Thursday, December 27, 2012

Whole-house ceramic tile

You may have spotted an unusual consistency across a half-dozen or so of my recent home design posts:
From a post on choosing a modern pendant lamp
From a post on making over an art niche.
From a post on developing an artistic coat rack solution.
From a post about finishing a room that must serve at least four different functions.
From a post about using area rugs as wall art
From a post about keeping expensive area rugs clean and free of dog smell
Yup.  We have ceramic tile throughout our entire house.  When we placed this order, our builder (Meritage Houston) announced to us that we were the first customer ever to order a house with tile in every single area - every closet, every bedroom, every square inch.

Not only that (and this is critical from a design perspective), it's the same tile throughout.  There are no seams or breaks across the entire expanse of the house.  That kind of visual continuity is really being emphasized in modern home design because it's clean and it visually expands and unifies all spaces, especially in an open concept or greatroom design. 

There's plenty of debate about the use of ceramic tile on the internet (such as this thread), with most commenters apparently coming down on the "no" side of opinion.  Let me explain the rationale for our "yes" decision:
  • Ceramic was not my first choice.  I wanted polished concrete, but our builder did not offer that option, and we had ordered so many other changes to our architectural plan that I couldn't see tying the builder in knots by bringing in a third-party contractor for the floors. 
Here in the southern U.S., most suburban homes are built slab-on-grade and so, by default, we end up with gorgeous concrete floors - which we then proceed to cover up with horribly cheap finishes such as nylon wall-to-wall pile carpet!!!  This option shown above is right under your feet and right at your fingertips, supposing you could find a contractor to do the finishing for you.
Screengrabbed from Texas Concrete which is doing business in (where else) Austin, Texas.
OK, polished concrete being off the table, I evaluated my remaining options thusly.
  • Natural stone would have been preferable and potentially more timeless, but just about all of the stone that is "financially attainable" for residential flooring is some grade of travertine.  Travertine has the following limitations:  It's soft, it's porous (it will stain unless you have a sealant, which means maintenance), and worst of all, it's almost always got a natural pastel yellowish cast to it. 
I have a good friend who has probably 2,000 square feet of travertine on the ground floor of his large house, and it looks much like this one shown above.  That floor is beautiful in its own way, but it throws yellow tones throughout the entire house.  Yellow would have been utterly incompatible with every color scheme I had planned for our home.  This kind of soft yellow backdrop is pretty much going to constrain you to using neutral and pastel color schemes, and I'm more of a primary-color person myself.  Unbreakable design rule: DON'T mix pastels and primaries. 

Travertine also looks very traditional and I was instead shooting for modern / contemporary / transitional style.

Screengrab above from this site
    Wood flooring would have posed multiple design problems and burdens: 
  • It would have been cost-prohibitive to have wood run through every space in the house.  The c-tile we chose added only $10,000 to the base price which, when you're building a house, is manageable and a tiny percentage of the total mortgage.  A good quality wood flooring could easily have been two to four times that price (I would not have considered laminate or cheap grades of engineered product).  That would not have been a wise investment at our suburban price point. 
  • Wood also presents an undesirable color constraint.  I wouldn't have wanted a dark wood on such a massive scale, which meant I'd have to get a light wood, which would also have presented a yellow tone problem similar to travertine. 
  • I haven't shown most of this in any of my posts to date, but several of our rooms are dominated by natural wood furniture.  To have wood flooring beneath a bunch of wood furniture would have represented death-by-wood.  Wood overload.  No design contrast or balance could have been achieved. 
Look again at this photo:  How would this room have looked with a wood floor??  Not good.  I already have two wood tones in the four visible pieces of solid wood office furniture.  Without question, I needed a stone-looking floor to counterbalance all that wood.

Also, look very carefully at this overall color scheme.  This wood furniture is throwing all kinds of yellow tone.  What would have this looked like if the floor (supposing it had been travertine) had also been throwing yellow tones?  The result would have been death-by-yellow.  This is one of the most common design mistakes that I see suburban homeowners making - allowing too much yellow into their designs without corresponding tonal counterpoints.  This floor had to be an utterly neutral canvas if the result were to have any kind of sophistication to it. 

The neutral floor has the effect of legitimizing the blonde furniture in particular.  The blonde furniture "pops" against the neutral floor and looks "intentionally blonde" as a result.  If the floor itself had also been yellowish, the blonde furniture would have instead looked out-of-date (it's 20 years old, from back when "natural" oak was popular). 
  • We have a fairly large dog and I garden extensively.  Both of us dash through the house with muddy feet.  Wood floors would not have been able to withstand our collective abuse.  One of my previous houses had white oak through most of its first floor, including the kitchen (installed by the previous owner, not me).  Even though it was a commercial grade of white oak, it was an absolute nightmare to maintain that stuff in a wet environment like a kitchen.  We literally had to move out for a week to get it refinished, and the kitchen floor was still visibly wearing out much, much faster than the rest of the house, so where would that have left me in the long run if I had kept that house?  Doing wildly-expensive custom repairs at some point to re-match new sections of kitchen wood to the rest of the first floor.  This is way too much overhead.  Not practical. 
So our final choice basically came down to process of elimination.  In order to achieve the desired durability, color control (again, notice that there are no yellow floor overtones in any of my pics above), cost control, and design impact, ceramic tile was the only sensible option.  We chose as generic a concrete-looking tile as possible, and we chose it in the newer 18-inch size so it would look more in-style over the long term. 

I can't tell you how happy I am that we chose ceramic tile.  Here is my personal myth-buster opinion list in response to the most common ceramic tile criticisms:
  1. It's a safety / slip hazard:  In three years, not one of us has slipped and fallen down (except the dog as she's careening madly around corners).  This argument simply doesn't parse in most foreseeable scenarios.  Almost all tract-home suburbanites already have ceramic tile kitchen and bathroom floors by builder-grade default, as well as ceramic tiled entryways.  How often have you fallen down on those?  Not often, eh?  So why would you think it would be a problem in the dry areas your house when it's not an existing problem in your wet areas?  If you're very sloppy in your house, if you let small children drag food around your house and smear it on the floor, yes indeed, you might have a problem with slip hazards.  But I would not foresee a significantly elevated risk under normal circumstances of cleanliness. 
  2. It's hard on the leg joints:  We haven't noticed any issues.  Again, most of the leg-work people do in their houses is in the kitchens, which already have c-tile floors.  I tend to wear Tevas or tennis shoes during my marathon cooking sessions, for arch support.  I would do this regardless of how the floor was finished, because I'm old. 
  3. It's cold on the feet:  We live on the subtropical upper Texas coast.  A cool floor is a godsend for us.  I believe it helps to keep our home cool during the summer months.  The ground beneath the slab is cooler than the prevailing outdoor air.  Having a carpet on the floor would insulate against that subterranean coolness from penetrating through to the house. 
  4. It imparts a cold and sterile atmosphere to your house:  This is only true if you fail to complete your house with area rugs, furniture, drapery, and accessories.  Look at the pics of my house above.  Look at the living room with its 8' x 10' wool area rug.  Does it look cold, sterile, and impersonal? 
  5. Your house will be an echo-chamber if all the floors are ceramic:  This is only true if you fail to complete your house with area rugs, furniture, drapery, and accessories.  When you walk into an empty fully-tiled house that has no furniture, yes, it's an echo chamber.  But that's not how it's intended to be lived in. 
  6. It would be bad for resale value.  My realtor tried to argue this.  He said, "You know you're never going to sell that house with c-tile in the bedrooms."  My reply was, "You know I've never sold a house without a bidding war on it.  We are just a bit ahead of our time with this one.  By the time we need to sell this place X years from now, solid flooring will be de rigueur, and we will already be in line with the market's expectations."  I've been with my realtor for 20 years and he's handled six of our eight residential transactions in that time.  All four of our historical sales were by bidding war.  Even if solid flooring does not become de rigueur, there is already a sufficiently large buyer pool with asthma and other health conditions that would refuse to buy a house with wall-to-wall carpeting.  They would jump at the chance to buy a "done from top to bottom" place like our Centerpointe house. 
  7. Ceramic tile cracks if you drop anything on it.  More accurately, it will chip, but you have to really screw up to have this occur.  For instance, my husband dropped a heavy steel claw hammer from a height of eight feet and it carved a quarter-inch divet in one tile.   It's not something that people notice, although we may eventually get a tiler to replace that tile.  If you have a problem with ceramic tile cracking, then there may have been a problem with your initial installation.   
Anyway, there's lots more I could say in favor of ceramic tile, like how incredibly easy it is to keep clean (massive money and time savings on the cleaning aspect alone), but this post is getting long, so I will close for now. 


  1. What is your opinion about installing tile in colder weather regions? We agree with all the points you have mentioned above but not sure how cold tile might get here in Oregon. We dont know anyone here with tile floors. If you have any insights please share.

  2. I have heard the cold complaint before, and I know that in bathrooms, for instance, folks in northern climates often install radiant heat in the floor. It's very expensive, apparently. This past winter was one of the coldest in recorded history due to the polar vortex. We went for months with abnormally low temperatures on the upper Texas coast. Our floor did not bother me because I normally wear socks and/or shoes indoors anyway unless it is mid-summer. The air temperature inside the house often bothered me to the point where I invested in new gas logs for our fireplace (southern houses are not optimized for heat!) but not the floor.


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