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Interview with Emilio Stecher

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Emilio Stecher Ltd.
Werkstrasse 15
CH-6037 Root - Switzerland
Phone +41 41 450 00 50
Fax +41 41 450 00 51

Is natural stone trendy?

Interview with EMILIO STECHER

There is an ongoing tendency of using more natural building. With respect to aesthetics and value sustainability, it is safe to say that there is no alternative to natural stones as a building material. More than 1000 different types of natural stones are being traded throughout Europe. As far as colours are concerned, virtually all needs can now be met. Thanks to a variety in finishing techniques, natural stone is also offering room for substantial creativity in the final product. To give you a few examples, hard stones such as granites, gneisses or quartzites can be installed indoors with either a polished or honed finish. Outdoors, the same stones may be installed with a flamed, brushed, sandblasted or diamond-cut finish. These treatments are typical for outdoor applications to guarantee high slip resistance. As for indoor applications, the natural stone in any type of finish ensures a high level of harmony with its environment. In the bulk market of kitchen bench tops, natural stones have now gained a 60% share, and are widely recognised as the prime kitchen work surface. The choice in colours and textures is unique. Natural stone is harmonic in combination with wood, stainless steel or glass and offers nearly unlimited variety in designing.

The far sighted builder uses natural stone equally for indoor and outdoor constructions. The value of natural stone will be preserved, or might even increase over time. Compared to ceramics or stoneware, which are often branded by colours and designs of a particular fashion epoch, natural stones are ageless. If used for flooring or wall tiles in the lounge, whether in the bathroom or in the kitchen, or even for cladding, each construction using natural stone is absolutely unique. Owing to its natural patina, natural stone becomes more beautiful with age and may acquire what can be called ‘cult status’.

Holidays at home are becoming trendy again. We increasingly appreciate our own four walls as well as backyard and/or winter gardens. Not much emphasis was given in the design off kitchen and bathrooms in the recent past. However, it is now recognised that these are also the rooms we spend much, if not most, of our time at home. This is the reason why kitchen and bathrooms are now being designed more carefully as classical ‘living spaces’. Bathrooms are constructed larger than they used to, and often include spas to provide a relaxing retreat from the often hectic working days. Kitchen now frequently involve a dining area, and may directly be connected to the living room. Cooking hobs also serve as bars and allow the entire family to stay in the kitchen at the same time. The same can be said for the garden areas: the change in climate attracts to more barbecue parties. Swimming pools are equally popular for parents and children. A good and careful design of the backyard, using natural stones and natural plants, will no doubt help to develop the sensation of a holiday feeling. The news on terror, the fear of flying, and stress and expenses associated with travelling are often good reasons to spend holidays at home rather than in remote places. In short, a gorgeous garden with well designed natural stones simply improves the quality of life.

Natural stone has the reputation of being expensive. Is natural stone the building material for the rich?
Of all building materials, the price of natural stones decreased the most over the last 20 years. A completely installed floor of natural stone is now 20 to 30% cheaper on average than it used to be two decades ago. In the same time period, wages have nearly doubled. Hence the spending capacity to purchase natural stone has disproportionately increased and is therefore now also affordable for the middle class. The cheapest natural stones for flooring, such as the Brazilian slates, can nowadays be obtained for as little as sFr.100 per m2, and this includes installation. In terms of costs, natural stone is a real alternative to other types of flooring, and is often even cheaper. Taking into account its development with time, natural stone is probably even the cheapest building material, as it does never need to be replaced.

Why should I choose natural stone over parquet or carpet? Stone is cold – is there not a missing sensation of cuddling warmth at home?
Natural stone is an excellent heat conductor and therefore most suited in combination with floor heating. Parquets and carpets are insulators and are thus likely to increase the electricity bill. Moreover, natural stone releases heat immediately to the living spaces, thereby omitting the long periods of preheating which may often last for hours. This means that floor heating in spring and autumn can more easily be adjusted using natural stones. In hot summer days, the cool natural stones contribute to preserve a cosy, comfortable atmosphere at home. Natural stone is therefore also as flooring superior to any other building material.

As a layperson, one may know vaguely names such as limestone, granite or marble for natural stones. How will I, as a builder, find the appropriate material?
There is no alternative to sound advice. To ensure the appropriate stone is being used in the appropriate place, it is important to seek in-depth consultation on matters of natural stones prior to its installation. This is where the EMILIO STECHER AG is in demand: in the modern showroom in Root, close to Lucerne, the competent advisors will make the advantages and philosophy of natural stones more accessible to customers.

We observe a certain anxiety in the prospect of cleaning and maintenance of natural stones; notably the example of the wine stain on a table surface, which can’t be treated. Are there now appropriate cleaning and maintenance products available for the treatment of natural stones?
In the past, marble and limestone were predominantly used as building materials. However, these two rocks are not acid resistant and can also be scratched with a kitchen knife. Nowadays, the market offers hundreds of acid- and scratch resistant and stain-insensitive alternatives such as granites, gneisses or quartzites. For this reason, the same materials are now used for kitchen bench tops. In addition, there are now adequate maintenance and cleaning products available for all types of natural stones. Please ask our specialists, we are pleased to advise you further.

Fashion is characterised on a yearly basis by particular, popular colours which emerge to be trendy. Is a similar phenomena observed in the choice of natural stones?
There are indeed similarities. Dark green and red are currently OUT; black, grey and white tones are currently IN. Beige is also getting more popular.

Is natural stone also suitable for renovation and reconstruction works?
The natural stone industry has gained a market share by introducing the thinner, 10 mm thick slabs. An existing carpet can now be ripped out, and the base may be modified. The natural stone tiles can then be installed. 20 years ago, such a procedure would have been unthinkable without major structural measures. Until recently, ceramic tiles used to have a monopoly as the building material used for floor reconstruction. Also natural stones can now easily be glued on existing ceramic tiles or stoneware by using a ‘quartz-bridge’ or a specially designed adhesive. The costly reshaping of the existing floor can thus be avoided. Moreover, the 10 mm thick slabs are precision-machined and can easily be displaced. Some 80% of the current natural stones on the market are now available as 10 mm thick slabs.

Let’s talk about the kitchen. Are there specific conditions for the choice of kitchen furniture or kitchen tools, when a natural stone bench top is considered?

No, there are absolutely no restrictions. On the contrary, due to the variety in colours natural stone is the best alternative in any combination.

What should be considered when using natural stone as covers, walls or flooring in the bathroom?
I again emphasise the importance of professional advice at EMILIO STECHER AG. It is essential to equip the shower tray with a finish that guarantees a high sliding stability. Then, there is also plenty of room for combinations. For example, all horizontal surfaces could be installed using a dark gneiss, and bright marble may be used for all vertical surfaces – or vice versa.

Going outdoors now. Let’s first consider a garage areaway or a table area in the backyard. What determines whether I should choose cobblestones over slabs and mosaic tiles, or the other way round?
At the end of the day it all comes down to personal taste. Obviously one must distinguish areas with traffic from areas without traffic. There are certain rules in the choice of materials in this case, and the pavement needs to be adjusted accordingly. Cobblestones are ideal for areas with traffic, say for a garage areaway. Larger slabs are more limited in the choice of thickness as well as in the use of an appropriate mortar. In contrast, for patios or table areas in the backyard, thinner slabs (minimum thickness of 15 mm) may also be used. Stand der Technik ist dabei das Verlegen in Splitt oder Splittmörtel. Nur lose in Splitt können Bahnen- oder Fixformate stumpf gestossen werden. However, for this purpose the dimension of the stones should be at least 30 mm. Due to the low weight of thinner slabs, mortar must be used for their installation to avoid jiggling. The splices can thereby be left open or may be grouted. It is very important to allow for a minimum inclination of 2% at the base to allow drainage of rain water. The drains also need to be sized correctly. Finally, a baffle should be installed between wet and dry surfaces. The appropriate inclination and the baffle both protect from the build up of stains and secure even drying of the floor, thus avoiding the development of verdigris. In summary, the best possible results can be achieved by close collaboration between constructors, gardeners, architects and natural stone entrepreneurs.

Is a mosaic floor actually still affordable?
As raw materials, mosaic slabs are definitely economically priced, but the installation is somewhat time-consuming and therefore rather expensive. However, the final price per square meter is very much affordable and competitive. With respect to aesthetics, a mosaic floor is second to none and therefore very popular.

What must be taken into account when designing a winter garden using natural stones?
There are no real restrictions. The choice of the material again comes down to personal taste. It is essential, though, to consider whether the winter garden has direct access to the backyard, in which case a scratch-resistant material should be used. Also, if the indoor areas are designed in combination with outdoor areas, a material should be used which is in harmony with the latter. The winter garden should also be sealed against humidity (using baffles).

When is it sensible to use uniquely natural stone products in the garden?
Again, there are no restrictions, but sound advice from specialised personnel is essential. For garden areas, landscape and garden architects may also be consulted together with the natural stone trader. There is now a huge variety of stones available for the use in garden areas, including decorative stones, bricks, mosaic tiles, cobblestones, pergola pillars, palisades, steles, fountains, and slabs in all sorts and colours.

What about the slip hazard on wet natural stones?
For surfaces exposed to rain it is indispensable to use a surface with a rough finish that ensures high slip resistance (e.g. brushed, steel sand-cut, sand blasted etc.). Polished and honed surfaces are dangerous and inappropriate. Unfortunately, there are nonetheless still constructors, which use honed and polished surfaces for outdoor areas, leading to slip-accidents that could easily be avoided.

Is it possible to thaw the areaway using road salt in winter, without damaging the natural stone pavement?

Road salt can be used on all hard stones without hesitation. In contrast, on sandstones, limestones or marbles, which are often frost-proof anyway, the salt must not be sprinkled. Besides, the use of salt should be limited in any case for the benefit of the garden and the environment. Particular attention should be paid not to carry salt indoors, as this could affect the natural stones installed in other areas of your home.

What can be said on the long-term development of natural stone as a building material?
It can be envisaged that natural stone is continuing its triumphal procession. ‘Back to nature’, and with it ‘back to natural building materials’, is unlikely to be only a short-term trend, but rather a logical consequence of a new lifestyle. With the increasing awareness for the environment, natural building materials will be the choice for an increasing number of people. The only outstanding problem is to convince the consumers, that natural stone is, overall, a competitive building material in terms of costs. Systematic awareness training is required in this area in the future. Unfortunately, natural stone traders are often lacking the means to conduct appropriate, contemporary marketing.