Tile Files - August/September 2010

By Patti Faisan

Public demand shapes our built community in many ways, and the new, savvy consumer that is emerging from the recession may be the biggest ally of progressive change. Today, consumers seek out value-based products that appeal to their moral convictions and offer the aesthetic and performance attributes that express their individuality and enhance their lifestyle. Modern ceramics from quality manufacturers provide all the desired benefits in spades, and the new consumer will begin demanding their presence on preferred sustainable material lists.

Sustainable design is a work in progress. As new technologies and thought processes see the light of day, new regulations will continue to shape the field in the years to come. We are currently at a turning point in green architecture where increasing emphasis is placed on lifecycle analysis and occupant health and safety, providing the arena for quality ceramics to shine and find their rightful place in sustainable design. 

Beyond this emerging impetus toward selecting ceramic, there are inherent attributes tile provides that can be key considerations when planning sustainable architecture. To start, ceramic tile is completely flame resistant and will not burn or smoke at any temperature. It is non-conductive and will not produce a shock or attract static-charged dust. Ceramic tile adds no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to indoor air, either during installation or throughout the life and maintenance of a building. It is inert and will neither absorb odors nor harbor viruses, mold or bacteria. Lastly, ceramic tile is one of the only materials that can be rendered in color and is unaffected by UV light.

While these benefits are universal to all ceramics, there are two distinct sides of the industry: innovative, solution-based ceramic tile that is created using innovative technology to offer environmentally produced technical ceramics, and low-cost, commodity ceramics that are essentially “baked dirt,” which often sacrifice aesthetics, reliability and eco-responsibility in favor of a lower price. Unfortunately, many hard surface specifications during the pre-recession boom times only considered ceramics when the budget did not allow for natural stone or when the performance requirements did not favor hardwood. More frustrating to eco-minded architects who specified high-quality ceramic was the substitution on the job site of inferior commodity tile, simply to keep costs down and profits high. Consequently, superior tile with its many ecological benefits was rarely utilized or consciously promoted. 

The biggest shift in perception that is causing design professionals to take a closer look at technically advanced ceramic tile is a build-for-life philosophy. This is perhaps the most important concept North American sustainable architecture can embrace. When initial construction incorporates durable quality materials that require minimal maintenance with low replacement frequency, there is reduced landfill burden, a singular draw on virgin materials and minimal energy expenditure—human, transportation, manufacturing and subsequent recycling. The demand for greater longevity and fewer maintenance-intensive products is emerging as a client-driven phenomenon. This is supporting the architect’s ability to endorse durable, quality finishes and promoting performance-driven specifications that will have profoundly positive environmental impacts.

The environmental value of specific ceramic programs is not easily discernable. Paradoxically, industry-leading ceramics are produced in an eco-responsible fashion, primarily because it is a successful and profitable business model to follow. Since ceramics use material that is 100% natural (clay, sand, feldspar, minerals and water) all of the waste material can be re-introduced into the production stream prior to firing. This includes all production water, which is reclaimed in settlement ponds, greatly reducing the need for replacement water. Many factories funnel all of this reclaimed material into a few manufactured lines offering collections with up to 80% post-industrial recycled content. 

Another phase of production requires large cement mixer-like machines to grind down the raw material; in advanced production, each grinder has a turbine attached, which generates renewable energy used for heating, lighting and many preliminary production processes. Some factories are so effective at co-generating electricity that they harvest more than they require, allowing them to shift the power back to the local grid in exchange for tax incentives. 

An expensive advancement in the production process employed by quality manufacturers is atomization. An atomizer is essentially a super-heated cyclone of air that transforms the ceramic material into identical sized and shaped spheres, allowing for unparalleled consistency in the finished product—a procedure more commonly employed, at a reasonable cost, with the utilization of energy co-generation. Innovations like atomization are important because environmental stewardship from a manufacturer is only part of the equation for today’s consumer. For a product to offer a true build-for-life solution, it must satisfy two more equally important criteria: technical reliability and unparalleled aesthetics. To satisfy both of these factors, forward-looking manufacturers continue to integrate each new level of technology and finance ongoing innovative research in order to guarantee the functional and mechanical reliability of their products in both traditional and novel applications. 

Additionally, every phase of production from a conscientious manufacturer is scrutinized by sophisticated laser-calibrated sensors that ensure the finished product adheres to and in most cases surpasses International Standards Organization (ISO) guidelines for dimensional and technical viability. Datasheets are created and verified prior to any product leaving the factory.  

The final judgment of ceramic, and likely the foremost determining factor for any consumer, is the face of the ceramic tile. Aesthetics are a vital consideration relating to sustainable design since more finishing material ends in a landfill not from outliving its useful lifespan but from outliving its aesthetic desirability. Experienced ceramicists understand this principle, and so it is in the field of ceramic design and glaze technology that the greatest difference between finer products and commodity tile can be fully appreciated. 

Sophisticated glaze application techniques—micronized powder glazes used to create semi-glazed third generation porcelains, multiple roto-screen applications generating almost infinite variation, and digital ink-jet glaze applicators to embellish textured or profiled reliefs—have each revolutionized ceramics and offer several levels of resolution, customization and variation to captivate the most discerning consumer. 

Modern quality ceramics, like their classic handmade counterparts, have once again become pieces of art for professionals to realize their design goals and preserve their work for decades to come. When a lifelong material is selected, the only responsible choice is to demand the highest levels of aesthetics and technical integrity so that there will not be the desire nor the need to prematurely replace it. When the inherent benefits of ceramics are combined with high quality manufacturing, it provides a potent design tool for a sustainably built environment.

Cost will always be a prime consideration when selecting materials for any project, and ceramics have been stigmatized by a high up-front installed cost. But as lifecycle costing has become more widely accepted, the new savvy consumer is starting to realize the benefits of ceramic tile. The value durability can provide when combined with a quality-crafted material actually saves money over time. Studies have shown that ceramic tile is the lowest cost flooring material when amortized over a 40-year lifespan. Many competitive products will need to be refinished or replaced four to eight times during that period, costing more money and also more time, something that’s proving to be an even more valuable currency to today’s consumer.

The sustainable building field and, more importantly, the fundamentally changed consumer are weighing much more carefully the difference between quality and commodity. Ceramic tile has been utilized by builders for millennia thanks to the inherent benefits it can provide. With the new innovations and technology quality manufacturers present, consumers are forming a fresh new perspective on this ancient material. Ceramics have powerful place in sustainable. Baked dirt, on the other hand, will hopefully fade into extinction.

Copyright 2010 Floor Focus