We are in love with nature—but also with technology—so which is better when you build or remodel a home? Natural products such as wood or wool? Or a man-made substitute, such as laminate or nylon? To answer this question, I consulted dozens of design and DIY websites and checked in with my secret weapon—my parents—who are both architects. I focused on natural and man-made products that look alike. Think granite vs. quartz, but not Corian, as it has its own appearance.
When pitting these products against each other, I chose cost, durability and looks as the deciding factors. Cost is key because you either can or can’t afford a material. Durability is important because if a product doesn’t last, you’ll have to afford it all over again. And we all want products with looks we like. If your priorities are different—environmentally friendly, good for resale, etc.—you might get different results.
Stone vs. printed porcelain
Cost: $15 to $25 per square foot, according to the Tile Shop in Washington.
Durability: There is a wide range of durability among natural stone tiles. Granite tiles are the strongest and resist stains but can be scratched in extreme circumstances. On the other end of the spectrum, marble tile is soft, so it stains and etches pretty easily. Most natural stone tiles are supposed to be sealed once a year, a maintenance consideration.
Looks: Natural stone tile is dramatic, with endless pattern variation. It often has a textured surface that is difficult to duplicate in synthetics.
Cost: $4 to $7 per square foot, according to the Tile Shop.
Durability: Porcelain tile is waterproof, does not stain and requires no sealing or other maintenance. It is dense, which makes it less likely to scratch or chip than regular ceramic tile.
Looks: These days, manufacturers digitally photograph and then print natural stone patterns onto porcelain tiles. The result can be remarkably convincing and beautiful.
Best value: Printed porcelain. Porcelain can cost a third of the price of natural stone. It looks just like stone, unless you get down on your hands and knees. And porcelain is about as strong as granite but requires no annual sealing.
Hardwood vs. engineered wood
Cost: $5 to $10 per square foot installed, according to Consumer Reports.
Durability: Natural wood floors vary in durability, depending on the tree type used. For example, pine is soft; red oak is hard. But even the hardest natural wood floors are susceptible to scratches and dents. They are also vulnerable to water, which can strip their finish and make them warp. On the other hand, natural wood looks the same all the way through, so it can be refinished multiple times to look like new.
Looks: Natural wood floors are unquestionably beautiful and give a home a warm, welcoming look.
Cost: $4 to $9 per square foot installed, according to Consumer Reports.
Durability: Engineered wood floors have a thin layer of natural wood on top with a base layer of plywood underneath. Depending on how thin the top layer is, engineered floors can be sanded and refinished once or twice or not at all. The top layer also can get nicked, exposing the plywood beneath. On the other hand, the plywood base is manufactured in a crosshatch pattern that makes engineered wood less likely to swell or warp if it gets wet.
Looks: Engineered wood looks just like natural hardwood because the surface is natural wood. It is even permissible to refer to engineered wood floors as “hardwood floors” in real estate ads.
Best value: Tie. There is just a dollar difference between natural wood and engineered wood in cost. Natural hardwood floors are a better choice if you plan to stay put long enough to refinish them. Engineered wood floors are preferable if you want to save a little bit of money or install them in damper areas such as the basement. If you want to save more money, consider laminate, which has gotten much better-looking and costs $3 to $7 per square foot. If you need flooring for an even wetter area, such as a kitchen or bathroom, consider woodgrain vinyl, which is inherently water-resistant and costs $2 to $6 per square foot.
Granite vs. quartz
Cost: $40 to $75 per square foot installed, according to Fairfax Marble and Granite in Fairfax, Virginia.
Durability: Granite is incredibly strong, but it will stain if you leave wet things on it for a long time or scratch if you drag heavy items across it. To help prevent this, granite countertops should be resealed regularly. Because it is a natural stone, granite can withstand hot pots and pans.
Looks: Granite comes in as many colors and patterns as there are natural rock formations, though they tend to be darker colors. You will know for sure that nobody else’s kitchen counter looks quite like yours.
Cost: $85 to $125 per square foot installed, according to Tops of the Town in Rockville, Maryland.
Durability: Quartz is made from 90 percent or more natural stone and the rest petroleum-based resin. It is stronger than granite and seldom develops scratches or stains, but can if mistreated. It is not necessary to seal quartz. It is not as heat-tolerant as granite, so you should check the manufacturer’s instructions or use trivets to be safe. Quartz can fade in the sun, so it isn’t recommended for outdoor installations.
Looks: Quartz comes in an unlimited rainbow of colors and can be made with a tight, consistent pattern if you don’t like the broad patterns of granite. Quartz also can be made to look like marble, but without marble’s staining and etching problems.
Best value: Quartz is the top pick because low-end quartz costs just a bit more than high-end granite. Also, scratch and stain resistance are more essential than heat resistance, and you don’t have to seal quartz.
Wool vs. nylon
Cost: $6 to $20 per square foot, according to Georgetown Carpet in Washington.
Durability: Wool is durable and resists stains but is more likely to fade than synthetic carpets. It also tends to absorb moisture more readily, so avoid using it in damp areas.
Looks: Wool carpeting has a high-end feel and holds dye well, which makes deep, dramatic hues possible.
Cost: $3 to $10 per square foot, according to Georgetown Carpet.
Durability: Nylon, a type of plastic, is considered the strongest synthetic material for carpet. It’s moisture-resistant and easy to clean. Nylon is also said to have good “yarn memory,” which means it holds its shape well and resists crushing. For this reason, nylon carpet works well in high-traffic areas.
Looks: Nylon can be fashioned into almost any type of carpet, including looped berber types and silky shag styles.
Best value: Nylon wins because it costs about half as much as wool carpet and can be made to look just like it.
—Elisabeth Leamy | The Washington Post