Leave no stone and tile unturned

Ceramic tile has been a popular building material for over 4,000 years. It played a prominent role in the history of building construction from the oldest pyramids in Egypt to the tile mosaics of Spain. We have seen century old buildings inlaid with it, proving its longevity and strength. Catalan modernist architect Antonio Gaudi leveraged tile in an unconventional method in the Güell Parc project where Trencadis was ubiquitous. Trencadis (or Pique Assiette) is a mosaic technique that utilizes broken tile chards, which could possibly address some LEED credits such as Innovation in Design, Material Reuse, Recycled Content and in the case of the Güell Parc, Regional Materials, since Gaudi used discarded pieces of ceramic tiles, as well as white ceramic from broken cups and plates collected from manufacturers’ factories within its region of Esplugues de Llobregat, Spain.
As for stone, when architects and designers specify it for surface finishing, the design decisions are influenced by visual considerations derived from the stone’s patterns. The manufacturer cuts a block of stone driven by these aesthetic parameters which can be anywhere within the block. The scrap stone is then discarded and often diverted to landfill. Wojtek Rajch, president of Earth Stone Midwest in Chicago, wants to change that through his re-manufacturing company. They use marble and granite scrap cut-stone collected from shops within its locality as the ‘raw material’ for their products. The company re-cuts and re-finishes scrap cut-stone into new shapes and sizes, for use as flooring, pavers, wall coverings, and architectural build-outs.
While Antonio Gaudi recycled ceramic from broken cups and plates, architecture firm Canon Design transformed 200,000 pounds of porcelain material from water closets at the iconic John C. Kluczynski Building by Mies van der Rohe, into clean modern-looking tiles covering 57,000 square feet. This innovation in design was a result of the relationship between the architect (Canon Design) and the manufacturer (Crossville, Inc.) within the framework of the manufacturer’s tile-recycling program called ‘Tile Take Back’. Crossville, Inc. has developed this proprietary system of processing ceramic and porcelain tile back into powder used in manufacturing new tile. When architects lead these types of conversations, such as the case of Cannon Design, and involve themselves in the early planning stages of custom tile production, then the project likely results in exceptionally meeting the client’s basis of design and the project’s design objectives.

Finding the right product for a project is equally important as finding the right manufacturer to work with on a project. A designer’s idea is only as good as the products he/she specifies as well as how the manufacturer executes this idea.” This is clearly evident in the projects Yoder Residence, Wilkinson Office Warehouse Reconstruction, McCue Residence, Bradley Residence, and Ellsworth Residence, by Michael P. Johnson, the first American to win Italy’s prestigious 11th International Aldo Villa Award . Johnson’s work on the Bradley and Ellsworth residential projects in particular, have earned him the Italian Trade Commission’s coveted Legend Award. He will be sharing his insights on best practices while working on these projects, at Coverings 2013 together with Lira Luis, AIA, RIBA, LEED AP BD+C at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta.
Recent advancements in tile have allowed designers more opportunities for creativity and pathways to ecological thinking. This is exactly what architecture firm ALLL in Chicago, led by Lira Luis, is aiming for in its Living Wall System project. In collaboration with Habitile’s Aurora Mahassine, the Living Wall System project is an attempt to analyse the environmental, social, and economic dimensions of buildings to reiterate eco-systemic performance and of the urban ecosystem to provide habitat, food, and energy within the topographies of developing countries and reinhabitation of industrialized ones. This could be a model that can be replicated elsewhere. Luis will be presenting this project, currently in its earliest stages of development that experiments with tile, for the first time, at their Coverings presentation.

Meanwhile, Tile of Spain manufacturer, Ceracasa in collaboration with the Institute of Chemical Technology from Pol. University of Valencia and the Environmental Studies Centre of the Mediterranean (CEAM), have produced the Bionic tile. It is a porcelain tile that can purify air and destroy harmful nitrogen oxides (NOx) that are emitted during the combustion process from vehicular and industrial pollution.

New technologies continue to disrupt the Tile & Natural Stone Industry and they are not without skeptics as well as reluctant adopters. In a recent Twitter communication with Patti Fasan, first woman to receive the prestigious Joe Tarver award of the National Tile Contractors Association, she posed an important question that architects and designers need to address as far as the underlying hesitancy to adopt emerging technologies in a profession that thrives on innovation: How can architecture adopt existing innovation (in Tile & Natural Stone) faster in the USA? We must leave no stone and tile unturned when it comes to seeking and using new materials for the advancement of architecture and design.

Lira Luis is an award-winning Chief Collaboration Architect at ALLL. She was Tile of Spain’s Reign In Spain Winner in 2011. She will be speaking together with Italian Trade Commission’s Legend Award Laureate Michael P. Johnson, at Coverings on May 2nd at 8am, Room B407.