Let’s start off on the same page… Porcelain and its little brother, Ceramic, are not created equal. Oftentimes, the two are used interchangeably when talking about tile, but the truth is that they are very different materials. Porcelain tile has now been updated with modern equipment and manufacturing processes to such a degree that this single material is changing the look of suburbia as well as our notions of what constitutes a tile.
Porcelain tile is the most durable and versatile material available to today. Where Ceramic falls short on durability, application, scratch resistance, breakage, and areas of use, porcelain far exceeds specifications with virtually no maintenance. This wonder material can be used anywhere from the typical installation areas of interior floors, walls, countertops, backsplashes, showers, to huge wall-sized panels, outdoor pavers, a limitless array of custom landscaping pieces, pool coping, even waterline tile. Wait… outdoor swimming pool waterline tile? Yes, you can submerge porcelain in water indefinitely with full confidence. Please allow me to take you through a few exciting new uses.
Manufacturers can now produce Porcelain tiles that are huge (5 feet by 11 feet), really thin (1/8- to 1/4-inch thick) and absorb almost no water. This latter detail means that these big tiles will not crack in freezing temperatures and can be used indoors, outdoors in temperate climates and for an astonishingly broad range of applications. The tiles are also made in smaller sizes, though much larger than the 4-by-4-inch ones that are standard in so many bathrooms, and they can be nearly 2cm thick, depending on the intended use.
These porcelain slabs are marketed in the United States by a handful of companies. Among them is Houston-based QDI Surfaces (https://qdisurfaces.com/), one of the first wholesale distributors to invest in this rapidly growing trend. Carrying porcelains from Italy, Turkey, Brazil and Domestic material in every size, color, thickness and application, there are no limits to how it can be deployed.
In keeping with designers’ preference for a “soft” palette, the offerings of QDI, for example, 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 most styles 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 super-sized 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 Carrara marble is eye-popping.
Once you know what to look for, where might you use the super-sized 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.
And when we talk about Porcelain slabs for walls, we are talking exterior as well as interior. 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 finished product has a spare, contemporary look, and the tiles are a perfect fit, so much so that observers are unlikely to notice anything unusual. On many commercial structures, marble facade is being replaced with Porcelain tile due to the durability and stain resistance.
Porcelain Outdoor Pavers
Staying with the outdoor porcelain uses, a beautiful hardscape is the hallmark of any homes curb appeal. Those who want to make their properties stand out while getting the most out of their outdoor living spaces know that the best way to go about improving their hardscape is to make use of natural stone pavers… Or is it?
The rise in porcelain pavers has brought a fresh new style to the American dream with the benefit of zero maintenance. Similar to porcelain slabs, pavers are also designed to mimic natural stone, and wood both in coloring and texture. The result is a very affordable, practical and beautiful alternative to natural stone.
Outside, the pavers 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.
With a single glance, a homeowner is sure to fall in love with porcelain. The ceramic material lends itself to being manufactured into a product that is nearly identical to natural stone and wood. The uses are almost as endless as porcelain slabs with common installations including decking, pool coping driveways, and just about any hardscape application you can dream up. The traction offered by Porcelain is a huge benefit, making this material perfect for swimming pool decks or for creating walkways in areas subject to rain or water from irrigation systems.
Porcelain being an already extremely hard and tough material, the pavers are even thicker than normal, which adds to their strength, making them perfect for garages and driveways with no maintenance.
Clearly, Porcelain’s time is now. It’s on its way to becoming a powerful differentiator that designers and home builders, alike, can point to when emphasizing the value they are bringing to a project.