Monthly Archives: November 2012

Simple, attractive, eco-friendly

The idea of mosaics is now more than 2,500 years old, hence has been rigorously tested by time.

In the story of green architecture, the chapter on mosaic floors will be an important one. It is among the first major manufactured floor tiles, with a simple technology that could be replicated across the country. Following the oxide floors in timeline, mosaic tiles ruled Indian buildings for many decades, before the advent of more advanced manufactured options appeared. Forgetting mosaic floors will be like deleting a major eco-friendly option from our list, for it continues to be as valid as it was as in the past.

It will be surprising to hear that the idea of mosaics is now more than 2,500 years old, hence has been rigorously tested by time, more than any other material has undergone. A simple concept of placing small chips of strong material closely, held by bonding material, was tried out by the Greeks many thousands of years ago and continuing the idea, the Roman Empire exploited it in every possible way – art work, relief mural, wall finish or flooring tile. Routinely they were assembled on site though the required pieces could have been transported from outside. Ever since these experiments, mosaics have had a presence in buildings across many countries, and were also known as terrazzo floor.

The popular availability of cement ensured mosaics became stronger and lasted long. In the Indian context, white cement is used along with small marble chips of varied colours, mixed well with other ingredients like dolomite powder and colouring oxide powders. Grey cement can also be used to reduce the cost or qualify the surface colour. Tiles are rather heavy and thick, with cement concrete base topped with the colourful stone chips, the base colour retained as white, grey or pigmented as needed. The mix is poured into a mould such that the surface premix will be on top, machine pressed, cured in open air for a day, cured by immersing in water for 15 days and then dried for five days in a shaded shed. Mosaic can be laid in situ also.

The simplicity of technology ensured that mosaic tiles could be made even in small towns, hence becoming local – an important factor in saving energy. It needs no firewood, high temperature kilns or costly machinery. Water used for curing is recycled with the only major nuisance being the dust and powder spreading out. It is easy to locally repair the floor by replacing the few tiles as required or recycle the whole lot of tiles by carefully dismantling them.

Not all regions and towns can get abundant supply of natural flooring nor can everyone afford the industrialised options, being transported from long distances. Be it a big or a small town, some make of mosaic tiles are still available with good value for money. If so, one would wonder why they are slowly disappearing from the popular choices. It is time we relook at mosaic tiles.

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Ceramic or vitrified?

It is not possible to build only with natural materials, yet total dependence on high carbon materials with huge environmental impact is equally not fair.

We are in an age today where it is not possible to live only with natural materials. Examples of living with nature like the un-contacted tribes of Amazon, experiments by Henry David Thoreau or solitary Buddhist meditations are more of exceptions than rules. The A to Z of construction which was once done by local natural materials, today witness varieties of manufactured and transported materials, be it in America or Zambia.

While manufacturing ensures quality, comfort and sophistication, it leads to high consumption of energy, material resources and in essence carbon footprint. However, it is not fair to dismiss them only on that count without looking at their merits and necessities. Going by the increasing need for built areas in urban contexts, it is not possible to build only with nature, yet total dependence on high carbon materials with huge environmental impact is equally not fair.

Chart a road map

In such a delicate situation, discussing ceramic and vitrified tiles is appropriate not only to help choose between the two but also to chart a road map ahead. Basic ceramic technology, processed earth fired at high temperatures, theoretically is age old with remnants found from the classical age of the Chinese and Greek. In modern times, found to be good in resisting water, ceramic became popular with bathrooms and later generally with all flooring. They have a durable surface, varied patterns and good glazing. With easy availability and execution, ceramic tiles are a good choice towards saving money and mass construction.

Drawbacks of ceramic

Among the major drawbacks of ceramic is the visibility of joint lines which over the years tend to develop a blackish shade. The surface sometimes chips off due to heavy wear and tear, while some tile finish are very slippery. As the technology progressed, vitrified tiles entered the market, which are technically same as ceramic tiles, but have the top surface especially finished, compared to the lower part. The thickness of this vitrified surface is an important criterion in both cost and durability. Cheaper quality vitrified tiles tend to crack on this surface if they are very thin, while the better quality tiles are costlier, often on a par with granite and marble, making us ponder over our choices.

The balance

Over the decades, vitrified tiles have overshadowed the ceramic tiles with prices dropping and patterns increasing, often coming with look alike surfaces of even wood or marble. The negativity of manufactured material gets partly balanced by the natural appearance! The joints can be done paper thin with no groove there, yet large floor areas can be covered in a short time.

Despite all the above advantages of ceramic and vitrified, for those ecologically inclined, both the materials could be among the last options, unless not avoidable. They come with high embodied energy, cannot be reused, appear odd with natural materials and let sophistication define architecture rather than design itself.

The marketing factor

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?

Market leaders

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.

The price of consumerism

Can we mitigate the looming dangers being predicted for the Earth just by using natural materials.

The Green Sense column focuses on eco-friendly designs and green buildings, yet occasionally feels the need to go beyond buildings. After all, the buildings are designed by us to take care of our needs and built to fulfil our aspirations. What if, attitudinally, we are not seeking eco-ideas? What if our dreams are aimed at immediate individual comforts, even if they are to cause future collective suffering? Can we mitigate the looming dangers being predicted for the Earth just by using natural materials and ensuring daylight?

Such questions become important in this “age of aspirations.” It is said that if every person living on Earth hopes to live like a North American, we need resources of four Earths, but we have only one! The average temperature in India is predicted to go up by two degrees by 2025, but we are feeling the impact already due to unpredictable weather conditions – dry monsoon, late spells of rains, fruit trees flowering at odd times, drought and flood virtually following each other.

Think before discarding

All multinational companies are landing up in India offering their services and products to capture the fast emerging market opportunities here, which incidentally is also among the largest middle class buyer groups in the world today. No wonder, the latest models of cars, computers, cameras, home theatres, cell phones, air conditioners and many other products outsell their own earlier model within months. The race of consumerism is here to stay. During the last 10 years, many people would have bought the above items for the first time, but most people who owned them earlier might have changed them many times. It is easy to find many urban residents who are using their third camera, running their fourth car or using their fifth mobile phone within a short span of 10 years, not knowing the fate of what they have discarded.

Add what else we discard – increased quantity of packaging that comes home every time we buy anything from vegetables to apparels; exchanging gadgets mostly in use in the guise of exchange offer; the market gimmick of free gifts which are possibly unwanted; items of daily use being replaced by new branded goods and many more of this kind.

Sustainable

It is important to ask if the building is sustainable, but equally important is to ask if our emerging lifestyle is sustainable. What if there is an energy efficient, eco-friendly house, but the residents and owners are consuming more resources than what the building design has saved? We may say the two are not related; hence the role of architects and engineers is to mind their business and focus only on the construction related decisions. This argument could be valid, for professionals are not dictating a lifestyle.

However, since it is the lifestyle that demands a certain building design, it dictates the desired design; hence the two, viz. design and lifestyle are connected. Green sense will be total when we do both: seek an eco-friendly home and live an eco-friendly living.