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Bringing the Outdoors In

By Michael Morey

Stone is one of nature’s most enduring building materials, and recent technological advances have enabled designers to bring it inside.

When it comes to designing with natural stone, nothing is new. We're just seeing clever, creative projects that we think never existed in bygone days. But in reality, people have actually forgotten what has been accomplished with stone in the past.

Without question, stone is the most time-tested, enduring and endearing building material known to mankind. Just think of ancient Rome or Egypt. Envision not just the massive stone buildings and bridges and religious structures, but also those amazing interiors with their shimmering stone pools, gleaming stone flooring, elegantly hand-carved stone pillars and so much more.

The difference today is that new and incredible technologies allow us to quickly, efficiently and cost-effectively bring the outdoors in—particularly with the specification of large format "building stone" material typically considered suitable only for exterior applications.

Stone consumption for commercial interiors has grown in great leaps and bounds in this country. In recent years, it has been characterized by applications featuring stone tile flooring in myriad finishes, from polished to thermal, and cut-to-size countertops for any number of different projects. We also see decorative vertical surfaces clad with exquisite natural stone tiles, marble mosaics or in some cases, larger cut-stone pieces functioning as interior façade cladding. Without question, the A&D community has embraced the design and specification of stone tiles and cut-to-size slab material. But what about larger "building" stone pieces, those typically seen in outdoor landscape designs, most of the time in their natural states?

In my estimation, perhaps the most groundbreaking example of using larger stone pieces indoors took place in the early 1990s, when Peter Bohlin of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson designed "Ledge House," a visionary architectural project located not far from Camp David in Maryland. It was one of the first projects that incorporated great slabs of stone, eliciting a true feeling of experiencing nature indoors. Prior to that time, whether the job was a commercial or residential interior, the only really large-scale pieces of stone specified would be for rustic fireplaces or large indoor fountains with decorative pools. Ledge House set a new standard in stone design.

In the last five years, there has been a huge spike in the usage of building stone in commercial interior designs. One example is that of fireplaces in hotels and office lobbies. This process has been accelerated with the advances in today's ventless gas units. Another example ties in with the aforementioned trend of bringing the outdoors indoors. The exact same stone used in an office lobby is being specified (sometimes with a different surface finish) as outdoor paving material in the area approaching the building's entrance. Because stone is as natural as any building product found on this planet, people tend to associate it instantly with the green movement; designers are specifying it more and more to highlight the environmentally friendly aspects of the buildings they are creating.

When using building stone indoors, there are some logistical challenges to consider. For example, advanced planning is recommended as larger stones (i.e. big boulders) may have to be installed earlier in the construction process—for example, some stone materials may not fit through finished doorways. Another challenge that is now being addressed (successfully) is how to make stone material lighter in weight so that it is suitable for indoor applications. This may be accomplished by sawing it to a thinner format, while still maintaining the look of full-sized stones used on the exterior.

Designers are bringing the outside in, and vice versa, specifically when there is an application in which the exterior is visible from the interior and the two environments can be visually tied together by using the same stone in both. Rustic applications are calling for weathered granites both on vertical and horizontal surfaces. Sometimes, a rustic-look project will begin at the fireplace and spread throughout the building interior before continuing outdoors.

In a more refined environment, designers may experiment with different surface finishes on the same type of stone, which unifies the overall space while also creating a subtle, yet noticeable contrast. A good example of this would be a hotel reception counter created with a base consisting of natural cleft South Bay Quartzite® and a countertop that is polished or honed using the very same material.

stone in design: hannaford supermarket
A prime example of a commercial interior that brought the outdoors in using natural building stone—and that did everything conceivable to be as environmentally-friendly as possible—can be seen at the Hannaford Supermarket in Augusta, Maine. This Hannaford store is the first supermarket in the country to be awarded Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification by the U.S. Green Building Council. The project's unique stonework includes the usage of both full-bed and thin-veneer natural stone on both the exterior and interior of the new structure.

Contributing to Hannaford's LEED certification process was the procurement of building materials from producers no more than 500 miles away. Suitable natural stone was sourced from "local" quarrier Champlain Stone® Ltd., which is located in Warrensburg, N.Y., roughly 300 miles from the supermarket's jobsite.

Hannaford's design specification included more than 1,300 square feet of full-bed stone for the exterior and 1,500 square feet of a thin-sawn version of the same material for the interior. The inside corner matches the adjacent outside wall, spanning both sides of the storefront, and is divided by glass windows extending almost floor to ceiling. Going from the outside to the inside, only a bona fide building stone professional could tell that the interior wall consists of a thin stone veneer.

All in all, people prefer natural building products, especially when they are in their original state. Faux finishes, engineered products and chemically-enhanced materials can look good, can be made to be durable, and can even exude an upscale, urban image, but stone is a time-honored, durable, high-performance building material used by the ancient masters—and still insisted upon by today's preeminent designers. Natural stone is still considered one of the most desirable and upscale design materials. Today, it is just as easy to specify stone for the indoors as it is for the outdoors. It will bring a true balance of nature to your next design creation.

Michael B. Morey is president and founder of Champlain Stone® Ltd. He began his company as a one-man operation in 1982. Since that time, it has grown to become one of the major stone sources in this nation. The firm owns a number of quarries and supplies its distinct, trademarked stone products to clientele in the United States, Canada and Europe.