Each building material comes with a package of comforts and complaints, although the modern flooring options have an edge as smart marketing does the trick.
Theoretically speaking, every construction material discovered has a role and place in the construction industry, otherwise it would not have been introduced at all. Yet, analytically speaking, each material would come with a package of comforts and complaints, which together should decide its appropriateness for a given context and accordingly its usage. Unfortunately, such an analytical method does not get applied in all cases and nowadays we can notice advertising and marketing becoming the yardstick in majority of material selection.
Once again, marketing too has its role and place; otherwise one would not know the availability of materials at all. So, the problem does not lie with the idea of marketing, but with the materials which the market promotes. How often have we seen a red oxide floor, Athangudi tiles or Bethamcherla marble being advertised? Are there any executives for Kota floors or web sites for tandoor stones? Marble and granite have witnessed some aggressive marketing, primarily to win over the increased competition that picked up during the last decade, rather than to promote the material. If so, what is the focus of marketing, especially in the flooring business?
The two materials that have become commonly known thanks to advertising and marketing are ceramic tiles and vitrified flooring, elevating the unknowns to virtual market leaders. The slow supply of local materials, unpredictable quality thereof, increased pace of construction in urban areas, skilled human resource required to work with natural materials and many such other factors directly or indirectly promoted the option for manufactured materials. This promotion is also enabled by a chain of players – raw material suppliers, manufacturers, carrying & forwarding agents, wholesalers, transporters, advertising agencies, retailers – wherein each player has to financially benefit. Naturally, everyone strives to ensure that the material gets accepted and popularised.
To that end, ceramic and vitrified tiles come with many attractive features, not possible in natural materials. Finished at high temperature kilns, they have a level surface and good glaze. The top layer is actually a high density skin, to take wear and tear for long time. Enabled by latest research and development, these tiles are becoming thinner by the day and are available as thin as 4 mm nowadays. Though dimensional variations happen to thinner tiles, the top brand materials are fairly perfect in their sizes. Easy to clean, neat to look at and sophisticated in their finish, these modern manufactured materials rule a large market share of flooring today.
Most of these characteristics have been enabled by industrial manufacturing. While manufacturing heralded the industrial revolution and created the idea of “development”, many questions have been raised nowadays about the unchecked growth in manufacturing and consumption of Earth’s resources.
Debates on sustainability are concerned about such apparently ‘better’ options, wondering if they are better for the Earth also. Floor tiles could be a good example to test this concern, before we blindly buy them.
There are some important dos and don’ts for this flooring that earns an extra sheen with every passing year
Everyone knows how to construct, for it is a visible and seemingly simple action, but very few know it thoroughly. There could be many masons who know the basic methods of doing the red oxide floor on the first day, but lack the knowledge of following it up with the right process until we get the best of floors.
Follow these importantly:
The day after doing the floor, cure the floor by sprinkling water every 2 to 3 hours for a whole day, to avoid a dry floor. The second day, a thin sheet of water should be stocked up to check if white patches appear on the floor. If they do, remove the water, rub them off with a cloth and again refill water, until no white patches are visible.
Once the floor is laid, no one should walk on it for a minimum of four days, except for watering and waxing. Let the floor dry for a few days, clean it by wet and dry mopping and apply 400 grade sand paper in case smoothening and levelling is required. Red colour wax should now be applied directly on the surface with a soft cloth.
As the wax dries, rub the surface with rice husk or coconut pith in circular fashion until the wax disappears. Keep the room closed for three days so that the floor absorbs the wax fully.
The finer points
The water should be clean or treated, and definitely not the mineral-rich borewell water.
White cement and high grade grey cements tend to set fast, hence are not advisable. Sand should not have silt deposits on its surface, hence clean it before mixing.
The quality of red oxide is important to ensure that wear and tear across the years does not expose the concrete beneath.
For 1 part oxide, up to 3 parts grey cement gives dark red colour, while increasing cement quantity leads to light red shades.
White cement too can be used to get different shades, but with utmost care.
The vital mix
Cement and oxide should be first mixed in dry form, slowly adding water to get a consistent slurry-like mix. Any lump formation in the mix will show up in the flooring. Trowelling to get an even surface is very important. While the minor undulations vanish during the hand polish, the major ones may remain. Among the minor problems of red oxide floors, but persistent one is surface cracks. To contain these crack lines, masons run a thread line in a grid fashion or nowadays, glass strips too have been attempted.
Oxide floors need to be done in one continuous stretch without break, often taking the whole day and night depending upon the area to be covered. Masons get to rest only after the top layer is finished and wax polish rubbed to dryness.
Most materials deteriorate with age, but red oxide floor is an exception. The longer it is used, the more it shines!
Masons are slowly forgetting the ‘how’ of laying a red oxide floor as no code of practice is being followed.
How we cook decides what food we get; our singing leads to the song we hear; irregular training will not produce champions of sports. The lesson from all these examples is simple — the process has much to do with the final product we get.
Strangely, the construction industry is slowly forgetting or knowingly ignoring this lesson. Most complaints about bad quality work could simply be a result of not following the prescribed procedure and may not be related to men, money or material.
Red oxide floor is among the items of construction ill fated due to the above cause of not following a code of practice. Though the recent times has seen a revival of this technology, the present generation is slowly forgetting the “how” of red oxide. Every other mason and builder has executed it in their own way, often leading to not so good finish and slowly the flooring technology itself has got a bad name today.
Among the present contractors, Vijaya Shankar has gained considerable experience in red oxide floor work.
He follows the traditional method, slightly improvised to avoid the known pit-falls. First, the base layer, about 2 inches thick, needs to be laid with 1 part cement, 3 part sand, and 6 part stone aggregate of 12 mm thickness.
Plain glass cut to 2 inch width should be embedded within this concrete layer, at average 5 ft. distance or to subdivide the floor area equally.
The top of these glass pieces should be at perfect level verified by tube levels and the top cut edge of glass needs to be neatly done.
These glass divisions ensure the floor is one level, an important criteria, and stop the minor shrinkage cracks from spreading out, another equally important criteria.
A fine mix of 1 part cement and 4 parts of clean sand should be spread on the concrete screed layer with a trowel, popularly called karni , to fill the small gaps.
Upon this consolidated layer, a thin slurry of red oxide powder and cement mix should be placed and pressed gently to densify the surface. Some water may rise to the surface during this stage. If this application is well done, the final finished surface will gain good red colour without white patches.
Once the thinner slurry settles within the base layer, thicker slurry of 1 part of red oxide, and 3 or 4 parts of grey cement would be applied with a gurmal , the square trowel with top handle. The mason would walk backwards applying the mix, while the surface would slowly get dried.
After waiting for up to one hour, following the early setting, the surface is finished with repeated swinging movement of the trowel ensuring no trowel marks show up.
This trowel application should go on continuously till the floor gets fully dry, until no water condenses on top or seeps up. The foregone description amply proves that red oxide floor is really a hand-made product!
All that it demands is a daily mop with wet cloth. Over time, it looks increasingly better too.
If we search for the flooring option that scores well on all fronts such as embodied energy, eco friendly, economy and ease of maintenance, our search may as well end with red oxide flooring. If we survey across South India to find what floor type the majority have grown up with, the answer could as well be red oxide again. Incidentally, this wonder option also requires the least of manufacturing, generates no wastage, lasts very long, demands minimal transportation of raw materials and channelises money to the local people. It will be great to find out who discovered or invented this simple technology of red oxide floor!
Any mention of red oxide floor elicits reactions like ‘Oh, no one does it nowadays’ or we do not get skilled masons. While these are true, the last decade has seen a revival of the technology with Kerala, Bangalore, Auroville and such places producing high quality floors.
The media has widely disseminated the process, to empower those who are interested. There still are people looking down upon this option, many government norms do not accept it and surprisingly in Bangalore a red oxide floor house gets lesser tax, indirectly suggesting it as a lower quality house.
When mosaic, ceramic and such factory made products dominated the construction industry, red oxide got relegated to the back seat. However, none of these attitudes can refute the time tested performance of the hand-made oxide floor.
The term red oxide technically refers to the fine powdered form of iron oxide, a non-flammable inorganic compound found in nature as a mineral, which emits no hazardous emissions. The material can also be produced in bulk by laboratory controlled factory processes. In a way, we owe the material to the science of chemistry.
Avoid humid areas
While red is the most popular colour, black, blue, pink, yellow and green colours are also in common use. The material tends to absorb moisture, hence should be stored safely away from humid areas. These oxides are used not only for flooring, but also for anti-rust applications, paints, iron industry, pigmenting, polishing and such others, hence have a wider validity.
The beauty of oxide floor is the seamless floor without any joints and the look of tiles or slabs. They are best suited to indoors, for the cycle of rain and sunshine of the outdoors tend to result in surface cracks.
Using water with high mineral content, like borewell water, is not advisable; hence before deciding upon red oxide floor, it is safer to ensure clean well water or treated water is available at the construction site. The major care in a household context would be not to spill cleaning acids on it and once occupied, to rub off any spilled over lemon juice, wine, curds or such food items with sour qualities, which tend to form stain marks.
All that the oxide floor demands is a daily mop with wet cloth. Over time, the floor looks increasingly better!