A Journey to New Surfaces
One shop's progress with trailblazing slabs
Photo by Brahan Milla from Unsplash
By K. Schipper
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Change is never easy, and the hard surfaces industry has seen a lot of it since the turn of the century. Not only has natural quartz replaced granite as the leading countertop material in many shops, but other man-made products, including porcelain slab, ultra-compact and sintered stone, are showing up on the wish-lists of possible clients – many of them high-end ones. Today’s next-big-thing can easily show up in tomorrow’s tract home, and fabricators who want a piece of that pie are going to need once again to expand and refine shop and installation skills to make the most of the opportunities. Someone who’s focused on high-end clients and new trends is Laura Grandlienard, owner/principal of Raleigh-based ROCKin’teriors. Early on, Grandlienard recognized the edge being able to successfully work with these products gave her shop and made several important moves to make it happen.
In the Forefront
ROCKin’teriors is now going on its eighth-year fabricating and installing ultra-compact materials and sintered stone, and when they began the process, the shop was fabricating with the aid of an Italian-made bridge saw, hand tools, and luan templates. Grandlienard says the bridge saw cut the new materials “beautifully,” but in the interests of efficiency she made the investment in a Park Industries® VOYAGER™ CNC and some supporting products, including Park’s Pathfinder® photo station, Slabsmith Alpha Cam, and a Laser Products Industries digital-templating system. Besides eliminating the need for manual layouts, she’s pleased with the Pathfinder photo station because of its ability to create a slab layout with a perfect match in how it will look at the finished installation, as well as capturing precise images of slabs and remnants in high resolution. “Along with more efficiency, it’s also allowed us to move forward with the technology market,” Grandlienard says. “One of the big things it has enabled us to do this is that we’re basically all digital. It’s all those enhancements that have catapulted us forward.” Of course, going totally digital is often a worthwhile investment for shops who never plan to work with ultra-compact and sintered materials. In the case of ROCKin’teriors, however, Grandlienard had been eyeing the products at tradeshows, and interior designers and architects she works with had begun talking it up. “Even before I got serious about making the commitment, some of them were saying, ‘Hey, this is going to be forthcoming; you’d better prepare yourself,’” she says. “They’re the ones who create how the new world is going to look. It’s been critical to have those relationships to be able to be in the forefront.” Grandlienard adds that were was no one thing that really made her commit to offering sintered stone and ultra-compact materials, other than the realization that if ROCKin’teriors didn’t make the commitment it would be left behind. Even though ROCKin’teriors was already doing cladding — including custom mitering — once the company took on a job wrapping a large, full-height fireplace in more than 20 slabs, a major realization struck. “That’s when I said, ‘We have to learn how to do this right. We have to learn everything about it,’” Grandlienard relates. “That’s been a negative in the market. People who do natural stone or quartz want to handle the sintered and ultra-compact the same way. It’s the same concepts, but it’s not the same product.”
Photo by Emerson Schwartzkope
ROCKin'teriors. located in suburban Raleigh, is an award-winning fabrication shop, taking on high-end residential jobs and large work like the refurb of Raleigh's international airport.
Photo courtesy ROCKin'teriors
In case you're thinking ROCKin'teriors is a megashop --- this is pretty much the shop workspace, dominated by a saw (since replaced by a Park Industries VOYAGER™) and handwork section (the color part of the photo).
Commitment to Training
For shops interested in learning how to properly fabricate and install sintered stone and ultra-compact materials, the hardest decision may be committing to the training. In the case of ROCKin’teriors, one of Grandlienard’s suppliers put her in touch with Italian-based sintered stone manufacturer Lapitec S.p.a., which sent a technical instructor to Raleigh for a day-and-a-half of training in the shop. Although Lapitec sent the instructor at its expense, Grandlienard says her biggest cost was in shutting down the shop for the training. However, she says she took that approach – rather than sending one or two employees to the factory for training – for a couple reasons. “One of the things we have found is that everyone learns differently,” she says. “This way, all team members were taught in the same way. We cut and fabricated, asked questions, got answers … and it made believers out of our team.” All her employees are also cross-trained. It gave top installers the opportunity to understand the characteristics of the materials they would be working with, which allows them to troubleshoot problems. Lapitec certified ROCKin’teriors in 2016, and that was followed by training and certifications using the same process in both Dekton by Cosentino and Neolith in early 2017. Also helping was support from ARDEX America. ROCKin’teriors uses its substrates, and Grandlienard sent five of her key senior employees to be trained there. “Training is the key, really,” she says. “That’s the investment you’re going to have to make in your people, letting them learn and allowing them to be comfortable with these products.” Even with the training, Grandlienard says it took her team a little time and practice to master the materials. “It probably took 24 months for us to feel fairly comfortable with fabricating and installing it,” Grandlienard says. “And we weren’t doing it every day. Now we’re doing it almost daily. Sometimes it’s Dekton, sometimes it’s Lapitec, and sometimes it’s Neolith, based on the needs of the client.” “Our first real stream of projects came in 2017, and our team was ready,” she says. “We were the early adopters for our area.” She adds that, particularly with Cosentino, she was invited to take on a few of its Dekton projects, and that helped.
Photos courtesy ROCKin'teriors
Designers and architects provided the spark to move into more of the mineral-based surfaces for high-end residential work.
Bumps in the Road
That’s not to say the shop’s move into doing more sintered stone and ultra-compact products was entirely smooth. Not all Grandlienard’s employees were initially enthused about the new materials. “Early on, it was tough,” she says. “I had to have some strong conversations with the team. We have a weekly team session, and everyone has a voice. I told them this was where we were going, but there were concerns about sustainability and about safety.” She also recognizes that change isn’t always easy. Ultimately, she told her staff that these products are part of the future and that anyone not interested in growing with ROCKin’teriors could pick up their last paycheck on Friday. “No one left, and all the mumbling stopped,” Grandlienard says. “We win together, and we lose together, and if there’s a problem, we solve it together. And working with these materials is rewarding. It’s just like artwork.” Just as challenging was figuring out new estimates for labor-per-hour for production and installation. “We had to look at our labor cost versus our stones,” she says. “They all vary but this was significant because of the sintered layer; it takes more time on the machine versus a marble or quartzite.” In some instances, she says it was like quartzite, because of the density of the stone, although it requires a different setup. Both require slowing the psi on the CNC to avoid getting chips everywhere. Nor are all jobs created equal. Grandlienard mentions one project where the client wanted not only a mitered profile build-up for the kitchen island, but they want a return on all sides. By now the company has done enough projects with the materials that it has experience to guide it. And there are other guidelines – if you look. For instance, she says she looked at what Cosentino was charging for premade mitered Dekton sinks that they’re making in Spain. “I kind of looked at their pricing and figured out what it would cost if we were to build it here,” she explains. “It’s been good, because they obviously have an enormous number of resources.” ROCKin’teriors evaluates and reevaluates its pricing structure regularly anyway. Grandlienard also notes that both Dekton and Lapitec have improved their products since the company started working with them. “They’re a little faster cutting, but you still have the same labor putting the miters together,” she says. “There’s more time involved in putting projects together, and the employees are more cautious in how they handle it. You can’t hurry a job.” Still another challenge early on with sintered stone and ultra-compact materials: ROCKin’teriors was ahead of the market. “We had to get clients to believe in this new phenomenon,” says Grandlienard. “Now, we’ve become a go-to for some of the larger projects. And even before we really got serious about making the commitment to sintered stone and ultra-compact materials, we had architects telling us to prepare because these modern designs were coming. “Having those relationships enabled us to be in the forefront,” she adds. The real bottom line is the payoff Grandlienard has seen in making the commitment to fabricate and install these materials the correct way. Not only is ROCKin’teriors able to advertise its ability to work with them, but sales have increased 45% because of that. “It’s been a real game-changer.”
Photos courtesy ROCKin'teriors
In-the-shop training by manufacturers led to the ability to take on large wall installations and outdoor cladding jobs, like this development-company office building, .