turning stone into functional art

Have you ever looked at a piece of stone and thought, “Wow, that is a remarkable and unique looking stone?” Have you ever thought of doing something out of the ordinary with that stone, like bringing it home to use on your desk as a paperweight? Maybe you’ve even found a larger stone that was uniquely shaped or had attractive colors and lugged it home to use a doorstop or as a feature in your garden. Maybe you’ve passed a piece of stone on a hike and thought about the possibilities beyond its current location. Since the beginning of time, stones of all shapes and sizes have been used as functional tools and functional art.

turning stone into functional art

There is one unique use of stone that I stumbled upon as a mason contractor in the heart of the Adirondacks. Consider for a moment using one of Mother Nature’s exceptional stones to add the rejuvenating moisture from the outdoors into your home. I came up with this idea to use natural stone as a humidifier and to expand the heat source in our 1822 historic stone farmhouse during our frigid winter months. The idea originally came to me while I was fulfilling a contract through my masonry business.

I was tasked with building a brick base for a new public-school sign in the rural town of Keene, New York. The town of Keene came into existence in 1808 with the splitting of towns Jay and Elizabethtown. Keene is famous for its mountainous and rocky terrain challenging even the most talented climbers and hikers. The school was chartered in 1808 as well and is still thriving today with a wonderful combination of the past and the present. This is where my stone bowl story begins.

I started the Keene School contract by removing the weathered brick planter that certainly had a story to tell. I hand-dug approximately 5’ by 8’ by 5’ of the old river bed that formed the historic town. Each load of stone revealed historic river rock that simply screamed of potential beyond being dumped as clean fill never to be thought of or used again. We strategically loaded and unloaded the stone, trying not to damage what history had preserved well beneath the surface of the earth.

Throughout the whole process, I kept thinking about how amazing my future fireplace would be with each unique stone that hadn’t been revealed since before the turn of the century. As my imagination continued to place each stone, I closed up the historic hole with proper footers and drainage. I worked tirelessly to lay each brick in perfect formation to receive the new sign. I finished the base in time for the new sign, which continued the rich history of the historic Keene Valley Central School. Still, I thought of the harvested stone.

After completing the job right before the start of the school year, fall came as it usually does with a bitter reminder of our cooler temperatures. As we fired up the woodstove, we placed our weathered ceramic pot filled with water on top of the stove to keep as much moisture in the air as we could. I watched as the water quickly evaporated, and we constantly filled it back up only for it to disappear. It was then my stone treasure, and my need for the natural moisture of the outdoor air became one idea.

I wondered, is it possible to take one of the exquisite river rocks and turn it into a bowl that could naturally hold water atop my wood stove? I soon found myself exploring the possibilities beyond the natural stone. Filled with excitement and intrigue, I went outside and grabbed what I thought was the perfect stone and started the carving process.

First, I created a workbench that would steady the stone as I transformed it. I leveled one side of the stone using a 4 ½” grinder with a diamond blade to create a solid bottom. I then flipped the stone and started to create the mouth of a bowl. I ground and chiseled in a stone dust flurry until I reached the depth that I was looking for. The stone soon transformed into an exquisite bowl. At this point, I started to polish the inside of the newfound bowl meticulously. For the next five or so hours, I polished the mouth of the bowl, moving from a 50-grit diamond polishing pad to a 3,500 girt polishing pad.

As I polished in that last hour, the shimmer of the stone began to emerge. I finally stood back and admired the artistry. I had created a natural stone bowl that could function as a humidifier but also emanate heat for hours after. The ability to take a natural wonder from Mother Nature and turn it into a forever piece in a home is profound, to bring the outdoors in offers the homeowner a special relationship with nature.

After completing this first masterpiece, I sat back and thought about what it would take to continue this process to make a washbasin or maybe even a stone sink. I eagerly grabbed another stone from the pile and started to work on crafting my first washbasin. This bowl needed to be deeper and wider to accommodate its intended purpose. I took my time and worked the insides with my grinder making sure not to overcut into the sides, thus damaging the pristine interior. Once I got down to my desired depth and width on the inside, I surveyed what still needed to be done.

I then determined if it was smooth enough by feeling for any imperfections or grooves. This was a meticulous process that involved using polishing pads infused with diamond specks, which were used to gently break down the stone to reveal a natural smooth finish. Similar to the humidifier, I started with a 50-grit and worked my way to a 3,500 grit to achieve almost a glass finish. I soon found that I liked to spend more time polishing the washbasins and sinks. Most people would see the sheen and want to feel the inside of the carved-out stone in amazement of its transformation. These stones soon were transformed into functional and unique pieces of art that are certainly one of a kind.

To finish off these washbasins or sinks, it is essential to have a craftsman that understands stone and can drill an accurate hole for the drain, and the homeowners desired fixtures. Polishing natural stone takes time and sustained energy. It takes focus and a vision of what is possible. It takes perseverance and a willingness to start over if necessary.

It is certainly not a process that resembles manufactured products or a template that can easily be duplicated at the local hardware store. A stone selection is unique and personal. The homeowners need to be an intricate part of this process. Indeed, no other feature in a home is quite as exquisite and in touch with nature as a stone plucked from the earth and potentially from history and transformed into a functional piece of art.

turning stone into functional art

Technology and How it Will Shape Our Industry

MASONRY Magazine has given me the opportunity to talk about the things in which make me love the profession I have chosen even more. What makes this profession exciting? What technology items do we implement to make sure our Field Staff is well supported to outperform others in the industry? How do the Younger Generation and Technology work together? Stay tuned! I hope you will enjoy this series of articles and be able to implement some of the topics we discuss in your everyday operation.

As is the case with many folks, I’ve just returned from the 2020 World of Concrete / World of Masonry Convention. Another successful trade show featuring the best of the best when it comes to Concrete and Masonry. The Convention floor was amazing this year. The equipment will leave you speechless as you see the latest and greatest innovations being offered in the construction industry. The technology on display will definitely make you well aware. This isn’t your Grandad or even your Dad’s Industry any longer.

The “Younger Generation” was definitely on display in Las Vegas. From the Masonry Skills Contest, to the South of Forty get together, to all the Young folks taking on MCAA Committee and Officer positions, the industry is experiencing a definite movement. The Younger Generation and Technology will shape our industry of tomorrow. Having said all this reminds me of one thing. It’s time to get back in the office, climb on board, and continue to help make our company and our industry the best it can be while utilizing the latest in construction technology.

But how? How do you make an industry that’s been around for centuries better? Simple. You find, develop, and integrate new technologies into the day-to-day operations of your business. The word “Simple” is probably the most deceiving word out there. Integrating new anything, especially technology into a company built on the primitive foundations of yesterday, can present a challenge. In the coming months, I will walk to the edge of the pool and take a deep dive into the world of technology and how it will shape and build the companies of tomorrow. I have been told many times the Technology Train is moving, and we will either get on or be left behind.

Technology plays a pivotal role in the day-to-day operations of our company. Technology gives me the opportunity to do new things each day. I never honestly know what the next phone call, email, or text message will pertain to. Is there a question about a flashing detail or a YouTube video I can share on installation basics from the supplier? We need more samples, or we will accept digital samples. Will digital submittals be accepted, and if so, what method will we be required to use for submission? My iPad isn’t connecting. Why does my iPhone not sync with my iPad? Procore and other Project Management Systems, how do they work? Digital Forms, how do I save and send them correctly? Our Field Guys are unable to sign my iPad.

We lost the samples you sent, did you send them and do you have digital documentation of the transaction? The GC wants me to perform extra work, should I document it digitally with time-stamped pictures? These are all just samples of what I may face head-on during a normal day, aside from the standard project management headaches. As with any profession, some days are way easier than others! I take each call the same way a quarterback takes the play call. The last play is over. Whether we advanced the first down, scored a touchdown, or I was sacked (which happens), I have to take the next call with a clean slate.

turning stone into functional art

This profession has given me the opportunity to see and be in many places.

Obviously, we have ups and downs, but this profession makes me proud. Stay tuned! I hope you will enjoy this series of articles and be able to implement some of the topics we discuss in your everyday operation.

Brandon Hartsell is a Project Manager with Gates Construction Company, Inc. (Mooresville, NC). He is Co-Chairman of the MCAA South 40 Committee; Central Region Vice President of the North Carolina Masonry Contractors Association; President of the Local NCMCA Metrolina Chapter. Brandon lives in the Charlotte Area. He is the Third-Generation in his Family to be involved in the Masonry Industry. He can be reached at brandon.hartsell@gatesconstco.com or 704-310-1674.

The New Sustainability: Why Everything We Do Matters

When the green building movement first came into the limelight decades ago, the focus for materials was primarily on recycled content and renewable resources. But today the sustainability of products has evolved based on changes in green building programs and also based on the quality of information and documentation now available. Project teams are now looking at the sustainability of the entire process of how a product gets to the market: how the raw materials are extracted, what chemicals are used in production and manufacturing, and ultimately how it’s brought to the market as well as end of life.

To learn more about the current picture of sustainable building and how natural stone fits in, we turned to green building icon Jason F. McLennan for his perspective. McLennan, an architect and founder of the International Living Future Institute, is considered one of the most influential figures in the architecture and green building movement today. In 2006, he created the Living Building Challenge (LBC), a building performance standard of the International Living Future Institute.

According to the Institute, the LBC is a philosophy, advocacy tool and certification program promoting the most advanced measurement of sustainability in the built environment. Different from other certification programs, the LBC encourages not just that buildings do less harm to the environment, but that they are designed to be regenerative and contribute positively to the environment.

Cari May: Thinking back to when you first introduced the Living Building Challenge 14 years ago, it was a pretty radical concept at the time – that a building can be self-restorative. What was it like in those early days when you first introduced the LBC?

Jason F. McLennan: We had all types of reactions – some from the naysayers who said the LBC was too hard. A lot of people felt like the industry couldn’t get there and that product manufacturers wouldn’t be willing to do what was needed. But we also had a lot of positive feedback from people who realized we needed to travel this path. People didn’t exactly know how we would get there, but they knew it was important and that it was the right thing to do.

turning stone into functional art

C.M.: How do you define where we are right now in the evolution of sustainability?

J.F.M.: On the one hand, we’ve achieved an incredible amount and proved that you can build living buildings and have living products. The theory has moved into the reality moment and that’s fantastic. Overall, there’s been a general lifting, an elevating of sustainability in the industry. Still, the vast majority of buildings are not anywhere close to where we need them to be. Climate change is showing that we’re failing to meet the tasks at hand. But we’re making changes and continuing the path and need to raise our game even further.

C.M.: It often seems within building project teams, the push for a sustainable design comes from the designers. But everyone has a seat at the table of creating a sustainable built environment, everyone has a role in the process. What’s your take on the responsibilities of each role?

J.F.M: The early adopter community of the green building movement has been the designer community. That’s their nature — to imagine something that doesn’t exist. So, it’s not a surprise that they got on board early with this issue. But to your point, to be successful, it requires that everyone in the value chain is on board or you’ll run into hurdles and roadblocks.

We need engineers, manufacturers, contractors and installers – everyone in the supply chain on board. True sustainability requires a transformation of the entire supply chain. Not everyone sees the benefit, however. If it seems abstract and different and therefore challenging, you’ll meet resistance.

The more people realize that everything is connected, the more buy-in we’ll get. When everyone understands that their families’ health and well-being is all linked to the decisions they make, they will say, “I do need to pay attention and do my part no matter how small or large it may be to make a difference in my community, neighborhood and world.”

A stone is not just a piece of stone. Certified stone quarries such as Coldspring’s Mesabi Black quarry in Babbitt, MN have differentiated themselves by producing third-party verified, sustainably produced stone.
C.M.: Since we’re speaking to masonry contractors, what’s the masonry contractor’s role and why should they care about sustainability?

turning stone into functional art

J.F.M.: Contractors need to understand that not everything is created equally. A brick is not just a piece of brick. A stone is not just a piece of stone. It matters how the stone is extracted. This is why I partnered with Coldspring on various projects, because of the company’s commitment to sustainably producing natural stone. A stone quarrier can have a little impact or a lot of impact when they extract. The finished product may look the same, but the ugly truth is what’s behind it.

It’s not just a company’s responsibility, it’s individuals, too. What are you supporting with your dollars? What are the values you’re upholding? Every time we buy something, we’re supporting a set of values – whether we realize it or not.

Each of us can think about how we do our job. Do we do our job to create lasting solutions? How do we clean up? How much waste is created, or not? Are we producing solutions that will stand the test of time? Or will they be torn out in the short-term and therefore create even more waste?

This idea of permanence is the thing that masons tend to understand better than any other trade. Masons have a long history and tradition of building things that stand the test of time. They share that lineage that they have an opportunity to say that their work matters. It’s work that’s going to last. And it needs to be the best version possible.

To achieve certification, companies must achieve points in numerous areas of stone production, including water usage and recycling.

C.M.: Where do you see the sustainability movement going?

J.F.M.: It’s going to have to get shaken up even more. Right now, it seems there’s a little bit less interest in building certifications than there used to be. There’s a lot of interest in measured performance and people are realizing we aren’t going fast enough. There is also a lot of interest in carbon and climate change. So, I’m not sure entirely, but we’re going to definitely be seeing changes.

C.M.: Natural stone doesn’t appear to be an obvious choice in the minds of architects when thinking about sustainable building materials, but we know it should be. So, where’s the miss? Why do you think there’s a misperception?

J.F.M.: The misperception is by some, but not all. Sometimes it gets tangled up with cost issues. There are cheaper ways to do things than masonry. But those ways tend to be less durable and sustainable in the long-term. I think people often lump quarries and mines in the same bucket – but their processes are completely different. A stone quarry can run from fairly benign to moderately impactful, whereas mining for minerals is high impact.

The other part that I would say, is that there are often multiple parts of construction that need to be considered. Nowadays when you’re building a wall, it’s a concrete wall with metal ties and stone on the outside. It’s the assembly that’s getting the criticism, and stone – which is better from a sustainability perspective – is part of an assembly where the other products may not be. It does benefit the stone industry to work with the entire supply chain on how they’re producing their products.

C.M.: The stone industry is making a huge push to get more domestic and international quarries certified to its sustainability certification – ANSI/NSC 373, for the Sustainable Production of Natural Stone. What else needs to be done?

J.F.M.: The stone certification and other product certifications are being more sought after as specifiers are wanting to understand which company is the best company to specify from. Companies need to understand which stone quarries and fabrication facilities are certified to the industry standard. And the stone industry needs to make sure its standards are rigorous. The standards for sustainable stone need to get harder over time.

The natural stone industry’s certification standard, ANSI/NSC 373, determines the degree to which natural dimension stone is extracted and processed sustainably.

turning stone into functional art


As more stone companies become certified, the responsibility lies in the hands of not just the architect or owner to promote sustainable products for the project. Everyone on the project team – contractors, installers and all other parties — are urged to pay attention and make sure the best products remain on the project. As Jason mentioned, stone is not just stone, just like no other product is just the product you hold in your hand. The story behind that product is the truth the market is looking to understand today. When we present the market with the option of third-party verified stone, it ensures that the stone meets the standards for sustainability and is an environmentally preferable material. And while product manufacturers can provide all the transparency documentation being sought after right now, it’s ultimately everyone’s responsibility to remain engaged and make good choices about the best products for the built world around us.

About Coldspring

Since 1898, Coldspring has served the architectural, memorial, residential and industrial markets with all types of natural stone, bronze, and industrial and diamond-tooling products. With headquarters, a primary manufacturing facility and bronze foundry in Cold Spring, Minn., the company has more than 700 employees at operations across the country, including 30 quarries and multiple fabrication facilities. In 2016, the company’s headquarters, primary manufacturing operations and three Minnesota-based quarries received ANSI/NSC 373 Sustainable Production of Natural Dimension Stone certification. In 2018 their South Dakota based quarry achieved certification as well. Coldspring’s in-house services and support such as drafting, design, BIM, and project and construction management contribute to creating unique customer solutions. To learn more about Coldspring, visit www.coldspringusa.com.

Source: masonrymagazine

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