Monthly Archives: June 2012

Hand-made specials

Getting a good joint while laying Athangudi tiles is a challenge since the edges are irregular.

In the design field, it is common to see the original idea leading to accurate duplicates, copied applications, look alike products and only occasionally, an inspired development. For readers familiar with both red oxide and Athangudi, the natural query would be if Athangudi is a cheaper version of red oxide floor. While they both share red colour and cement base, everything else about each of them is different – from manufacturing to laying.

Fixing Athangudi tiles needs special attention, mostly done by the masons who come from Athangudi itself, with proper material knowledge. While the tile itself is thick at three-fourth inch, the mortar base may go up to 2 inches depending upon location, so prior experience in Athangudi tile laying comes in handy. Getting a good joint is a challenge here since the edges are rather irregular due to the hand moulding process. Polishing the tiles with coconut oil is among the critical stages of achieving a good floor. Post polish, the floor has to be left for minimum five days with no one walking upon it. Increased oil absorption improves tile quality.

This merger of producer, supplier and layer ensures we have a single point of contact for redresses, if any. The main contractor has to calculate floor finish thickness in advance, which means the owners need to decide upon Athangudi in advance. Mix and match of different floor materials like marble or ceramic with Athangudi within one floor is difficult, for most floor options are thinner than Athangudi, besides having different practices for polish.

The top surface being hand-poured glaze, it is susceptible to minor scratch marks. When seen against sunlight or in wet condition, they are visible, though mostly go unnoticed. Even materials like marble get scratches, but we cannot see them. Anyway, it is safer not to pull heavy and sharp-edged furniture on the floor. These tiles should be fixed once all the household civil tasks and interior execution is over. Often, people work on hardware, interior plywood, toilet plumbing and such others after laying the floor, a practice that has to be avoided to get good Athangudi surfaces.

Athangudi tiles are not made everywhere, hence widespread availability is an issue. It is a simple composition of cement, sand, stone aggregate, ferrous oxides and top surface patterned with glazing, hence can be produced anywhere. Being readymade like mosaic, brought to site for direct laying, Athangudi tiles are easy to install, durable for decades, and financially affordable, hence generally a good choice. These tiles are even today a good bridge between the old and new. If a building with modern design needs a touch of traditional flooring, there could be nothing better than Athangudi tiles.

Two factors mark Athangudi apart from the rest – here more money goes to people and not to machines and they are more green than many other options.

For a historic ambience

The surface glaze appears exceptional for a tile made without machines or burning in the kilns. Such a specialty of the Chettinad region can be conferred with the GI tag.

It is said that when we lose a part of our past, either we are totally ignorant about it, virtually letting it die, or we develop a strong longing for it, hoping to revive it. Athangudi tiles, fortunately, come under the second category. Though the small village of Athangudi was a centre of flourishing home industry once, the introduction of mass-produced tiles led to its decline in the recent past.

However, the time-tested qualities of Athangudi tiles continued and now they are again getting revived. One new area where they are gaining popularity is in restoration of heritage buildings and adaptive reuse of period-style architecture, for no other tile creates historic ambience like Athangudi tiles. During recent years there have been varied efforts to support these tiles, from individuals and NGOs alike, including many website links. The readers’ response and queries to the essay of last week also goes to prove it.

Many patterns

Athangudi produces only indoor floor tiles that can be laid in any room, except toilets. While they can be used in kitchens, better alternatives prevail. The surface glaze appears exceptional for a tile made without machines or burning in the kilns. They come in a variety of patterns, plain finish and newer customised designs introduced to meet modern demands. However, the decorative floral patterns get partly covered up by furniture, leaving only the parts of pattern visible. In such cases plain floor may be appropriate and economical too.

Boarder tiles are a common traditional feature which fit well in rectangular rooms bound by four walls, but if spaces flow into each other as it happens in modern open plan houses, locating the boarders becomes an issue and may have to be discarded with. Skirting tiles are rather thick; hence need to recess them partly into the wall, to reduce the tile projection.

Athangudi floor tiles are slow in production and application, rather a misfit in the fast lifestyle of today. Soon after production, they need extended water curing for over 20 days to gain the strength, so hurrying up with the suppliers may lead to compromises in quality. Being pre-finished on glass, no further polish, repair or alteration is possible at site; hence they need careful handling.

Athangudi tiles are such a specialty of the Chettinad region, they can as well be conferred with GI — the Geographical Indication for original place of production. While small quantities get produced elsewhere, the quality of glaze and type of sand have ensured the superiority of the original. Being hand made, production is a slow process, so at present only a very few building owners are able to get them. Interestingly, these tiles cannot be simply stored for long – the glazed surface does not perform as well as it would if under use. A market scenario where demand and supply meet each other is the ideal for Athangudi tiles.

Legacy of Athangudi tiles

They are a rare blend of the east and the west and have interesting modes of production that speak for their durability.

Durability has always been among the major criteria in the design and build world. While it was earlier regarded as a hallmark of quality, today it is also a mark of sustainable design, for longer the life of the initial investment of efforts, energy and resources, the more eco-friendly is the material. This is one area where Athangudi floor tiles score over the others.

Athangudi sounds more like a place name than an option for floor tiles, but today the product has made both the place and tiles famous. They are made mainly in Athangudi village of the Chettinadu region in Tamil Nadu. The traditional mode of production continues till date, maintaining a legacy and grandeur. Athangudi tiles are basically cement tiles like mosaic, but unlike the machine pressed and produced mosaics, they are handmade over glass surfaces.

During the early days of their production, they were patronised more by the rich, being a costlier option and newer technology in those days. However, they also deserve an additional honour for being a part of the cultural heritage of the Chettiar community.

The affluent Chettiar community brought home ideas and artefacts from their trade travels, resulting in European and Asian items finding their way to Chettinadu. Until then South Indian floors were clay or stone based and plain in finish. It can be hypothecated that the patterns of carpets, easy to handle 10”x10” sizes of European tiles and glazed surface finishes of Chinese ware might have influenced the local masons to produce the Athangudi tiles. If so, they are also a rare blend of the east and the west.

To appreciate Athangudi tiles, it is important to understand their modes of production as well.

The mix of cement and coloured oxide in a liquid slurry state is individually poured into patterned moulds upon a glass piece. A thin layer of local sand is laid; the tile is then filled to three-fourth inch thickness with cement, sand and small stone aggregates or jelly to get the tile.

It is cured in water for a minimum of 21 days and readied for laying. Imagine, all this is done to every tile individually, building up an amazing handicraft industry. While the red colour tiles look like red oxide flooring, varied geometrical and floral patterns are also available. The traditional patterns are still being continued with, hence Athangudi tiles are among the few choices available today to create an ethnic ambience. However, unlike red oxide, these tiles come with greater smoothness and shine. In designs, finish, quality and durability, Athangudi can compete with any of modern manufactured flooring materials, of course with its own advantages and disadvantages. Used in the right place and context, Athangudi tiles are among the sustainable solutions ahead of us.

Designs and the carbon trail

One area of construction where past practices have changed drastically is floor finish. 

Architecture is an expression of its time and the space where it gets built, as such subtle shifts in our design approach are both welcome and inevitable. Where technology impacts, quality improves or cost reduction is enabled, we notice greater degree of change. Till recently, such emerging ideas were never validated with energy consumption as a criterion, but now our urban lifestyle makes it imperative to check the carbon footprint of our every action. Though the apprehension about depleting world resources has been around for many decades now, consumption has not reduced, but only increased. Hence, the greater urgency to be critical about our choices.

One area where the practices of the past have changed drastically is floor finish. For the older generations, the floors where they played and grew up have virtually disappeared. On site, hand-finished floors are being replaced by manufactured tiles; local options are getting wiped out by outstation products and pre-finished floors are gaining an edge over site finishing. With the new materials being factory produced, it is judicious to evaluate them for their varied impacts.

The unfortunate part of the story is that flooring materials have never been a major part of the sustainability discourse. It is not a challenge for the structural engineers, while most architects leave this decision to the potential building users, leaving a major single item of work to the discretion of the builders and owners. Naturally, the market dominates, where profits matter the most, diluting all professional concerns. Shortage of skilled labour reduced red oxide finish, ready-made mosaic tiles eliminated on-site terrazzo, ceramic tile emerged as a single solution to all flooring needs and innovative materials like vitrified tiles are affecting the future of ceramic tiles.

The shift from hand-finished floor to factory-finished floor has also been a shift from a low carbon solution to a high embodied energy solution. The argument in favour of this shift cites the time and labour intensiveness of traditional methods like red oxide, problems associated with chips coming off in a mosaic tile, ceramic being prone to surface cracking, and so finally, vitrified tiles as the best in the line-up, being a product of extended research and development

Efficient staircases

By having a proper scale, proportion, careful location and lighting, any staircase can become a green design statement by itself.

Design discussions are not singular streams that can restrict themselves to one single theme. As we go along analysing one aspect, the other related issues emerge, demanding equal attention of analysis. As such it’s natural that discussing simpler and judicious stairs has lead to e-mail queries about efficiency involved in the staircase itself.

Such larger enquiry needs to look not only at structure or materials, but equally at the location of staircase, the overall design or even lighting it up. Only such a comprehensive approach to understanding architecture, both in its entirety and subtlety, can lead us to sustainable habitats.

The Green Sense series hopes to weave the weekly themes into such a larger overarching sensibility.

Effective spaces

Mere eco-friendliness without effectiveness defeats the very purpose of design, and spatial locations greatly matter in this direction. Staircases need to be as conveniently located as possible, to minimise walking distances and reduce movement areas. In case the first floor works out better, the corner or end-locations could be considered.

Often people desire the stairs to be a style statement in the living room, with the space below for water bodies, artefacts or a dry garden. It works if the total built area can be stretched. Otherwise, locating the stairs in the dining or family area helps, where one can provide household storage or guest toilets under the stairs. In case of basements, of course, this storage also moves down to the basement.

In all kinds

In principle, running the stairs along a wall, with one side open, has many advantages over a staircase room with both-side walls. It facilitates carrying of large items; the width of stairs adds to room space; stairs becomes fully visible complimenting the image of the house; and it eliminates the need to widen the steps or leave a gap between railings. As such, stairs open to the side saves space, materials and money.

Curves in skylight

Incidentally, stairs along a gentle curve with an exposed wall behind and skylight on top not only appears great, but also functions well. In case of two or more floors, all of the skylight may not reach the ground floor, but an open riser design would let in soft light filtered through the gaps in the steps. The central area, flanked by the stairs, is ideal for an internal court lit from above.

Such staircase courts cannot function as double height spaces, connecting people and activities across the floors, but do wonders to daylight factor and indoor air quality. The court level can take dry gardens, informal seats or be a part of regular house activities.

Highlighting the functionality of stairs is not to undermine its possible aesthetic contributions. It is to caution ourselves about the futility of grand designs, wasteful consumption of wood and converting them into over-designed concrete monoliths. By proper scale, proportion, careful location and lighting, any staircase can become a green design statement by itself.