Price hikes, building delays: What happens after the engineered stone ban

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Home builders could face months-long delays and up to a 30 per cent price hike when looking for safer alternatives for soon-to-be-banned engineered stone benchtops.

Engineered stone will be banned from July 1 after hundreds of stonemasons developed silicosis, an irreversible lung condition, from inhaling silica particles while cutting the stone.

Engineered or reconstituted stone, made by combining crushed stone with adhesive, costs about half as much as natural stone, starting at $450 a square metre, and is durable and heat- and stain-resistant.

Engineered stone containing quartz and silica will be banned from July 1.Credit: Eddie Jim

Major companies are scrambling to produce silica-free alternatives, but their products have yet to be manufactured at scale, prompting concerns about construction delays.

Rob Douglas is the chief executive of McDonald Jones, the largest home builder in NSW, and said that silica-free engineered stone alternatives were likely to remain the popular choice among customers: “The majority of customers still prefer a stone product,” he said.

Douglas estimated the alternatives could cost between 10 and 30 per cent more than the current engineered stone prices and expected month-long delays as it was not clear when they would be readily available.

“[Our suppliers] can’t guarantee our volumes, let alone the volumes of other companies,” he said.

Douglas estimated that thousands of customers would be affected and would have to pick out new benchtops, as well as tiles and splashback to match, while current McDonald Jones display homes would need to be updated.

“[The number of new home builds] are going down because of the costs associated – it’s just becoming unaffordable,” he said.

Belinda Kelaher, managing director of stone supplier Smart Stone, said she expected the company’s silica-free product to face a backlog in demand when it becomes available early next year.

It is expected to cost 15 to 20 per cent more than entry-priced engineered stone.

“These large builders need to shore-up their contracts months in advance and will need to find alternatives quickly,” she said.

Kelaher said other available products, such as porcelain, may be popular for consumers, but many stonemasons refused to work with it due to chipping and cracking during the cutting and installation process.

Cosentino sells benchtops and surfaces. Its vice-president, Itay Shimony, said the Australian market had a major dependency on engineered stone that was not seen in other countries, with customers overlooking alternatives.

“The industry will need to embrace other products in the market … because we don’t have the luxury to stop buying homes,” he said.

Shimony suggested that customers consider porcelain, which is UV-, scratch- and heat-resistant and costs between $800 and $2000 a square metre.

Shimony also predicted an increase in demand for natural stone products, with some companies price-matching natural stone material costs with those of engineered stone as the ban comes into force.

Natural stone benchtops include granite, which costs from $700 a square metre; marble, which starts at $1000 a square metre; quartzite and limestone.

Prices per square metre

Marble $1000-$2400 +

Granite $700-$2500

Concrete $650-$2500

Porcelain $700-$2400

Solid Surface $1000-$1800

Engineered stone $450-$1800

Timber $600-$1100

Laminate $200-$500

At the lower price point, a Bunnings spokesperson said timber and laminate benchtops were expected to become more popular.

“The majority of benchtops we sell are already laminate or timber, so we know they resonate with customers,” the spokesperson said.

Bunnings also offers solid-surface benchtops such as Corian, which are stone-like products made from natural minerals, pigments and polymer binder and contain no silica.

Timber benchtop prices start at $600 a square metre, laminate products start at $200 a square metre, and solid surface products begin at $1000 a square metre.

Master Builders Australia chief executive Denita Wawn said while there was a range of alternative products already available, the organisation was focused on ensuring there were enough by July 1.

“Builders remain concerned with lingering legal uncertainties and unanswered questions regarding contractual obligations, alternative products and implications for businesses with existing stocks of engineered stone products,” Wawn said.

There is also no guarantee that silica-free products will protect workers from lung damage.

A recent study from the universities of Tasmania and Adelaide found other materials in engineered stone also present a breathing risk, including metals such as cobalt and aluminium.

University of Tasmania study author Professor Graeme Zosky said new products being advertised were not safe, just “less hazardous” than silica products.

“There’s no safe level of inhaled particles. Silica is particularly potent,” he said.

Workplace ministers are due to hold another meeting in March 2024 to work out details for the transition period for existing engineered stone contracts.

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