For a home builder, the holy grail of materials is one that can do everything.
For a homeowner, the holy grail of materials is one that looks really good and requires no maintenance.
Such a material is now available but virtually unknown to most builders and homeowners in the United States.
It’s not a miracle of nanotechnology or even new. It’s that old workhorse, porcelain ceramic tile, updated with modern equipment and manufacturing processes to such a degree that it may change the look of suburbia as well as our notions of what constitutes a tile.
Manufacturers can now produce porcelain tiles that are huge (5-feet-by-11-feet), really thin (
The tiles are marketed in the United States by Tennessee-based Crossville, which calls its tiles Laminam, and four Spanish manufacturers. Cosentino calls its product Dekton, Grespania’s version is Coverlam, Inalco’s is Itopker and TheSize Surfaces’s is Neolith.
Because this type of porcelain tile is so new, the industry has not yet settled on a generic name. Two terms used by the National Tile Contractors Association are “thin porcelain panels” and “thin porcelain tile.”
In keeping with designers’ preference for a “soft” palette, the offerings of these firms favor grays, “greige” (a combination of beige and gray), light and dark brown, charcoal, cream and pure white. Some of the tiles are a solid color, but others mimic wood, concrete, textile patterns, metals and natural stone. The marble lookalikes resemble the real thing so closely that even experts can be fooled.
When you see these supersize tiles in someone’s house for the first time, “great looking tile” is not likely to be your initial reaction . In fact, you probably won’t even realize that you’re looking at tile until someone tips you off. Unlike small, traditional tiles with grout lines running everywhere, big tiles have hardly any grout lines, and the few that are there are nearly invisible.
The big tiles with solid colors present a tasteful, unusual finish; the natural stone lookalikes, especially the marble ones, are stunning. Though marble has a long history in American interiors, the individual tiles have been small. To see an entire counter made of what appears to be a single slab of high-quality Calacatta marble is eye-popping.
Once you know what to look for, where might you use the supersize tiles?
They can be used to finish walls as well as for flooring, countertops in the kitchen and bathrooms, kitchen sinks and fireplace surrounds. If you want to go really crazy, the thinnest tiles can be used to finish doors, tables, desks and stairs. Capitalizing on the unusually high heat resistance of the supersize tiles, the Spanish firm Inalco is experimenting with installing burners directly into the counter, which would eliminate the need for a separate cooktop. The tiles are extremely scratch and stain resistant. Spills do not have to be cleaned up right away, an appealing feature if you’re one to leave the kitchen cleanup until the next morning after your last dinner guest leaves at midnight.
Another plus with the large tiles in the kitchen is crack resistance. Traditionally manufactured tiles can crack when heavy objects are dropped on them. These porcelain tiles, however, are manufactured with a different process that makes them extremely crack resistant. As Jacobo Pardo of Grespania explained, as long as the tile is installed properly, “you can drop a large cast iron frying pan on the counter, no problem. If you drop a big cast iron pan on the floor, it won’t crack.”
In addition to their size, another difference between these tiles and traditional ones is their surface finish, which can vary from a soft matte to a highly reflective glossy (Cosentino’s Lorenzo Marquez said his firm’s “X-Glossy” finish is so polished “you can almost see your face [reflected in] a black or white Dekton surface.”) The tiles range from a smooth surface to a “gentle relief” that feels slightly irregular, “bush hammered” with a uniform nubby surface, and “hand tooled” with deeper gauges that appear to be hand made.
The place in the house where these larger tiles may initially make their mark is bathroom remodeling because of the ease and speed of installing the really thin tiles over existing tile. There’s no demolition, so it’s far less messy. And because you have fewer tiles, the work goes quickly. For example, you can re-tile the walls of an average-size bathroom with 20-by-40-inch tiles in about four hours, said Crossville’s Vittorio Pomante. “You can leave in the morning for work and return at the end of the day to a new bath/shower surround and retiled walls,” he said.
Outside, the tiles can be used as siding for the house as well as for driveways, sidewalks, terraces, swimming pool surrounds and counters for outdoor cooking areas. A plus with all the exterior applications: The colors will not fade, even after years of exposure to sunlight.
On the exterior of a house, you would either grout between tiles, which would periodically need to be re-done, or not, in which case the siding would truly be maintenance free.
What would a house clad in these huge tiles look like? When a house is designed to have a portion of its facade finished in large flat panels of some material, the big tiles do not have the dramatic impact that you might expect. The only house in the United States where they have been used is in Boca Raton, Fla.; it is partially clad with Neolith’s Black Basalt. The house has a spare, contemporary look, and the tiles are a perfect fit, so much so that observers are unlikely to notice anything unusual.
Even a traditional looking brick townhouse with flat panels of fiber cement on its facade will not look that different when the fiber cement panels are switched out for the large tiles, as I learned when I had an image of a Washington-area townhouse community altered with Photoshop. It might appear that the builder had simply started using a different color, not a different material.
When the same row of townhouses was entirely clad in a neutral-color tile in a computer rendering, however, it looked very different, taking on a sleek modern cast that some might find arresting and intriguing, while others might characterize as “really out there.”
To get a better idea of what a tile-clad house could look like, Cosentino has a feature on its Web site ( hdviewer.cosentino.com/facades ) that illustrates different Dekton slabs on a house with spare, modern styling.
On Neolith’s Web site, the “visualizer” tool ( www.thesize.es/neolith/en/visualizer ) lets you experiment with a kitchen, bathroom and living room looks, as well as a facade.
For many people, the most noticeable exterior application of the new tiles would be a driveway. Instead of a large area covered in concrete or asphalt, you could have two tracks of 24-by-24-inch tiles separated by several inches of grass or gravel widening into a larger tiled area in front of the garage. Thicker tiles are required to support the weight of a car, but Pardo said that is not a problem. A single, 3/4-inch thick Coverlam Dock tile can support as much as 5,500 pounds, he said, much more than the weight of an average car. A Coverlam driveway requires minimal site preparation and equipment. Once the soil is compacted and leveled, the tiles can be set in place. “The weight of the tile is so big, it won’t move,” Pardo said. “Even better, unlike concrete of asphalt, no maintenance is ever required.”
Big tiles that won’t crack in freezing weather allow homeowners in the Washington area to achieve the same look that homeowners in Florida or the Southwest enjoy. Using the same tile indoors and out on an adjacent patio makes both spaces feel bigger.
Besides the stunning visuals and tactile sensations, some people may perceive other differences with the large tiles. For me, the experience of being in a bathroom with large, white Calacatta marble lookalikes covering the entire floor and walls was transcendent. Encased in luxury, I was somewhere between decadence and levitation.
Katherine Salant has an architecture degree from Harvard. A native Washingtonian, she grew up in Fairfax County. If you have questions or would like to suggest topics for coverage, contact her at email@example.com or www.katherinesalant.com .