Focus on: Terrazzo - June 2015
By Jessica Chevalier
Terrazzo is poured flooring comprised of chips of marble, recycled glass or virtually any other aggregate embedded in cement or epoxy binder. Terrazzo differs from other flooring materials in that it is not a floorcovering; instead, once poured, it becomes a part of the building’s architecture.
Terrazzo offers amazing benefits with regard to two specific areas: sustainability and design flexibility. First and foremost, with proper care—and the regimen is minimal—terrazzo will last the life of the building within which it is installed. In fact, the Pioneer Courthouse in Portland, Oregon has terrazzo floors that, this year, are marking 110 years of servicing—talk about sustainable flooring.
What’s more, with regard to design, terrazzo offers stunning flexibility in color, patterning and customizability. In fact, experts in the field say that designs are limited only by the imagination of the specifier.
Terrazzo is most frequently used in high traffic spaces that will serve in their capacity long term, such as hospitals, airports, schools, convention centers and other civic facilities, as well as hospitality, corporate and retail spaces.
According to Paul Singh, vice president and general manager of North American Terrazzo, based in Seattle, Washington, “The market [for terrazzo flooring] is large and growing. There is even an increasing interest in residential [use].”
LEARNING THE TRADE
The community of terrazzo contractors is relatively small, and many terrazzo companies are second- and third-generation in the business. In addition, there is relatively little competitive overlap geographically.
American Terrazzo, based in Garland, Texas, is one of these family businesses. The company was started in 1931 by Mattia Flabiano, and today it is run by his grandchildren. One of those grandchildren is Brent Flabiano, who estimates that 40% to 50% of the terrazzo businesses in the U.S. today are family owned, though “not as many as 20 years ago,” he notes.
Talk to a few of these second- and third-generation businessmen, and it becomes clear that they view themselves more as artisans than installers. Though some unions do offer terrazzo training, the trade is typically learned through apprenticeship, and, according to Singh, “Becoming a skilled terrazzo craftsman takes many years of on-the-job training.”
That is the path that Flabiano took. “I started in high school working summers, then weekends and holidays through college,” he says. “As I was finishing up college, I found that I liked the managerial part of the terrazzo business, promotion and sales and such. I like working with the architects and the general contractors, so that’s the direction I followed, like my dad.”
Another major difference from the floorcovering industry: according to Flabiano, all terrazzo installers are employees, not contractors.
While other materials may beat terrazzo in total recycled or green content, the consideration of the material’s lifecycle alone puts it at the top of the sustainable list.
For example, while a cradle-to-cradle carpet may check all the right boxes with regard to where it came from and where it will end up, the fact remains that that carpet will need to be replaced every decade or so, and the embodied energy inherent in that process, while it may be low, is simply much more than results from a floor that is poured once and thereafter will last for the duration of a building’s life.
And on the hard surface side, even if the lifecycle of a vinyl floor is stretched to two decades, that floor will still be replaced five times over the life of a 100-year-old building, while a terrazzo floor will require only soap and water cleaning or sweeping and an occasional strip and refinish.
Terrazzo does have a steep up-front price tag, and costs vary greatly based on a whole host of factors, including location, job size, the underlayment system selected, binder type, number of colors and aggregate used, and intricacy of the design. In Flabiano’s region, a 1,000-square-foot one-color epoxy floor starts at $12 to $14 per square foot. However, in areas of the country where labor costs run higher, such as Singh’s region, an entry-level terrazzo floor starts at around $25 per square foot.
There are two types of binders used in terrazzo floors—cement and epoxy—and each has its advantages. Cement terrazzo is typically more affordable than epoxy, and the system is breathable, so if there are concerns about moisture, cement is the appropriate choice. However, cement terrazzo requires a longer curing time than epoxy, and, though the material is available in a wide range of earth tones, it is not available in bright colors. An installed epoxy terrazzo floor is 1/4” to 3/8” thick, while cement terrazzo can range from a 1/2” to a 2” total sand cushion system.
Epoxy terrazzo is available in nearly any color. Flabiano explains that a customer can bring a paint chip in from, say, Sherwin Williams, and he can send that chip—or just the name or code in some cases—off to his epoxy terrazzo manufacturer, who will then match the exact color.
There are five basic steps in pouring a terrazzo floor: preparation, pouring, curing, grinding and sealing. Curing time depends greatly on the climate in which the floor is installed. However, given the right conditions, a contractor may be able to pour epoxy terrazzo and grind it the next day. With cement terrazzo, five days curing time is standard practice. However, during those days, other finishing trades can work atop the material. “You don’t want to bring anything heavy onto it,” Flabiano explains, “but foot traffic is fine. Someone could even be up on a ladder working on the ceiling.”
Into either binder, various aggregates can be added to introduce color, visual interest or sparkle. These include, but are not limited to, natural stone, mother of pearl, mirror, metal, plastic and glass, including crushed windshield glass or other types of recycled glass. Flabiano notes that the variety of aggregate options is expansive, adding, “With marble chips, different quarries in the U.S. produce different colors, plus you can import Italian chips, Turkish, Armenian, Chinese, Mexican.”
Because of its customizability, terrazzo is a common choice for universities, where schools have the option not only to feature their colors but also to create an actual replica of their logo, mascot or other elements of school pride into the flooring design—and all of that in a material, which, properly maintained, will last for the life of the building.
Says Singh, ”The obvious advantage of a terrazzo floor is its longevity. It essentially will last as long as the building it is installed in, and it also offers incredible design and color flexibility, which is attractive to architects and designers who specify the products. The main drawback is the initial cost, but if you [look at] cost over its useful life, it compares very favorably to other finishes.”
To repair a cracked or chipped terrazzo floor, the binder is matched through a sample process, and then the area is chipped around the edges to remove the debris. After that, the terrazzo material will be troweled in slightly higher than the existing floor and blended in over the edge. According to Singh, the repair then is generally ground, grouted, polished and sealed to the next divider strip to make the surrounding area more uniform.
Copyright 2015 Floor Focus