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