From Glass to Porcelain, Grout in Some Green

by Dave on October 15, 2009

by Matthew Peterson

From a durability aspect and from a design aspect – tile floors can add value and beauty to your home.  Perfect for entry ways, laundry rooms, kitchens and even porches, tile is low maintenance, long lasting, virtually waterproof, and guess what?  It can be environmentally friendly.  The great and most unique characteristic of tile is the multitude of colors, styles, sizes, and materials that can go into these floors.  You can make a home take on an old world feel with larger floor tiles, ceramic or porcelain, incorporating a rough tumbled look or create an aesthetic of sleek modern with glass floor tiles and small precise grout joints.  The versatility of tile makes this a great design feature – the potential eco-friendliness makes this a great addition to your spec sheet with your builder or remodeling contractor.

The manufacturing of tile can be energy intensive but, when weighed against the life cycle of tile, that energy can be somewhat offset.  Also, if a tile does get damaged, typically you only have to replace a few tiles as opposed to replacing all the flooring in that area.  Not only is that good from a waste perspective – it helps the bottom line on the costing as well.  When shopping for tile, always look at tiles that contain pre-consumer or post-consumer recycled content and that are manufactured near to where you are going to be installing them.  These tiles should be cost competitive with most middle grade normal tiles.  The recycled content keeps down the amount of waste heading to landfills and the closer the manufacturing plant is to installation the less fossil fuel used for transportation.  If you can make sure that the trucks delivering them to your site are using flex fuel, you get a gold star – I am just kidding – the point is both of these factors (recycled content and location) contribute to consuming less and conserving more.  If the design you are working with incorporates passive solar heat gain, tile is the optimum floor finish for storing thermal energy.  I know you have been waiting for the IAQ (indoor air quality) discussion so…because tile is not very porous and typically water proof, it is very easy to thoroughly clean.  This is great for people who suffer from allergies or people like me who suffer from an obsession with clean floors.

Installation is paramount to maintaining the “friendliness” of the tile that you have selected.  It is somewhat defeating to spend time fighting over which hue of tile perfectly replicates the palazzo you visited outside of Cortona while satisfying the environmentalist that lives within each of us to negate those choices by the utiliza
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tion of VOC laden sealers, adhesives, and grout.  A few things to be aware of, the adhesives used should be Low or No VOC.  As we have discussed before, the off-gassing from these products can have a large impact to the health of your home and its occupants.  In order to reduce the potential for water damage or mold growth, use the largest tiles that you feel meet the design intent and use tile that will accept the smallest grout joint possible.  Should you choose imported tiles (shame on you for not choosing something manufactured close to home – that was a joke), ask if lead-based glazes were used.  These can definitely be harmful to IAQ.

The final step in maintaining the sustainability of tile is how you clean and maintain this finish.  Clearly visible on the cleaning product aisle of every grocery and hardware store are new products staking their similarly unique claim that they have perfected the eco-cleaning solution.  If you are like me, I choose the one with the coolest packaging – why not, right?  There is a great home grown solution that has proven to be just as effective and it’s the right price.  Simply mix 1.25 cups of white vinegar with 4 tablespoons of lemon juice (yes, locally grown organic lemons) to 1.5 gallons of hot tap water.  Mop your floor with this solution (or wash it on your hands and knees like some of us still do) then dump this out, fill the bucket up with hot tap water and re-mop the floor.  The combination of these common household staples will leave your floors clean and healthy – and you get to burn some calories in the meantime!

Matthew Peterson is the Principal of Element Design Group in Lewes. Reach him at

This column first appeared in Coastal Sussex Weekly, August 20, 2009.

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