Episode 48 – The Evolution of Natural Stone in the Green Space



Jessica McNaughton: Hi, this is Jessica McNaughton with Build Green, Live Green, the podcast on green building materials by CaraGreen, a distributor out of Raleigh, North Carolina. Today on our show, we have Agnes Szymacha who's with ABC Worldwide Stone. You can go to their website, abcworldwidestone.com. And today we're going to talk about the changing role of natural stone in the green space and how that dialogue has kind of shifted. Now, Agnes, you and I have a relationship through Lapitec Sintered Stone, which we both adopted right around the same time. We'll get back to that as we move through this conversation but first and foremost, I've been to your facility up in New York and it's absolutely beautiful. You guys do such an amazing job with your showrooms. 

Agnes Szymacha: Thank you so much, Jessica. 

Jessica McNaughton: And one of the things that CaraGreen's always done is we represent this category of products that's kind of alternatives to granite and quartz and marble and natural stone. And, you know, our perception was always that those were mined products and there was a finite amount on the earth and so on, but I've really seen that dialogue shift. And I've seen natural stone as a product category and as a group of companies, including through NSI Natural Stone Institute. And some others really start to change the perception of natural stone and to start highlighting some of its environmental and human health benefits. And obviously that's a big topic right now with how the workplaces are changing and spaces in general are changing. Can you talk a little bit about natural stone and some of the things that are happening in that space to address kind of environmental and personal health. 

Agnes Szymacha: I mean, first of all, I just want to say that you know, ABC has never been a quartz centric company. I think our identity has always been natural stone and this is driven mostly by the design aesthetic of our clients and they're strong believers in using natural stone for its value and longevity. I mean, if you think about it, natural stone is the right choice for sustainable building. Consider the oldest man-made structures on earth that are still standing and they're all made of natural stone, right? 

Jessica McNaughton: Yeah, absolutely. And you know, I've also seen, similarly, I've seen a shift back to a lot of wood too. So wooden stone are kind of making this come back because they were kind of the original building materials. And I think what's really interesting about natural stone is, at the end of its life, it is stone. So it can go back. 

Jessica McNaughton: Yeah and you know, I think people kind of overlook that fact. And I think as certifications emerge and lead building and well building and all these new certifications, you start to see people stop looking at, is it recycled? Is it, you know, can I just kind of picking one characteristic, and they're starting to look at the overall life cycle. That product from where it comes from to what happens to it at the end of its life and natural stone, obviously, has a good end of life story. 

Agnes Szymacha: I definitely agree with that. Salvaging and recycling stone is a very viable option and sustainable way to ensure that the life of the material will be lived out to its fullest. I think that promoting materials such as Stone Ethica is a recyclable product that uses salvage or cuts are from marble and this process has absolutely no impact on natural resources.

Jessica McNaughton: That's great. That's great. And I think one of the things that I've had, you know, we express this in one of our, the other podcasts that we did, which was how we've really gotten to look at the whole life cycle of these products. And then this COVID crisis hit, and my big fear is, “Oh my gosh, I don't want to go back into this plexiglass workplace and have all the beauty gone” because I've gone through your showroom and you guys have like one of a kind beautiful materials that you source from all over the world. And you would hate to see just those beautiful products where people are able to put their fingerprint on a project and just have this really beautiful install. You'd hate to see that go away.

Agnes Szymacha: A hundred percent. I think that's a lot of our clients draw inspiration from the authentic beauty and wonderful inconsistencies, you know, that natural stone has. So I believe that it's really important that we stick with natural stone. 

Jessica McNaughton: And you guys actually do a CEU on natural stone and green practices, right? You have a course on that?

Agnes Szymacha: We do. We offer several CEUs. And I think that it's really important to bring awareness to the sustainable factor that natural stone does have. I mean, you know, on daily basis, we also focus on purchasing and promoting local stone. And this is the key to sustainability and leaving a small footprint, a carbon footprint, you know. Coring of natural stone has a lower carbon footprint then creation of engineered stone, regionally, manufactured and extracted materials reduce environmental impact by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases during transport.

Jessica McNaughton: Yes, and also supporting local economies. I grew up in Vermont and I believe that you guys actually..

Agnes Szymacha: There you go!

Jessica McNaughton: Yeah. You guys source a lot of stone from there. And the town that I grew up in was you know, it was called the granite capital of the world. And you guys source a lot of stone, I think from Vermont, correct?

Agnes Szymacha: We do. We do. And you know, not only from Vermont, I mean Colorado is another great resource for us as far as natural stone. It's spectacular. 

Jessica McNaughton: Yeah, I agree. It's beautiful. And you've mentioned quartz a couple of times now and was there a kind of a coordinated decision not to get into the quartz market? And when was that made?

Agnes Szymacha: There was no coordinated decision. We did dabble in the quartz market a little bit. We work with Central Margarita, but  I believe that it's, you know, it's on a very limited capacity comparing to other companies investments into the quartz market. Like I said, this is really driven by the expectations of our design community and the type of materials that you know, have value and are aesthetically pleasing. So I think that the natural stone will really, you know, as far superior, as far as the beauty, the natural beauty of material, comparing it to quartz. Not to say quartz is not a great product, obviously it's stain resistant, it's extremely durable.

Jessica McNaughton: Yeah. You know, and we've tried to kind of toe that line with quartz too, but you know, we started probably, I don't know about five years ago really kind of picking on the quartz manufacturers because we saw this commoditization happening. We were going to trade shows and seeing, you know, 300 Chinese suppliers of quartz and it was all the exact same skews. And we were seeing people flipping specifications from reputable brands to these cheap knockoffs. I knew people that had Chinese quartz sitting outside and it literally disintegrated because it was just filled with calcium carbonate. So there were questionable ingredients and I feel like the whole quartz industry got commoditized so quickly and then Cambria filed these lawsuits and there were all these tariffs. And we've written several blog posts on this and you know, it really drove the quartz market to other countries which then saw tariffs themselves. And, you know, I really think that it really changed people's perception of quartz and it became kind of a dog eat dog slug fest between the suppliers and you know, it lost its luster. 

Agnes Szymacha: Yeah.

Jessica McNaughton: And natural stone has started to reemerge. As people say, you know, I don't want this, you know, completely repeatable thing that I don't know what's in it. I'm not sure where it came from. And you know, that's what's in an entry level apartment now. 

Agnes Szymacha: Right.

Jessica McNaughton: So it really has, you know, quartz kind of saw it's peak very quickly.

Agnes Szymacha: I was listening to one of your previous podcasts and you had referred to quartz as being, you know, the king of surfaces. And it's so interesting how, you know, that perception now has changed for all of us. 

Jessica McNaughton: I agree. And you know, one of the other things that I feel like is kind of the double whammy to quartz was you know, there are several lawsuits going on. And it started in New South Wales, Australia, but it's prolific in Italy and Spain, now when the UK. And it started this year in the US late last year. This year in the US, is silicosis and people that fabricate and cut quartz because quartz has such a high crystal and silica content, and it became so popular, so fast. All those best practices that you would put in place for cutting stone, like natural stone, which has been cut for centuries, all those practices that should have been in place for quartz, because it has so much higher silica content, weren't pushed down to the people that were cutting it or in the field. And a lot of them are getting sick with these lung diseases. So it was yet another thing on top of the tariffs that really cast a shadow over that whole quartz market. And I think opened up the door for the product that I'm going to ask you about next, which is the sintered stone category and Lapitec. You made a decision not to get into the engineer quartz space. What was it about Lapitec that made you decide that that was your next product category? 

Agnes Szymacha: Well, you know, Lapitec was on our radar for quite some time. And as you know, there are other similar products in the market. However, when compared, there were significant differences that you know, set Lapitec apart. It was really a game-changer considering its workability, materials fabricated just like natural stone, it's non-toxic, it's stain-resistant, bacteria and mold repellent. I mean, so on and so on. And as you mentioned, silica content, you know, in some of the Lapitec colors, it's zero and others, it's very low comparing to the quartz silica content, which I guess it's as high as 75 plus percent. And I think, understanding this, you know, it's really important that we as stone specifiers can significantly impact the decisions that our clients make as far as selection of materials and making them aware of this silica issue and the irreversible lung damage it can potentially have on shop workers. So I think it's our job to educate our clients on the benefits, for example, of using Lapitec. 

Jessica McNaughton: Absolutely. And, and with Lapitec, I mean, I think that you know, they have a lot of different colors, a lot of different thicknesses and different textures. And really they're an interior exterior wall countertop and flooring product. So you're really talking about the whole building envelope. And I want to kind of put you, segment this into categories and ask you on the countertop side, what are you seeing as far as, color preferences, texture preferences, and thicknesses in your market? Because it's very different in the Southeast, so I'm curious what people love in the city. 

Agnes Szymacha: I think that across the board, it has to be set and finished as far as the finish is concerned. Color-wise, I think that white obviously dominates the color spectrum, but Grigio Cemento, Grigio Piombo, and the Nero Assoluto is definitely not far behind. 

Jessica McNaughton: Yeah, that was great.

Agnes Szymacha: What do you see on your side? 

Jessica McNaughton: Well, you know, interestingly, I've seen a lot of interest in the Bianco Vittoria, with the through-body veining and Lapitec being the only, you know, sintered stone or porcelain for that matter, that has that through-body veining. That became very popular very quickly in our market and also Bianco Asso, has definitely been one of the more popular ones. I haven't yet, I think it becomes a, you know, a specification duration issue but I haven't seen a lot of flooring or exterior cladding jobs go through. We have a lot that is out to bid and so on like that, but I'm curious because you have the cladding side of your business. What are you seeing on that side? Do you think that sintered stone is going to start to be a complementary product to the natural stone?

Agnes Szymacha: It is. Obviously, when we work with clients who are using natural stone for exterior applications, they do a look into durable surface applications. And an architect is clearly a great choice, however, I think that Lapitec certainly is, you know, it still has a long way to go as far as a cladding material. And, you know, I feel like it's in the future of Lapitec to be you know, used in these kinds of settings. It is, you know, highly resistant to high temperatures, frosting resistant. It's ideal for long-lasting exterior. So I think like, that’s still is the future for Lapitec.

Jessica McNaughton: Yeah. I think they've done a really good job of putting all the documentation in place for having all the different fastening systems as well. Because I think a lot of other companies that are going to market, they don't have that built out yet. They haven't done that testing. And now that Lapitec has rolled that out and that, you know, it's only been, you know, a year now, but I think having that comprehensive package instills a lot more confidence. So I think, I agree with you, I think that sintered stone is really the next big thing. And what I've seen with CaraGreen's clients is they want something that everyone else doesn't have. They don't want quartz because everyone has it. So they're either looking for some exclusive, natural stone or, you know, like you guys have some of those really beautiful, beautiful stones. A marble or they're really interested in the sintered stone category, and I believe we're still educating on it. So I'm really excited to be partnering with ABC Stone as we do that and really bring awareness to Lapitec and sintered stone as a category. 

Agnes Szymacha: We're very happy that you are on this team with us, right?

Jessica McNaughton: Well, thank you Agnes so much for being on Build Green Live Green, today. 

Agnes Szymacha: Thank you very much.

Jessica McNaughton: And again, you can see ABC Stones website @abcworldwidestone.com. And Agnes, do you want to mention what your Instagram handle is? 

Agnes Szymacha: It's @ABCStone. 

Jessica McNaughton: Great. And we are @CaraGreenProducts. So, thanks again and this is Build Green Live Green. 

Agnes Szymacha: Thank you so much, Jessica. It was a pleasure.