|Local Green Manufacturer Vetrazzo Continues
to Make News
May 12, 2009
Vetrazzo countertops are green and colorful
Friday, May 8, 2009
During the American Institute of Architects' national convention in San Francisco earlier this month, there were many planned distractions for the more than 20,000 attendees swarming through the city. But on a rainy, windy Friday afternoon, only a few boarded the first-ever hybrid wind- and solar-powered Hornblower ferry headed for the former Ford Assembly Building in Richmond.
Those who didn't missed an opportunity to see the 525,000-square-foot building (which is a quarter-mile long) that has won historic preservation awards and is now the home of green businesses including Vetrazzo, a recycled glass and cement counter company that is a poster child for the Bay Area's sustainability movement.
In 2004, Vetrazzo's three partners, James Sheppard, Olivia Teter and Jeff Gustafson, bought the 1996 Berkeley company that invented the glass-embedded Portland cement terrazzo countertops. They now produce them with glass chips purchased from recycling centers. The sacks of chips frequently contain crushed beer and vodka bottles, architectural glass debris and even rare red glass rescued from cast-off airport runway lights. Vetrazzo's colorful, granite-like terrazzo slabs are typically flecked with amber, silver, blue and gold glass embedded in grayish white cement.
At the Vetrazzo factory in a small, 40,000 square-foot corner of the Ford Building, Sheppard, Teter and their colleague Jessica Gelin discussed the process of transforming a hobby industry - the brainchild of environmentalist Don McPherson who invented Vetrazzo counters as part of his doctorate thesis at UC Berkeley - into a viable company in 2005. Instead of a few counters, they can now produce about 30 5-by-9-foot sheets daily.
"We use 85 percent glass by weight in each slab," Gelin said. The exact formula for the glass, cement and strengthener mix is to be patented. It is poured from mixing vats into wooden molds, set overnight in a kiln for curing and polished for 2 1/2 hours with a diamond wheel. Jets of water sprayed onto the slabs during polishing keep the factory free of dust. Each slab weighs about 700 pounds and contains glass from about 750 beer bottles. Polished and sealed slabs are shipped to dealers who fabricate them into shimmering counters for kitchens and baths.
The 1932 Ford Assembly Building was converted to tank manufacturing during World War II and then abandoned for several decades. Orton Development rescued it in 2004 with the help of green-conscious architects Marcy Wong and Donn Logan, who divided the enormous space (now called Ford Point) into solar-powered offices and factories such as Vetrazzo's.
One section, called the Craneway Pavilion, still has overhead gantry cranes that used to load cars and tanks bound for the market - or to war - onto ships. The cavernous space is used for large events, and the cranes are used to hang curtains for theater performances. Luckily, although Vetrazzo's standard 1 1/4-inch slabs are cumbersomely heavy, they are light enough to move for delivery without those unused, though still functional, cranes.
At a glance
Expert opinion: "We have made sinks of Vetrazzo in the past, but it is best used as counters," said James Sheppard, co-owner of Vetrazzo. If you are ordering Vetrazzo from a local vendor, expect your shipment at least two weeks out. "That's the time it takes after a slab is poured and it finally leaves the factory," Sheppard said. The slab is cured and tested for strength because different colors have different formulations and densities. Each slab is sealed with a volatile organic compound-free impregnating vegetable- and water-based sealer from Cheng, a concrete counter manufacturer in Berkeley.
Vetrazzo is akin to stone slabs rather than typical concrete countertops, so it has to meet the same cutting and density standards as stone. Like 1 1/4 -inch stone slabs, Vetrazzo can span 24 inches without additional support. "A sharp diamond blade makes nice cuts. A dull or rough blade could chip out glass bits," Sheppard said.
Vetrazzo has a low carbon footprint because it is mostly composed of recycled materials.
Pros: Vetrazzo is heat resistant (up to 600 degrees) and because it is highly polished, it resists stains. Unlike other countertops made of recycled materials, it has no polyester resins in its makeup and so does not fade from exposure to sunlight. You can install under-mount sinks just as you would do with stone counters. Also like stone counters, the material is guaranteed for 10 years. Companies such as the Ritz-Carlton have used Vetrazzo for at least that long.
Cons: Vetrazzo is heavy and is therefore difficult to install. It is not a product for do-it-yourselfers; certified fabricators are required to cut it and retreat and seal cut edges. "We have a coloration process that darkens the material after we polish it," Sheppard said. "A newly exposed edge needs to be color-treated again." Vetrazzo is tooled the same as stone, but the speed at which it is cut is critical. The wrong speed can leave burn marks. Unlike quartz products such as Caesarstone that are slightly more flexible and easier to install, Vetrazzo is as solid as stone.
Price: Vetrazzo is more expensive than quartz products - $45-$90 per square foot, uninstalled, depending on the color of the glass used. It is sold throughout the United States and Canada. Seek out a local source to avoid shipping costs.
-- Eco Home Improvement, 2619 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, (510) 644-3500. ecohomeimprovement.com.
-- JB Turner and Sons, 1866 Pleasant Valley Ave., Oakland, (510) 658-3441. jbturnerkitchens.com.
-- Gilman Screens and Kitchens in San Francisco, Foster City, Mountain View, Burlingame and San Rafael. www.gilmanscreens-kitchens.com.
-- Vetrazzo, vetrazzo.com.
-- Craneway Pavilion, craneway.com.
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