While it can be used in many of the same applications as ceramic and porcelain tiles, there’s a world of difference separating natural stone from these and other engineered surface materials.
This month, TSJ spoke with Matt Robb, digital media executive for Stone Federation Great Britain, to explore the current state of the natural stone sector and his predictions for the upcoming year.
In spite of some significant obstacles, Robb explains, 2022 was a positive year for the stone sector.
Companies across the industry invested in product launches, growing their teams and improving operations – “all good indicators of a healthy industry”. Another encouraging sign was the success of the recent Natural Stone Awards, held in December, which saw “as high a quality and quantity of entries” as ever. Rising costs and global shipping challenges have admittedly been “impossible to ignore”, but Robb remains optimistic the stone sector’s resilience and determination will see it through these latest trials.
And there’s good reason to be optimistic, given the many qualities that position stone as a potential answer to the design challenges of 2023. Most potent among these qualities, Robb explains, is the sustainability of the material, which is best understood from a whole life carbon footprint perspective. “Natural stone is, by definition, a natural product,” he says. “It’s extracted from the ground, it’s cut, it’s finished, and it’s taken to site.” This relatively straightforward journey from raw material to finished product already puts stone ahead of many other surface materials in its environmental impact, but what really sets stone apart is its lifespan.
“Ultimately, durability is one of the greatest ways of delivering a sustainable project,” Robb explains. “For us, when we talk about sustainability, we’re assessing the whole lifecycle of a project, that includes the raw material extraction, the production, the distribution, the use and the end of life. For natural stone, that process is very simple, and it will often last for decades and in some cases centuries”
In one case study, at 15 Clerkenwell Close, architect Groupwork reduced the whole life carbon footprint of the building by 95% through the use of loadbearing natural stone, as opposed to a steel and concrete structure. Specifiers are becoming increasingly aware that the “business as usual” approach to architecture and construction is no longer an option, Robb says, and innovative uses of materials like this are one way in which that approach can be reconsidered.
Beyond these environmental concerns, stone also provides aesthetic and functional benefits that meet several of the trends emerging and continuing in 2023. The increasingly popular choice to create seamless indoor-to-outdoor transitions – connecting kitchen areas to external patios for example – is an application many stones are particularly suited to. Moreover, designers are beginning to realise some of the visual variety of stone to create more dynamic spaces. “That assumption of ‘50 shades of beige’ is starting to shift, and 4 people are beginning to see there’s a whole host of colours and textures available.”
This diversity of aesthetics is especially valuable in 2023, as specifiers pull from both minimalist and maximalist inspirations – even placing these concepts directly alongside one another. “At the moment, we’re seeing a boom at both ends of the spectrum. While bold toned, dramatically veined stones are seeing a lot of use in the interiors market, we’re also seeing the raw, muted-tone materials increasing in popularity,” Robb explains. “I think the consistent strand between both of these trends is the celebration of the natural qualities of the material.” Many entries to the Natural Stone Awards, for instance, saw designers employing a variety of stones to create contrasts, “particularly between understated subtle tones alongside some more dramatic statement stones”.
It would be disingenuous, of course, to pretend there aren’t serious hurdles on the horizon for the sector. In addition to the obvious broad economic forces mentioned earlier, there is the industry-specific issue of skills and training. “It’s something we’re seeing right across the board,” Robb says, citing a number of stonemasonry courses dropped by colleges throughout the UK. Recent projects at the Palace of Westminster and the Elizabeth Tower have drawn on a large percentage of the UK’s total stonemasonry workforce, drawing the necessity for a continuous pipeline of new labour into sharp relief.
Fortunately, there are initiatives currently being put in place to address these and other challenges. Stone Federation GB is developing what Robb calls a “Stone Academy,” a training hub which will pull together a range of resources for industry beginners all the way to specialist upskilling. “That’s come about from a real desire from our members to try and find a solution because, ultimately, the industry needs a healthy, trained workforce.”
Current and upcoming demands on the natural stone industry have also resulted in a greater openness to collaboration, particularly at the trade body level, Robb says. “While there’s obviously a difference, we’ve found some of the shared challenges that have presented themselves, as organisations gather around those, there’s opportunities to be a genuine force for good.” The Stone Federation has already got some “exciting” collaborations in the works with trade organisations in the USA and Brazil, as well as in Europe. Encouragingly, Robb says, and despite the distance forced by Covid and Brexit, there is a consensus among European trade bodies that the global stone market is stronger when it works together.
It’s hard to point to a building material with a longer legacy than natural stone, and while there have been many technological developments in surfaces across the last several centuries, the simplicity of stone is one of its greatest assets. As Robb points out: “If you look through any of the churches in the UK, there are natural stone floors that are hundreds of years old and still performing well.”
Like the material itself, the stone sector is resilient enough to weather a few tough years.