The Large-Format Tile Revolution Comes of Age
Thanks to an exciting new large-format tile option, adding a sense of scale, sweep and grandeur to even the smallest rooms has never been easier,
By Jack Roberts
Is bigger always better? In the world of decorative tile, that was largely a moot question, until recently. Both consumer and residential markets have been dominated by smaller sized tile formats for decades now – pieces that tend to measure 12” x 12” in diameter. But today, new, larger format tile options are available. Tile sizes range from 12” x 24”, 24” x 24”, 8” x 48” and 24” x 48” to a massive 5’ x 10’ porcelain slab. These are becoming increasingly popular for a variety of reasons, both aesthetic and practical.
From a decorative standpoint, these larger tile choices, also called gauged tiles, can enhance the sense of scale and grandeur in large rooms. This look rewards newcomers with sweeping vistas and strong, commanding lines. The large-format tile also can be used in smaller sized spaces to enhance long, rectangular designs, delivering a larger, more airy feel to a room without physically altering its physical dimensions.
In commercial spaces, notably upscale hotels, these larger, wall-mounted ceramic or porcelain tiles effortlessly convey a sense of luxury, while emphasizing the expanse of large gathering places, such as lobbies and mezzanines. And outdoors, these larger tiles can add a feeling of sweep and depth to a patio or pool area, giving even small recreational areas an expansive feel.
From a maintenance aspect, experts say large-format tiles can also be a timesaver because they have fewer joints and grout lines to clean. Additionally, larger tiles are inherently thicker than smaller tiles, which creates a multitude of unique renovation opportunities for both residences and commercial buildings.
“The thickness of the large-format tile is an advantage for either floors or walls,” says Bart Bettiga, executive director of the National Tile Contractors Association.
“If a substrate or finish is in good, stable conditions, you may be able to install this tile directly over the surface without demolition. The tile contractor needs to assess this with the renovation contractor and make a good decision together, including the proper selection of the appropriate installation materials.”
A tile is born
Large-format tiles originated in Europe with the advent of new pressing techniques around 2001, and have been steadily gaining in popularity since mass production methods were perfected in 2008. Not surprisingly, the tiles first gained notice in the United States in upscale coastal areas with vibrant outdoor design markets, notably in Los Angeles, Miami and along the upper East Coast.
“Initially, the target market for gauged porcelain panels was commercial sectors, but they are definitely gaining favor in residential specs today,” says Ryan Fasan, technical consultant for Tile of Spain USA. “With the advent of thicker formats to be used as countertop slabs and improved aesthetics for thinner panels, we are seeing a dramatic rise in acceptance for these products in residential projects.”
These tiles aren’t simply “bigger.” According to Fasan, they are entirely new products that have been engineered to handle higher stress and structural loads than conventionally sized tiles. The production method used for large-format tiles differs significantly in the pressing method from traditional dry press or extruded tile. Compression of the large-format tile material is about 100 times stronger than with traditional dry press methods.
Today, two different press manufacturers are using slightly different production techniques, although gaps have dramatically tightened between the two during the last few years. As a result, says Fasan, current gauged porcelain products can have textured surfaces, fully inkjet decoration, polishing and even metallic components added to their decorations, regardless of which manufacturing method the factory possesses.
Gauged tiles deliver big time from a durability aspect that is appealing to homeowners and commercial developers alike. Fasan adds that they also offer a surprising degree of flexibility. Since the pressure compaction of these tiles is extremely high, the impact resistance is often many times higher than that of a comparatively traditional material thickness. Some of the thinner products that employ a fiberglass mesh membrane on the rear face are actually flexible and can withstand a surprising degree of flex – all of which contributes to the overall versatility.
“In fact, some of the most advantageous uses of them are in exterior environments like cladding, in either bonded or mechanically fastened and ventilated facades, and as worktops in exterior kitchens,” Fasan says. “The high density and low porosity makes them an ideal material for outdoor settings in any climate. Ceramics are also one of the only materials that is unaffected by UV exposure and will not fade.”
A different type of installation
Large-format tile installation requires specialized tools and techniques, with proper training and knowledge of the installation process being absolutely critical for success. “These tiles are not designed for the Do-It-Yourself market, at least not in the larger tile formats,” says Noah Chitty, director of technical services for Crossville Inc. “Attempting installation of these tiles without proper ‘thin-tile’ specific training can result in costly failures to the contractor and client as well as damage to an emerging and promising new category to tile.”
Chitty says for interior installation, contractors should follow the requirements detailed in the ANSI A108.19 installation standard, supplemented with any pertinent manufacturers’ information concerning proper application and approved areas of use. “These tiles are still very new on the market,” he adds. “So standards for exterior installation methods are still being developed. Until they are posted, contractors should follow all manufacturers’ recommendations concerning tile and setting materials.”
Other helpful installation guides are available as well. “The Tile Council of North America has just published installation standards for this material last year, and that information has been added to the 09300 Tile and Stone Handbook which details the use of gauged porcelain in multiple different setting environments,” Fasan adds.
And, although contractors need to be aware of several crucial installation methods, both Chitty and Fasan stress the importance of selecting the appropriate thickness of material for the given job and employing an appropriate fixing method.
“Full contact mortars are critical with this material, as any voids within the installation create weak spots that are prone to damage,” Fasan says. “Further, substrate preparation is absolutely essential. Deviation tolerances for flatness are extremely small, so the budget and timeline should account for significant prep work to be done with these formats.”
“If the tiles are to be placed in new construction, then wood-framed construction on floors needs to be better properly managed beforehand,” Chitty adds. “These tiles require a stiffer subfloor and underlayment system than normal thickness tiles – a system more similar to natural stone which is less dimensionally stable than ceramic or porcelain tiles.”
In renovation projects, this is often more difficult as existing heights of doors, windows and other preexisting structures may make buildup of the subfloor or build out of the wall more problematic.
“In both cases, requirements for flatness of the wall or floor will mirror existing standards for any tile with a side of 15 inches or longer, which
require a minimum flatness of no more deviation than 1⁄8 inch in 10 feet, with no more variation than 1⁄16 in 24 inches when measured with a 10 foot straight edge,” Chitty says.
The good news is that these large-format tiles are easy to work with as long as the proper cutting tools are used. Contractors will need the proper tools and the right tile saw just like on any tile installation job, including suction cup frames, special trowels, longer snap cutters and, most important, training specifically for these unique materials.
“When the right tools are used, they can be configured in all kinds of interesting and, if necessary, irregular patterns,” Chitty adds. “As with any installation job, if improper tools and techniques are used, it can be costly to the installer and client. But if proper training, tools, and knowledge are employed, it can be a real benefit and success to all involved.”
Tile remains a popular decorative fixture in both commercial and residential structures, as well as a way to freshen up older homes undergoing restoration projects. The emerging large-format tile market offers contractors and home and business owners a fresh take on a popular and proven decorative style. Adding scale, scope and sweep to rooms has never been easier for contractors willing to add these larger, vibrant tile designs to their installation arsenals.