Like a cream carpet or a white sofa, a pale stone floor might seem the preserve of the insanely rich. Covetably gorgeous, yes, but hopelessly impractical: one spilled glass of red wine means a considerable investment irretrievably spoiled. The latest techniques for preserving and sealing stone, however, mean that even porous, ivory-hued limestones can be rendered as tough as granite.
Every piece of stone is unique, says Jo O' Grady, who founded Stone Age, a specialist stone company, in 1988. "At the time, everybody was mad for terracotta," he recalls. "I didn't want stone that looked Mediterranean; I wanted something that would look classic in a country home or a London townhouse." One of Stone Age's first major projects was the landmark Joseph store in Sloane Street, designed by architect Eva Jiricna. "That put us on the map," says O'Grady. "Now we have about 80 different stones; mostly limestones, sandstones, basalts and slates. We stick with the classic look; muted colours, off-whites, yellows, browns."
There are four main areas where domestic clients go for stone, says O' Grady. "Downstairs, it's the hallway and the kitchen; stone is a great material for the kitchen. In the conservatory, stone is very practical; it doesn't matter if it gets wet and muddy, and it retains heat. We also do a lot of bathrooms, walk-in showers and wet rooms." And, he adds, stone swimming pools are catching on too.
Stone can be laid on most types of sub-floor. In a new build, the sub-floor is likely to be screeded concrete; and a new-build project is also an excellent opportunity to install underfloor heating, which works particularly well with stone. If the stone flooring is being laid onto floorboards, it needs a layer of plywood or membrane underneath.
O'Grady warns that there is massive variation in porosity, hardness and colour, even in stones that are of the same family. "If you have a piece of limestone, all the name tells you is that it is predominantly calciumcarbonate. Some limestones are almost marble, some are more like chalk. The new platforms at Paddington Station are limestone," he points out. "You wouldn't think it would be strong enough to cope with the traffic of thousands of people a day, and the dirt and the fumes - but it is."
What makes all the difference, he says, is picking a good quality stone in the first place - and then treating it properly. Laying stone is a skilled job. "The difference between a good fixer and a bad fixer is massive," says O'Grady. The keys, he says, are getting the stones flat, with regular gaps between them, and, most importantly of all, giving them an efficient anti-stain treatment. "Even the hardest types of stone are slightly porous, and will mark if left untreated," he explains. "We treat stone with silicon impregnators. They shut down the micropores of the stone, which prevents stains but allows the stone to breathe."
Shazia Sheikh is architectural sales manager at Stonell, another stone specialist. She says that stone is becoming increasingly popular in both period and modern settings. "A few years ago, the perception was that stone was for the kitchen. Now it's everywhere. We have just been working on a development of penthouse flats with stone floors right through, even in the bedrooms." Carrying stone through from inside to out is also on the up, she adds. "In a big Victorian house with French doors, you can take the stone floor outside. It looks spectacular." Stone's individuality, she says, is one of its key selling points. "And every stone floor is different; some have fossils in, and you can see the ammonites and trilobites in amazing detail."
Price-wise, stone compares with a good-quality wooden floor. Both Stonell and Stone Age's most popular ranges are in the £40-£50 per square metre bracket, though this can go up to £100 for antique finishes that require a lot of extra labour.
Once your floor is down, says O' Grady, it requires very little maintenance. "You wash it with stone soap, never detergent," he says. Stonell recommend re-treating their floors every couple of years. "You don't have to strip anything off; you simply clean and add the products again," says Sheikh. She also recommends seeing a large sample of your proposed stone, ideally laid as a full-sized floor, before committing to a purchase. "You do have to see it; it's not a good idea to choose it off the Internet and buy sight unseen. A little sample or a picture on a website won't give you the complete look. And you need to be sure, because when a stone floor is down, it's down for good."