Soapstone — For Clean Designs

Soapstone — For Clean Designs
By Ron Treister
Commercial Construction & Renovation - September/October 2010

Soapstone is a natural quarried stone that’s available in a variety of colors, veining patterns and sizes. A metamorphic rock also known as “steatite,” soapstone is comprised primarily of the minerals talc, chlorite, dolomite and magnesite. How did it get the name, “soapstone?” Simply put, it became known as soapstone or “soap rock” because of its smooth and soap-like feel to the touch.

For the most part, specifiers are often confused by the fact that there are different types and grades of soapstone. Artistic grade soapstone contains a higher talc content, which means that it is softer and suitable for carving, but not necessarily strong enough to withstand the rigors of the commercial arena.

The soapstone more suitable for architectural work contains less talc content; therefore, it is harder and more suitable for applications such as countertop usage. And due to its scarcity until the last decade or so it has only recently been used in commercial applications.

For example, in Texas, soapstone has been used in many projects in the healthcare field. From dental offices to health clinics, today soapstone is being used more frequently. This is due mainly to its geological composition that makes it non-porous and antimicrobial, thus providing bacteria-free spaces. Some reports even indicate that it is 20 percent to 30 percent more dense than other stones making it more resistant to stains and discoloration. Another benefit is that commercial architects and designers are finding that the sun causing discoloration due to UV rays does not adversely affect soapstone. This is not always true for other natural stones used in surfacing applications.

 Last year, Dorado Soapstone was specified for Antonelli’, a boutique cheese, meat, and wine bar in Austin, Texas. The material was used for all counter space and workstations. As a high-end wine and cheesebar, flavor was of the highest importance for the “foodies” that Antonelli’s wanted to attract. The challenge for the design team of Antonelli’s was to find a product that met their aesthetic needs without having to use a synthetic material that would alter or taint the flavors of their meats and cheeses. Soapstone ultimately was specified. Chefs were able to prepare their food products directly on the soapstone without worrying about any bacteria growth that could eventually be health hazardous to their clients and subsequently, shed a bad light on their business. And with soapstone, the owners were able to achieve the exact look that fit their design motif. Because of its mineral composition and the process by which it is formed, soapstone is very dense, non-porous and chemically inert. Nothing will stain or etch soapstone, and users do not have to apply chemical sealers to protect soapstone surfaces. Other natural stones, such as granite or marble, will stain or etch even after applications of these artificial sealers. To show the strength of soapstone, be aware that it has been used for decades as chemistry lab tables, because it is inert and thus will not be harmed by acidic materials.
Soapstone also is an efficient conductor of heat and can withstand very high temperatures. In a commercial kitchen, cooks can set hot pots and pans directly on their soapstone work surface without worrying about damaging the stone whatsoever. Soapstone has minimal impact on the environment. Both the way soapstone is quarried and the absence of chemicals in the fabrication and care of soapstone make it an environmentally responsible choice. This is why soapstone
continues to be used in sustainable architecture

What does the future hold?

Is there a future in the commercial construction arena for this very interesting and relatively new-to-the-scene natural stone? According to Bo Barkley, co-owner of Austin- Based Dorado Soapstone of Texas, “Soapstone will continue to increase its popularity in the commercial arena. This is mainly due to the public’s growing concern of using synthetic products which raise health issues related to the high level of chemical sealers needed to make other stone products sanitary.” Barkley says this will continue to make an impact with designers and architects that work in the health field were sanitation is an issue. “Soapstone also will see growth as the North American supply chains are increasing in efficiency. Whereas several years ago, it was difficult for anyone to find quality soapstone, now there are more and more local suppliers that can provide their clientele with soapstone.”So maybe you want to clean up your designs? The next time you’re considering natural stone for, in particular, a health care or food preparation area project… don’t drop the soapstone from your list of considerations! 

Commercial Construction & Renovation - September/October 2010