Natural stone has long been used as a surfacing material for walls and floors due to its beauty and durability. But in light of newer materials like laminates that are equal to or even better than stone, does it make sense any longer to use natural stone? The answer may surprise you.
Nature's Best Features Duplicated
First, understand why stone has been used at all. When looking for surface material thousands of years ago, people turned to the heaviest, most durable, and prevalent product they could find. And it was right under foot, literally.
Fieldstone acted as the first stone surface material. When quarrying and cutting techniques developed, granite and marble slabs could be sliced directly out of the earth. But stone was heavy, unwieldy, difficult to obtain. Despite its thickness and strength, moisture could still affect it.
Ceramic tiles represented an improvement on stone. Made of minerals, it was a dense, stone-like product. Its thinness, light weight, and moisture-shedding surface made it better for surfacing floors than stone.
Stone's Strongest Points
For traditionalists and purists, the answer is, unfortunately: stone is not the best floor for your bathroom, when all factors are combined.
Two factors can be drawn out and isolated, though: aesthetic value and home resale value.
Aesthetics: In the last decade, tile manufacturers have developed ceramic tile that looks much like stone. Still, it is anything but an uncanny resemblance: close examination reveals the homogeneous nature of this stone-looking tile. Tile cannot duplicate the attractive visual chaos of nature-created striations, pits, and other imperfections. Tile's too-perfect appearance is often exactly the look that stone buyers are trying to avoid.
Resale Value: Home buyers have long given greater value to natural stone bathroom floors than other types of flooring. While these other materials have begun to erode natural stone's dominance, stone still occupies a high rank in the value system of home buyers.
Natural Stone Issues to Consider
One concern with using real stone in bathrooms is moisture. Even though stone is conceived under extremely high temperatures and pressure within the ground, its Achilles Heel is that it is prone to being affected by moisture, either direct or indirect.
Stone in showers, bathtubs, or in bathtub surrounds needs special attention, as it needs to be sealed against direct contact with moisture and maintained on a regular basis.
In addition, it is inadvisable to lay smooth stone on shower pans due to safety issues. Stone may give you a good feeling of friction and stability when dry, but the minute water hits it, all bets are off. Coefficient of Friction, or COF, ratings found in manufacturer specifications can give you a good sense of how slippery the surface is. Honed natural stone is as smooth as glass--beautiful stuff, but dangerously slippery when wet.
Finally, because stone feels cold to the touch, installations today nearly always include the addition of a radiant heating system. Often, radiant heating isn't a way of "heating" the stone; it's simply a way of bringing natural stone's temperature up to an acceptable level that doesn't surprise you when you walk on it with bare feet.
Stone isn't a bathroom pariah. Install it with the knowledge that it will need more maintenance than you might expect. Know that repairs are difficult on a DIY basis and that professional stone techs are your only recourse for broken and cracked stone. And from a functional standpoint, stone always works for walls outside of those highly wet areas.
For flooring, consider purchasing stone with a different finish than honed. Honed stone is best in terms of cleaning. But stone can have a number of other surface treatments that are safer and just as attractive: tumbled, bush hammered, and chiseled. Travertine is an example of one type of stone that looks gorgeous with a tumbled surface treatment.
Stone vs. Other Materials
If not stone, then what? Are there other options that are similar?
Stone-look ceramic and porcelain tiles offer the closest match to natural stone for flooring. Luxury vinyl tile (LVT) is a second choice, as it offers superb surface friction and ease of installation at a low cost.
A hybrid vinyl/ceramic tile called Alterna (by Armstrong) combines vinyl's practicality with a hardness that approaches natural stone.