If you spend time around people who are passionate about the
environment, it doesn’t take long before the discussion turns to
sustainability. The word has an almost mystical quality; it has become the holy
grail of building practices. While sustainability means many things to many
people, it really isn’t that hard to define.
sustainability is about living today in a way that makes it possible for future
generations to have as good a life as we do. It’s about living in balance with
the earth so resources are used sparingly and turned into products that last a
long time. Truly, sustainability is vital: while the Earth is vast, reserves of
energy and raw materials are finite.
It is simple in
theory, but putting sustainability into practice can be more slippery. Even for
a rapidly renewable resource like bamboo, there’s a forest to be clear-cut,
pesticides that must be applied, soil to be depleted, and runoff sent into a
river. Ironically, the longest-lasting floor (and wall) covering isn’t a trendy
new fad; tile has been around for thousands of years.
Greek and Babylonian civilizations all used fired tile to decorate floors and
walls as a way to seek immortality. In fact, long after the walls and roofs of
ancient buildings lay in ruins, the floors continued to live on in new buildings
that were built on top of the old. The long life and re-usability of tile are
just as important today as they were then.
It’s important to stop and take a look at the origins of ceramic tile. After
all, just because a product lasts forever doesn’t necessarily make it
Earth-friendly. Like all flooring, tile does require energy to produce. Over
the years, some have criticized “embodied energy” as a negative to tile, but
the tile industry has responded to that charge. Mostly gone are the
energy-guzzling tunnel kilns and periodic kilns that require heating
refractories as well as the tile. Most tile is now fired in ultra-efficient
roller hearth kilns that heat and cool only the tile itself. Years ago, it may
have taken days to fire, but a modern porcelain tile is in the kiln for less
than an hour.
Raw materials can also be a cause for concern. To be truly sustainable, raw
materials should come from close to the point of manufacture, be in abundant
supply, and be easily extracted with minimal disturbance to the environment.
Many raw materials used in the manufacture of tile, including clay, feldspar
and silica, are among the most abundant components of the earth’s crust. With
ample identified reserves that are close to the surface, the raw materials that
go into tile certainly qualify as sustainable. What’s more, the dust and scrap
generated during the manufacturing process can be reused; tile factories are
now constructed to be “closed loop,” with very little material going to landfills.
the U.S., tile factories are scattered across the country and are usually
located close to the source of their raw materials. This close proximity
provides consumers with the benefit of having a regional tile manufacturer close
to most major cities in North America while also allowing for reduced
transportation-related costs and carbon emissions.
the headlines of “sick building syndrome” and the increases in asthma and
allergies in the U.S., more attention is being paid to indoor air quality as
well. Because tile is fired to temperatures in excess of 2000°F, no volatile
organic compounds (VOCs) are left to be emitted into the indoor air. Unlike
other flooring choices, which offer reduced VOC options, tile can claim
today’s superior installation products and durable glazes, a tile floor will
most likely outlive the building in which it is installed. Once installed, a
tile floor is also much easier to maintain than other flooring choices. Harsh
chemicals, stripping compounds and refinishing are unnecessary. In addition,
flooring that doesn’t have to be replaced doesn’t end up in
Innovative uses for tile are also leading to
reductions in cost and energy once installed. Newly popular under-floor heating
systems allow homeowners to have heat where it’s needed (by the floor) and not
where it’s wasted (overhead). Tile is also being moved outdoors, into
hardscapes with a low solar reflective index and as an exterior cladding product.
While using tile as a building cladding is very popular in Europe, the trend
has only recently emerged in the U.S. due to increased interest in
the reduced heating and cooling costs associated with buildings built with this
the obvious advantages to tile, work still needs to be done. In the mid-90s,
the framework for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) and the
current green movement had begun, but the tile industry was slow to the table.
As a result, less-sustainable flooring products are often chosen because the
guidelines were written to favor the writers. However, thanks to the Green
Initiative of the Tile Council of North America (TCNA), the tile industry is
now responding in full force by working to submit life cycle analysis (LCA)
data to national databases and to bring common sense to the flooring discussion
(see the “Green Initiative” sidebar for additional
In today’s competitive green marketplace, it is
not enough to rest on one’s laurels. The Green Initiative is challenging
manufacturers to step up their environmental game. More can be done to use
recycled materials in formulations, heat with green energy sources, and make
sure facilities are being run with the environment in mind. Instead of simply
playing catch-up, the tile industry is looking to lead the way to a more
For additional information, contact Florida Tile, P.O. Box 447,
Lakeland, FL 33802; (800) 352-8453; fax (800) 789-8453; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit www.floridatile.com. The
TCNA’s website is located at www.tileusa.com.
SIDEBAR: Taking the Initiative
Tile Council of North America’s Green Initiative Committee was conceived in
2007 to get the facts out about tile’s sustainability and to drive improvement
in the industry. The committee is made up of active and enthusiastic experts
from all of the major North American manufacturers of tile and installation
products. Three subcommittees focus on technical issues, marketing issues, and
relationships with the various green organizations.
pamphlet was unveiled at Coverings this year touting tile as “The Natural
Choice,” and a submission will soon be made to the National Institute of
Standards and Technology (NIST) to include tile in the national life cycle
analysis database called BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic
Sustainability). Many other projects are also currently underway. For more
information, contact committee chairman Dan Marvin at email@example.com
or co-chair Bill Griese at BGriese@tileusa.com