Thursday, January 18, 2007

Beneath the Surface: part 1

As someone who was using to picking out slabs of marble, concrete or limestone for a renovation project, the choice of suitable green surfaces was an intimidating one. I admit to having been unappreciative of what science and technology have managed to do in the creation of faux surfaces. Ok, I’ve always been a snob about using “real” stone whenever financially possible.

Before beginning my research for this project, I guess I always thought that a slab of granite was a “natural” choice. What I didn’t think about was how much we destroy the earth and the way workers are exploited in the excavation of that beautiful natural material. I attended a presentation about 6 months ago at Green Fusion Design Center ( and the speaker showed photos of an inactive quarry site in Italy. It looked like a World War II bomb site. Seeing those those photos reminded me of a time about 5 years ago when I had gotten lost while driving around northern Italy. I came upon an abandoned excavation site and noted then on how much it marred the picturesque environment that surrounded it.

A little more research revealed how deplorable the conditions are for the workers (in Brazil, they are children) tasked with removing those slabs. Their working conditions and what they get paid makes Kentucky mineworkers from the 20’s look like they had plum jobs. Then there’s the energy consumption from shipping the product across the globe. Talk about a carbon footprint…. Well, I can’t look at a marble slab again and see its unadulterated beauty.

But I am not a Marmoleum person ( And I just don’t go in for those rustic Santa Fe style tiles either. And that’s why I felt intimidated. After all, I pride myself on coming up with a solution for just about any situation. But this one, I felt, wasn’t going to be easy.

Happily, I found my own vein of beautiful substitutes that don’t destroy the environment in being produced and don’t cause workers to suffer a premature death from some debilitating lung condition. In fact, I found so many lovely surfaces that I’ve sprinkled them throughout the house.

First, there just has to be some stone in my home. Through research, I found that soapstone is being quarried responsibly in North America. But there are only two places that I discovered: Ottawa, Canada and Virginia Cemil made a phone call to Virgina and we learned that they are not actively pulling out the soapstone today, but have enough product to meet current demand. Plus, the energy to ship from Virginia is far less costly than bringing it in from Europe. Soapstone has made a resurgence due to a Finnish company that uses it to create house-warming ovens of all types ( Check out for a good primer on the various applications of the product.

I became enamored after seeing a large Tulikivi fireplace in Green Fusion that generates enough gentle heat to keep their warehouse warm on the dampest of Northern California days. Customers seemed to purr like cats as they sat on the soapstone benches around the insert.

There is a great discussion here about soaptone:

I am excited about having some stone in my house and this time it’s going to surround the fireplace insert. I can’t wait to put my hands on the hardened, soapy-feeling talc of my new soapstone from Virginia. So perfect for a girl from the South! And I’m sure it will be a favorite place for Milla the cat.

Next posting: part 2 of my surface discoveries

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