Architect HeadshotThe technical challenges of designing and specifying modern tile installations can be daunting without the right resources. Marcus Schiff, senior architect and specifier with Soderstrom Architects in Portland shares some of his tips on using large format tile, creating durable installations and forming business partnerships that have been crucial to his success.

Tell us about your background and your firm.
I've been in the architecture business for 32 years, with a strong focus on residential, large-scale commercial and healthcare projects. Recently, I've been working on designs for hospitals, university buildings and laboratories. I am a senior associate with Soderstrom Architects. We focus on academic, educational and healthcare structures along the entire west coast of the U.S.

How have your thoughts on the use and size of tile changed 
over the years?

The tremendous advancements in the evolution of porcelain and ceramic tile into larger sizes are a huge opportunity for architects, but those advancements come with increased installation complexity. Concerns over installation specifications, crack isolation and prevention, setting materials and grouts for large tile all require more forethought than they do for smaller tile installations. There has been a real revolution in the variety and size of the tile and natural stone that is now on the market, which has led to installation products that meet the specific needs of the different materials. The necessity for architects and designers to be familiar with the installation requirements of their chosen surface is much more complex today than it was even a decade ago.

Which current tile trends are the most interesting to you right now, and why?
There are three current trends that I'm very interested in:

  • A recent job at a children's hospital involved adhering 3-foot sliced sandstone panels to an exterior wall. Traditionally, thin exterior tiles would have been anchored with mechanical fastening, but current methods and technologies allow for setting materials to be used instead. The movement allowances, expansion joints and installation protocols for the installation are very complex, and offer some interesting new options for architects and designers.

  • Crack prevention and isolation technology has become much more advanced over the last few years. Similarly, the number of systems on the market, with their different applications for different situations - suspended slabs, slab on grade or steel, concrete or wood structures - offer more opportunities for permanently successful installations.

  • The design opportunities in the marketplace with regards to water jet cutting, printed tiles, mixing materials and more nuanced design provide a lot of new design potential to create entirely new spaces. Materials like terrazzo, stone and traditional tile can be intermixed, despite the different installation standards and slip coefficients. This allows for new and unique surfaces and designs.

Underlying all of these is a remarkable level of development and innovation from manufacturers, including CUSTOM. Everything is so much more technical and precise than it has been in the past, and there is much more to be aware of. Quality companies who have developed new products and trained technical support offer huge advantages to designers and architects. There is practically no way to maintain a knowledge base of all of the different product types one can specify for a particular project.

The diverse market requires strong support from manufacturers to help architects and designers understand how to best use and specify different materials. Additional resources, like educational support, CES classes and the general availability of technical representatives have increased in both volume and depth of knowledge in recent years. With the quick changes in technology and technique, manufacturers' involvement is crucial for modern installations.

Architect Interview 1How often do you specify the use of large format tile?
Large format tile is used as some part of almost every job that we do these days.

How is your approach to specifying large format tile different than when you specify tile in general?
Large tile requires a higher standard of care and detail due to the challenges of its installation - cracking, expansion, movement and waterproofing must all be addressed to ensure that the project is completed successfully. With that being said, the new technologies for surface preparation and setting products have changed my approach when it comes to smaller tile projects too.

What are some of the challenges in using large format tile?
The quality of the product itself is a concern, since compensating for trueness and flatness in individual tiles is essential to the installation. With larger tiles, waterproofing and crack prevention are more vital; replacing the tiles is a greater undertaking than replacing small ones. Additionally, compensating for expansion and contraction in the substrate, as well as the slip coefficient of the surface, are important safety concerns.

What are some of the advantages to using large format tile in a project?
The visual appeal of large format tile is undeniable. As a benefit to the installation, larger tiles tend to be more durable and stronger than using a lot of smaller tiles.

What aesthetics can large format tile offer in an installation?
Large tiles scale better to larger buildings. Additionally, large format tiles and thin stone tend to mimic the classic large, thick stone in many historical buildings. New manufacturing technologies have developed thinner, more durable surfaces at a more affordable price point than thicker stone, which means that designers are not as limited to developing that classic look based on cost. And with the developments in crack isolation and setting materials, thinner tiles can be used to allow for a larger scale on the installation without a larger cost.

Have you encountered problems with large format tile on a job? How were they resolved?
Due to the volume of large format tile that is used in our projects, along with the technology for installation products, we have not encountered any issues that could not be corrected through proper installation methods. However, one concern that designers can overlook is the wearability of the surface. Certain stones like travertine don't wear well in high-traffic, commercial areas; even filled travertine can deteriorate, reducing the hardness and durability of the surface. Proper research into the surface material and its attributes will ensure a more efficient and long-lasting installation.

How has your field evolved since you started?
It's a great time to be designing right now with so many great products out there! Interactions and relationships between manufacturers and architects are very different than they were even 15 years ago. There is much more collaboration between communities, which is a definite plus. Helping designers understand new installation techniques and product capabilities stimulates more creativity. Companies that have a strong relationship with the design community, like CUSTOM, are a strong asset. If you're a designer or architect and haven't taken advantage of resources from different manufacturers, you should! It's been an eye-opening and successful relationship for us.

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