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Keep Calm and Keep Swimming: Using Materials other than Natural Stone

Toronto, ON November 2020 – by Karl Doucas

You can learn a lot about life from a great story! I’m starting this month’s blog by sharing a personal one, from this past summer. Let’s jump in…

Natural stone vs. man-made materials—choose wisely!

I’m a “natural stone guy”.

And I have a sister named Sue.

She is planning a pool paradise and is looking for pavers.

So, she calls me for advice and asks, “What material should I use?”

I say, “You should use natural stone.”

She says, “Great, where should I go?”

I suggest she talk to a stone supplier contact of mine. She does.

I asked her, “Did you find the stone you wanted?”

She says, “Yes, it’s from Italy and it’s beautiful…I’m getting porcelain!”

Well, I guess not all stories turn out the way you expect them to. However, surprise endings do more than just catch you off guard; they force you to reflect on your perceptions and ideas about life, and truth. Let’s unpack this some more.

What does it mean to be a “stone guy”? I think it’s about authenticity and an awesome respect for nature’s amazing ability to create:

  • Diversely crafted—by wind, water, fire, pressure, and chemistry—but with humanistic beauty;

  • Breathable—yet, with inherent resistive qualities;

  • Strong—with a welcoming disposition for customization;

  • Sustainable—enduring, tangible, and with a unique personality.

Natural stone intrinsically feels like “home.” It’s what we know, what we love, and what we are drawn to; not unlike our primal attraction to nature. Today more than ever, consumers are seeking aesthetics, convenience, performance, quality, and value. The list is undoubtedly longer than that, so you can say, we as consumers want everything”. The innovative materials of today are understandably designed to respond to this expectation, however, do they deliver? And can natural stone still compete?

In short, yes and yes.

The alternatives to natural stone on the market today are extensive

Sintered stone, Quartz, Ceramics, Terracotta, Porcelain among other surfaces are very prominent and are specified more and more for various interior and exterior applications. Their marketed characteristics often replicate many natural stone properties, like its strength and aesthetics; but also, seemingly are an improvement in areas such as absorption and constructable panel size.

Consistency of product is also unique to stone alternatives. Highly technical and controlled industrial processes ensure slab clones are available at unlimited volumes. Increasingly, “man-made” stone can offer what natural stone offers—but in a larger format, an unlimited aesthetic choice, and comparable cost. Like natural stone, when the right material is specified for the appropriate use, with an optimal engineered system, and additionally, installed by skilled trades, stone alternatives can be the right choice for your project.

The natural formation, colour and characteristics of stone weathered by the sun, rain, wind (and atmospheric pressure) are often emulated in man-made materials

We cannot talk about man-made materials without mentioning embodied carbon and sustainability. Sintered stone for example. A high-tech material no doubt, the manufacturing process essentially mimics what the earth does naturally. Extreme energy is used to permanently “fuse” aggregates together through high-pressure compaction and a heat process. Fundamentally, how the energy for extraction and manufacturing is harnessed, significantly affects the resulting embodied carbon. Currently, many manufacturers are succeeding by using renewable energy sources, and driving carbon neutral processes throughout their operations, improving their sustainability image.

The world’s natural stone reserves clearly do not measure up to the consistency and“clone” economics of some man-made materials. Nature, after all, has a creativity all her own. However, natural stone offers something these products cannot:a historical record of performance through the ages. Infinite examples of structures and uses around the world support the notion that stone is forever. Durability, versatility, and variability provide consumers with vast choice in aligning materials and projects. While an ability to carve, shape, and texturize stone with endless finishes, creates unique opportunities.

Generic descriptions of natural stone deficiencies can be a confusing topic when contrasted with the engineered properties of man-made products. No one characteristic (positive or negative) of a natural material is true, 100% of the time. What is true is that natural stone is engineered “pure”, as nature intended with inclusions, imperfections, and character. This authenticity makes it human and beautiful, and being the most sustainable building product available, makes it even more attractive.

Porcelain pavers around the pool, made to look like natural stone

As with all products, only the test of time will tell if “man-made” stone alternatives have the staying power and long-term potential already proven by natural stone. For now, and for me, natural stone is the reigning champion, but as with all front-runners, the up and comers are always looking to knock the leader off the throne. I will quietly observe this personal experiment at my sister’s house, while patiently studying outdoor porcelain by the pool…stay tuned!


Interested in learning more? Contact Karl:

Principal, VP Operations at PICCO

Karl has proudly been with PICCO Engineering since 1999. In addition to strategic planning and business development, Karl oversees all aspects of day-to-day operations driving best in class results with our internal team and for our valued clients. As an experienced problem solver and change agent, Karl’s passion for technology and innovation is a key ingredient of PICCO’s trademark project solutions.


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