Innovation and Industry: Ceramic’s Sustainable Story

Innovations in the ceramic tile industry have developed a product truly sustainable in every sense of the word: cost effective, durable, and healthy for buildings and occupants
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Sponsored by Tile of Spain
By Celeste Allen Novak

Learning Objectives:

  1. Discuss ceramic’s sustainability story through a review of industry standards and research initiatives, such as how life-cycle analysis (LCA), standardized environmental product declarations (EPDs), and product category rules (PCRs) dictate value choices.
  2. Compare competitive materials based on lifespan by the amortization of values over time.
  3. Develop a shortlist of criteria to select sustainable building materials based on common attributes like durability, maintenance requirements, and performance characteristics.
  4. Describe the difference between slip resistance and the dynamic coefficient of friction (DCOF), and specify tiles that can be used in universal design and meet ADA barrier-free requirements.


1 GBCI CE Hour
AAA 1 Structured Learning Hour
This course can be self-reported to the AANB, as per their CE Guidelines
AAPEI 1 Structured Learning Hour
MAA 1 Structured Learning Hour
This course can be self-reported to the NLAA.
This course can be self-reported to the NSAA
NWTAA 1 Structured Learning Hour
OAA 1 Learning Hour
SAA 1 Hour of Core Learning
This course can be self-reported to the AIBC, as per their CE Guidelines.
This course is approved as a Structured Course
This course can be self-reported to the AANB, as per their CE Guidelines
Approved for structured learning
Approved for Core Learning
This course can be self-reported to the NLAA
Course may qualify for Learning Hours with NWTAA
Course eligible for OAA Learning Hours
This course is approved as a core course
This course can be self-reported for Learning Units to the Architectural Institute of British Columbia
This test is no longer available for credit

At the American Institute of Architects (AIA) 2017 Conference, as a response to the nation’s unprecedented challenges in the areas of “equity, human rights, sustainability, climate awareness, economic opportunity, and architecture that strengthens community,” 4,436 architects reaffirmed their own “Hippocratic Oath” to care for the planet. This recent powerful statement confirms the idealism and commitment to making a difference in the world through design. In the past decades, the AIA has taken numerous steps to celebrate and encourage advancements in sustainable design from the Committee on the Environment (COTE) to the AIA 2030 commitment design data exchange. These initiatives are driven by powerful environmental data both from the United States and abroad, which shows that not only do buildings change their users, but they also can change their communities as well as larger surrounding ecosystems.

Photo of the Spanish “lattice house”.

Photo courtesy of Tile of Spain

Exterior porcelain panels show the versatility of ceramic as a durable, sustainable material in this Spanish “lattice house” designed by Emiliano López & Mónica Rivara Architects.

Architecture 2030, a nonprofit organization, began sounding the alarm about climate change with statistics identifying buildings as one of the main culprits in the waste of electricity, natural resources, and a major contributor of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

According to the European Commission, buildings are responsible for 36 percent of the total carbon emissions released into the atmosphere, with urban construction representing around 60 percent of the extractions of raw material in the world, and their consumption of water is equivalent to 12 percent of the total consumed in developed areas, although this can rise to over 60 percent in highly urbanized areas. In addition, the energy consumed in buildings represents 40 percent of the total energy consumption of the European Union, and within this amount, 70 percent is used for heating or cooling.1

Not only architects were paying attention to alarming data concerning climate change and the destruction of the planet’s natural resources, but owners, contractors and manufacturers of building products are also engaged. As numerous green building rating systems have proliferated, each year brings us closer to developing products that are green from cradle to grave. Industries are beginning to investigate in a life-cycle analysis (LCA) of their products. LCA requires that a producer assess the environmental impacts associated with all of the stages of a product’s life from the extraction of a raw materials through processing, manufacturing, use, repair, maintenance, and eventually the re-purposing or recycling of the product (cradle to cradle) rather than the landfilling of materials.

For decades dismissed as a “fad,” mere “tree hugging,” and a “fashion that would quickly fade,” a new building genre is now driving a permanent environmentally conscious sustainability market. “The Drive Toward Healthier Buildings,” a 2016 report by Dodge Data & Analytics, documents the benefits and metrics for measuring healthier building impacts.2 It reports that 30 percent of all surveyed building owners would like more transparency on product information. According to this survey, in the next five years, 64 percent of the respondents will expect that construction materials and construction techniques will enhance air quality.

New approaches to environmentally friendly buildings will include products that are labeled with LCA product declarations, are chemically safe for the environment and the occupants with no off gassing of harmful chemicals, and improve environmental indoor air quality. Professionals and owners will be requesting materials and processes that find and maintain a balance between construction and the environment. The goal expressed in the United Nations 1987 Brundtland Commission continues to be a valid mandate. Sustainability is development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Photo of porcelain slab countertops.

Photo courtesy of Tile of Spain

New ceramic markets include these new gauged porcelain slab countertops, which provide an elegant, durable, heat- and stain-resistant alternative to the use of natural stone or laminates.

The ceramic tile industry is one vivid example of how an industry is examining and changing its environmental footprint. In addition, these changes are also providing increased manufacturing savings in production and energy. The size of the ceramic construction tile market in the United States is forecast to grow at a rate of almost 10 percent over the next decade.3 Ceramic tile is one of the most widely used flooring materials in the world.

Ceramic tile is inherently sustainable because it:

  • is manufactured in various levels of slip resistance for improved safety on exterior or interior surfaces;
  • is made from 100 percent plentiful and natural raw materials;
  • is recyclable;
  • remains in service up to four times longer than other products;
  • is easily repaired by replacing individual tiles rather than entire installations;
  • is easily cleaned and does not require toxic products, such as detergents, waxes, solvents and shampoos, to maintain, only neutral cleansers and water;
  • contributes to improved indoor air and the reduction of allergies;
  • is not absorbent of smoke, paint fumes, contaminants, or other odors; and
  • is chemically inert and inhibits the growth of mold, mildew, fungus, and other organisms.

As this industry has investigated sustainability initiatives, it has also found new markets. New products include advancements in tiles to meet universal design criteria, new solid countertops, half-inch-thick exterior pavers, and large exterior surface cladding. The industry is now using the term “gauged” as a new term for a thin tile or porcelain product and there is a vast array of new gauged porcelain and gauged tile products. The ceramic industry is taking a lead in the midst of a major change and approach to healthy, sustainable building materials.


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Originally published in Architectural Record
Originally published in July 2017