge base of current sustainable and eco-savvy trends. This series will delve into hot topics, current standards and practices, ways to design better spaces and specify materials that benefit not only us, as consumers, but the world as a whole. Members of CaraGreen, a sustainable materials distributor, and other industry leaders weigh in throughout the series. This is Build Green Live Green.

In this episode, we will discuss sintered stone and why it is the next big material on the market. We are here today with Jessica McNaughton and Kim Loftis of CaraGreen, our show's producer and sustainability think-tank. 

JESSICA: Hi this is Jessica. 

KIM: And this is Kim. 

JESSICA: We're here with our podcast Build Green Live Green and today we are talking about sintered stone. 

KIM: What sintered stone is, who some of the players are, and just kind of the market around that. So, first of all we'll get into what is it. Jessica, if you'll kind of give us a rundown of that. 

JESSICA: Okay, so, sintered stone is, part of this is my opinion and some of it is, you know, obviously facts about the material, but it is kind of the “what’s next” material in surfacing. So, we have seen this sort of progress from solid surface to granite and now we're moving into the kind of the quartz phase where everyone wants their countertops to be made out of quartz and they're kind of getting away from granite. 

KIM: Those phases are all about 20-25 years. 

JESSICA: Yeah exactly and in the case of quartz, it, interestingly, the patent expired, you know, within that 20-year time frame. So, you've seen this opening for a new material and that's what sintered stone is. The name “sinter” means to be put under fire, basically. So, heated at high temperature. So, that's where the name sintered stone comes from. It’s basically man-made volcanic rock. So, under high pressure and temperature these giant slabs, or sheets, of material are formed and it just outperforms everything else on the market. So, it's time for sintered stone, it's time for something different and that's really where this product category fits. So, it's very topical in our industry. Stone fabricators, people redoing their kitchens, people cladding buildings are all looking at sintered stone- it’s really taken off in Europe. 

KIM: And when you say it's compressed under high heat, it being raw minerals. So, sintered stone is different from some of the other products that are on the market right now, like quartz, that are a resin-base with the quartz added to it. Sintered stone is just raw materials, it doesn't have any resin added to it. 

JESSICA: Right, its minerals, yeah, so, its minerals compressed under high heat, so instead of using that resin binder that quartz uses, which by the way is petroleum based, which we all know is not good. Sintered stone doesn't have that resin and it also doesn't have all that high quartz content. So, with quartz where you can have you know over 90% of the material is silica, with sintered stone that- the percentage of silica quartz is basically just silica. The percentage of silica in sintered stone is much lower. I think it's closer to 7-10%. The problem with silica is when you're cutting materials like quartz and even granite, a lot of dust gets in the air, and unless everything is wet and you're really pushing that material that dust down, it can get into your lungs and it can cause a lot of respiratory problems with people that are fabricating these materials. So, sintered stone also helps solve that problem amongst others. 

KIM: And it's a problem during the mining of those products as well.  So, being just raw minerals, it helps because you don't have a resin in it. But then it also gives the product all these other benefits, which we'll get into some of the details later, but one of them is that it can be used outside. Resins yellow when they're exposed to UV light and you don't have that problem with this material. So, there's a lot of different applications that it fits into because of that. 

JESSICA: Right and you know we talked about minerals. To be clear, we're talking about kaolins, feldspars things like that, which are also mined, but it's a different process. When quartz is mined, they are taking these big chunks of quartz and then they're pulverizing them down into a dust and then they're casting them into all these different slabs, these marble looking slabs that people are using in a lot of their kitchen countertops now. So, it's a very intense process to break that down into the form that we use it in today. So sintered stones are superior. They were designed and engineered from their outset to be superior materials. In fact, the people that created quartz, they started looking at an alternative to quartz way back when. Because they knew quartz was great, it solved a problem that granite couldn't solve because it was man-made, and they started looking beyond quartz to “what's next” and that's really how sintered stone evolved and became the next product on the market today. 

KIM: So, should we talk about who some of the players are in this category? 

JESSICA: Sure, I think one of the things that we should elaborate on as we get into the players is the link between sintered stone and quartz. So, I talked a little bit about Breton, who was one of the founders of quartz and how they invented a sintered stone. Basically, it invented the category to address the shortcomings of quartz. But that's not the only dynamic going on with quartz right now. As you know, and as we discussed on an earlier podcast, the quartz market is undergoing a lot of change right now. So, you've got hundreds of suppliers from China who saturated the market. You’ve got Cambria having a hissy fit, filing, you know, anti-dumping and countervailing lawsuits. You’ve got our government slapping tariffs on top of building materials coming in. So, quartz is starting to get really expensive. You’ve got building materials tariffs on top of them. Then you've got the countervailing duties on top and now shortly you're going to have these anti-dumping tariffs on top too. So, it's really magnifying the cost of quartz that's coming out of China. 

KIM: It's really going to push the fatigue of quartz to happen a lot faster than I think we thought it was going to, because we talked about that 20-year timeline where you have solid surface and then granite and then quartz and now there's, you know, something new. It’s probably going to push that to happen a little bit faster than maybe it would have. 

JESSICA: Right, I think that quartz’s window shrunk dramatically. One, because it was so like granite. You know solid surface replaced laminate, because it was very different, and granite replaced solid surface because it was also very different. Quartz and granite are really similar. They use the same supply chain, they use the same fabricators. 

KIM: They look very similar, because they're trying to be very similar. 

JESSICA: Yes, exactly. So, sintered stone has its own aesthetic. It’s not trying to look like stone, it's not trying to look like granite.  It looks like sintered stone. So, let's talk about the players you brought up earlier. So, who are the major players in the sintered stone market? 

KIM: So, we have Neolith, Dekton and Lapitec are the main ones in the sintered stone category. 

JESSICA: And then there's other materials out there and there is discussion – sintered stone versus porcelain. Sintered stone is a name that some of the companies, like Lapitec uses sintered stone, Dekton uses ultra-compact surfaces. So, they all have a different name. They haven’t, kind of, coalesced around one common category and they are very similar to porcelain, but they are not porcelain. So, there are some products that fall in the middle, too. There’s products like SapienStone, Laminam and others and there's a product called Geoluxe, which calls itself a pyrolithic stone. 

KIM: The difference between porcelain and sintered stone is that porcelain is heated to a higher temperature. Is that correct? And it kind of liquefies the minerals making it more brittle and harder to do the patterning and things like that? 

JESSICA: Well a lot of the porcelain technologies have changed too. So, it's hard to say, you can't just put all porcelain into one category. Because when products like Lapitec came to market, and Dekton's getting into this territory, but Lapitec came to market with a 3cm, which is an inch and a quarter, thick slab of material. That is a countertop thickness. A lot of the other entrants came in with very thin panels like 3mm, 6mm sizes that you would normally see in a tile. So, where Lapitec was engineered to be a slab, created to be a slab, created for countertops, as well as you know vertical and thinner materials, some of these other products were started as porcelain tiles that are trying to scale up to be these larger panel sizes for… 

KIM: And there's limitations because of that. 

JESSICA: Right, exactly. And another limitation on the porcelain side is the patterns are printed on top. The upside of that is you can have any pattern that you want. 

KIM: Right. There’s like a metal kind of looking panel, there's wood grain and of course there's the marbled look that is, you know, still very popular actually, surprisingly in my opinion. But yeah pretty much anything. 

JESSICA: Right. So, I mean, I've wrote an article on sintered stone and I worked with an editor of publication to do it, but, man, there are some people that have strong opinions about this and they think their product is better than everyone else's. So, my personal opinion on sintered stone is that, there has to be a consensus. There has to be a group of individuals that come together that say, “yes, we are what's next” and go kind of embrace the market that way. 

KIM: Defining the category. 

JESSICA: Exactly. You know right now there's just so much confusion because people are modifying their process, and this might use this temperature, this one might use this temperature. There’s this secret sauce in all of these where you don't know what happens in the first half of the manufacturing process. You don't see that slab until it runs through the kiln at the end of the process. So, there's a lot of IP here, you know intellectual property, that people aren't necessarily looking to share. 

KIM: So, did we cover all the players? I think we covered the sintered stone, we’ve talked about some of the porcelain brands. 

JESSICA: Right. The porcelain brands are the ones you're going to see Crossville, Laminam by Crossville. They’re one that's right in the middle that has a lot of pride in their product as well. You’ve got Daltile. You know, some of the ones that you're, you know, any of the Porcelanosa, you know, and then there's a lot of crossover where some people are private labeling brands. So, we should talk about some of the features, actually. 

KIM: Yeah, well we talked about one- it not having the resin, you can use it outside. 

JESSICA: So, it won't turn yellow like quartz will. 

KIM: Exactly. So, it's very UV stable. You’re not going to have any fading in the slabs or the material over time. So, you can use it for countertops and for cladding on the exterior. You can use it for any interior applications from flooring, countertops, interior cladding. Because it's sintered stone and it’s just minerals, again no resin, it has very high heat temperatures. 

JESSICA: So, it can withstand like a hot pot. 

KIM: Exactly, yeah, you can put your hot pot right down on it. Which we never say about any material. We always recommend using trivets. But this is one material where you can do that and not worry about it cracking or discoloring or you don't have to worry about the sealer, either. So, you don't have to seal it, so, you don't have to worry about damaging your sealer. So, there's a lot of great benefits to that. The applications are really endless. I mean we've seen people do some really creative stuff with these materials. We sell Lapitec at CaraGreen, so that's a brand that we're maybe a little bit more partial to and know a little bit more about as far as like the range of applications and things like that. But you know we're really hoping to see the cladding market pick up here, because there's so many applications and so many looks with the textures that Lapitec has. There’s a lot of range in the product there as well, and then Jessica, you might want to get into some of the really fun benefits of the Bio-Care technology and how that performs as an exterior. 

JESSICA: Right, so I think, you know, you mentioned the heat, frost as well, can withstand cold temperatures. So, it's got a large thermal range. Scratch-resistant, etch-resistant, stain-resistant. This is a material that you don't have to worry about, right, you absolutely do not have to worry about it. It’s very modern looking, it's timeless. Because of the way it's formed it's a solid impenetrable mass. So even the microporosity, which is when you have any material, there's some level of, basically, gaps between, you know, the material matrix. But Lapitec has gone even further to integrate Bio-Care technology, which you mentioned, into the slab itself to fill in all that microporosity to really create that solid mass, which is what gives it its stain-resistance, etch-resistance and all that because you just can't get in there. So, some of the newer materials, I've mentioned Laminam earlier, they've partnered with Toto, a Japanese company, with their Hydrotect technology, which is a topical titanium dioxide. So, some of the people that didn't integrate that in from the outset, like Lapitec did, are now adding it after the fact and it's a great technology. Titanium dioxide has been used for years in glass and other materials, but it breaks down pollution. So, in Lapitec this is called Bio-Care. It’s Hydrotect in Laminam. It’s called Pureti in Neolith, and again, Pureti and Hydrotect are topical, applied after the fact. But the net of it is, when used as an exterior cladding, these materials can break down the equivalent carbon dioxide of 25 trees over an eight-hour period. And it's over an eight-hour period because how long the sun shines. It’s biomimicry at its best. So, we did another one of our podcasts, our listeners might remember, on biomimicry. This is a great example of how a building can act like tree. If we could have more urban settings where buildings behaved as trees, it would solve so many problems. 

KIM: So many problems. 

JESSICA: Think about in a healthcare setting. 

KIM: Yeah in healthcare you don't have to worry as much about all the contaminants that are in those environments because they're not going to live on the surface. So, it's going to kill those contaminants on contact. So, you don't have to worry about them spreading. So, obviously, like you said, in a healthcare environment that's going to be really important especially with all the issues that we have with bacteria just growing and growing and being resistant to antibiotics. 

JESSICA: With this Bio-Care technology integrated in Lapitec, it kills staphylococcus and e-coli on its surface, which is great not only for a hospital setting but, frankly, for my kitchen too. These materials were engineered with the future in mind. Cleaning the air, killing e-coli on its surface. You know, really just thoughtfully planned. Let’s talk a little bit about, you mentioned some of the applications. We’ve talked about building cladding- Neolith, this very prominent in building cladding. Lapitec has great traction over in Europe. These materials are just starting to come to the US. When you bring a cladding material to the US, you have all different types of requirements. The height of the building, wind shear, testing, attachment systems, so, it can be a longer process. So most of the early adoption that we've seen for some of these sintered stones has been either in shorter buildings or in kitchens. 

KIM: Interior surfaces. 

JESSICA: And you mentioned textures. 

KIM: Yes, so for Lapitec, specifically, they have seven different textures. Because of some of the technology that they have specifically for their brand, they're able to do that and not have to worry about messing up some pattern that they have on the surface. Because they have that through-body technology. So, they have kind of your standard finishes like satin, lux, you know that are a little bit more polished and then they have more matte finishes that are kind of in the middle, some people compare them to like a leathered surface for granite, and then they have even more rough textures that can be used- they're more widely used outside for like a paver or, you know, anything where you might want that more rough surface like a fireplace surround that maybe is outside. So, it really gives designers a lot of room to kind of play around and be creative with it and maybe use the same color in a different texture in the same space and kind of have a different look and but still have that same performance in the sintered stone. 

JESSICA: The textures, I mean, I think about a lot of trade shows that we've been to where surfacing is on display, everybody's getting away from that high gloss. You see a lot more matte finish, leathered, honed, and, in general, in a lot of the presentations that we do on biophilic design, WELL Building, they really focus on texture and the ability to just kind of feel that texture. We see it with PaperStone, has that warm feel to it. People really love that. But, you know, Lapitec integrating the textures I think was really smart to do from the outset. Especially for anti-slip, like in a shower or on flooring. I went to their factory and their factory is clad entirely in Lapitec, the whole building, all the flooring- everything. The bathrooms are made out of it, it's beautiful.  But you know they've done it, they've done a really good job using their material and just showing the versatility of it, they can be used in virtually any surfacing in the whole facility. 

KIM: And I think as a category sintered stone really gives designers a huge range of materials and colors to play with. So, it's this new category, but it fits all these different applications and it has all these different looks from Lapitec, where it's through body, to some of the other products that we talked about that are printed on top that maybe have a little bit more of an extravagant pattern. So, it kind of depends on, you know, exactly what you're looking for. I think there's a lot to choose from. 

JESSICA: Right and with Dekton and Neolith specifically, Laminam as well, some of the patterning that they've achieved is really, really interesting and they've got a lot of flexibility in terms of what they can do, where Lapitec may have veining all the way through. They obviously have a more versatile palette of colors. Let’s talk quickly about getting a new product to market. You and I know “Sinter is Coming,” right? We know that this is the next big thing. As part of the ISFA board, which is the Surface Fabricators Association, I've been saying for a while, you know, “hey guys, this is what's next” and there's always a resistance to that. 

KIM: Absolutely. 

JESSICA: And in our industry in general, do you find that people just, not hate change, but they certainly don't embrace it?

KIM: I think that when it's a product category change it is a lot harder. When you come out with, you know, a different product that's in the same category, people get really excited, because they think, “oh I have something new to work with,” because it still has the same features that they're used to. But when you introduce a whole new category, they're like, “wait who's supposed to fabricate this for me? Okay, wait, how much does it cost and where can I use it and how do I install it?” There’s all these new questions. So, I think that that automatically gives them some resistance. Fortunately for this category, those answers are really easy. You know, fabricators are going to be your same stone fabricators. They do have to get, for Lapitec, certified. Which is really important, so that they know what they're doing. But there's, you know, a lot of things about this category that make it easier to work with. We just kind of get people over that hump. 

JESSICA: One of the issues that I've seen, and they will deny that it's an issue, but I think that the way that Dekton, who was one of the first in the category to go to market, I think the way they went to market really hurt the sintered stone category. They went to Home Depot and they were selling Dekton through Home Depot and, no offense to these big box stores, but this is a technical material that you really need to understand. You know Mr. and Mrs. Jones aren't going to walk into Home Depot and have Missy, who works four hours a week so she can get a discount on potted plants, isn't going to teach them the ins and outs of sintered stone. So Dekton really hurt the market when they took a, what should have been a prestigious material and basically put it in like a commodity into a Home Depot. I don't think they sold a lot that way. I don't think the fabricators like that because they're getting a call from Missy, “hey, its Missy, yeah, you know I started last week. Someone's interested in Dekton,” and the fabricator knows they don't know the nuances, and they don't know, you know, how it performs. 

KIM: I think it can give the material a bad reputation, because you have people that don't get educated on it properly, or maybe misusing it, fabricators that are also not educated on it properly and possibly fabricating it wrong, and there's all these misconceptions about the material that really shouldn't be there because that education component wasn't in place. 

JESSICA: It was just the wrong channel to market. S,o I think that some of the other brands like Neolith and Lapitec, they kind of waited in the wings and Neolith went to a big box store too.  They went to Lowe's under the name DuraLosa through the Sage program. Again, don't think that was particularly successful for them, but I think when the other brands that have waited and capitalized on the investment that those guys made in these big box stores and learn their lessons, they've come out now and said, “hey, here's our process for certification, here's how we're going to get you on board. We’re going to drive specifications and business your way,” and they're going to help the market mature at a reasonable pace and that's what's happening with sintered stone now. You know, we're starting to see the specifications come in and the efforts that we've done to really build awareness and the efforts of these brands on social media and you're going to start to see, you know, the “keep up with the Joneses” is going to be “keep up with the sintered stones’s,” right? You know, it’s not going to be, you know, just marble looking quartz anymore. 

KIM: Right, and that made me think that there's a lot of people that we've talked to, homeowners they either come in through the showroom or have their builder contact us, and they're looking for something different. They’re building a brand-new home and they don't want granite. They want something different. They don't want quartz either. So, they are looking for something new. 

JESSICA: Yeah, look at Laura at Rockin’teriors. I mean, they were just named Fabricator of the Year, and they do so much sintered stone. It is, you know, the fastest-growing part of their business right now and she loves it and, you know, she's excited about it and its people like her that are going to be brand ambassadors for sintered stone going forward and it's going to be these first movers that are going to reap the benefits of sintered stone. I don't think we've touched on why sintered stone should be part of Build Green Live Green. What’s the green aspect of it? We did sort of weave it into this discussion, but I think it's important that we pull that out and let our listeners know why this is a healthy choice. We talked about some of the performance characteristics. It kills e-coli, staph on its surface. So, it's actually a very healthy surface. There’s no sealers which, you know, can be maintenance or have chemicals, and it helps clean the air. So, you know, there are obvious benefits and then what I think is one of the biggest one is aesthetic. I mean it's timeless. You’re not going to be ripping this out. 

KIM: That's what I was going to say, yeah, and not even just the aesthetics of it, but it's just literally going to last that long. You don't have to worry about it getting damaged or, like we mentioned with the UV light, yellowing over time and not looking right, needing to replace it. 

JESSICA: Yeah and at the end of its life it's just minerals. It can be broken back down. The other things I like about some of the programs for the sintered stones is that some of them will do cut to size. So, if you have a flooring application you know you can get the tiles cut at a factory and that may make sense, or you team up with a fabricator, who will manage a cut to size program for you because then there's not a lot of waste of the material either. So, with smart distributors like CaraGreen, who are help managing the supply, you know, this can be a very green, very sustainable, and very healthy product. You know we bought into “Sinter is Coming.” What about applications? What about the market? Where do you see it going? Do you see it in everyone's home? Do you see it in your office? Do you see it in downtown New York City on the exterior of a building? What do you really see the rollout of this category? 

KIM: Well, I think to begin with it's going to be maybe a little 50/50, maybe a little bit more on the residential end since the material, again, that we sell is Lapitec and they have that thicker 3cm slab, that is more conducive to countertop applications. 

JESSICA: And we're starting to see in different markets, though, that they, you know, a lot of markets will use 2cm and some even use the 1cm. 

KIM: That’s true. I think it might start out that way. But cladding has such a huge, that's such a huge market. There’s way more square footage there. So, I think eventually that that is going to take over the market. I think that there are some limitations around that that we're trying to kind of work around right now and once that gets all straightened out, that market is going to be massive. Especially because it's cleanability, we basically say that its graffiti-proof, not because paint won't stick to it, but because you can clean it so easily. 

JESSICA: Because it can't adhere, really. 

KIM: Yeah, it doesn't stick to it. So, there's so many features that are perfect from a maintenance standpoint for cladding and then all of the features that you mentioned, because of Bio-Care with cleaning the air. There’s just no way that it is not going to be huge in that market. 

JESSICA: So, the UV resistance you said is a big one and also the thermal. You know, that thermal range on the outside of a building. One of the things that someone's mentioned to me several times is, you think about your lawnmower. You know a lawn mower going by around the perimeter of a building and those rocks hitting the base of the building. So, just notice that next time you walk around a building, you'll see all these little chips taken out of this material, because it's just not as durable as sintered stones. This material is engineered for the future. It's engineered to be the next product category, you know, we drank the Kool-Aid, “Sinter is Coming” and, you know, we're happy to be partnered with Lapitec and we look forward to all the participants in the sintered stone and porcelain categories really carving out the next phase in the surfacing market. 

KIM: Shoot us an email at info@caragreen.com if you have any specific questions about sintered stone and if you want any samples of the material, we'd be happy to entertain that for you guys as well. 

JESSICA: This is Build Green Live Green. 

KIM: Thanks for listening. 

For a written manuscript of this episode as well as supporting resources, visit our website at caragreen.com/podcast. Want to know more about a specific industry related topic? Shoot us an email at social@caragreen.com. 

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