Spanish Tiles Go Green

Sustainability is at the forefront of contemporary tile production in Spain.

The Children’s Education and Innovation Centre in Valencia, Spain, is covered with colourful Natucer porcelain tiles. The glazed tiles act as a rainscreen, and are fastened to slotted tracks. Photo: Javier Fuente

Every February, the city of Valencia, Spain, plays host to Cevisama, an international fair for ceramic tile. The words “Spanish tile” may conjure up elaborately decorated glazed tiles with bright colours and patterns, but in reality, today’s Spanish ceramic tiles are very different from their historic precedents. With a focus on innovation, the industry is producing a vast array of contemporary ceramic products while also putting sustainability at the forefront.

Traditionally, ceramic materials were almost exclusively employed as wall and floor coverings. Now, these products are being increasingly used in more architectural applications, including in ventilated exterior façades and raised floor systems. Ceramic ventilated façades are widely used in Europe due to the material’s durability and resistance to pollution, weather and salt. These rainscreen systems are becoming a popular means of minimizing typical envelope problems, including thermal bridging and condensation.

Marazzi’s Grande Marble Look tiles come in large-scale, thin slabs that require less material to produce than standard tiles. Courtesy Marazzi

Large-format tiles—as big as 320 x 160 cm—appear to be a leading product within both the tile industry and the design community. These amazingly strong tiles, available as thin as 3 mm, require less material to produce and cover larger areas which results in fewer, less noticeable grout joints. Thicker ceramic “slabs” of up to 15 mm allow the large-format surfaces to be used for counters.

Neolith tiles include imitation wood designs that can be used to add visual warmth to wet spaces. Courtesy Neolith

Another notable trend is that of ceramics made to emulate the appearance of other materials, mainly wood flooring, concrete and stone. Although not an entirely novel approach, this new generation of ceramic products so convincingly mimics both the colour and texture of their original counterparts that at times you have to touch them in order to differentiate between the two. Though I am a strong proponent of authenticity, these products afford an opportunity to introduce the warmth and colour of wood to commercial and high traffic areas where durability and ease of maintenance are critical, and where a more durable product ultimately results in a more environmentally friendly approach.

Roca Bathrooms’ London showroom, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, includes a dynamic tiled floor and walls made of large-scale tile. Courtesy Roca

As a building material itself, ceramic is inherently sustainable, made of natural and plentiful materials such as clay, sand, feldspar and quartz. Ceramic products also contribute to indoor air quality as they emit no VOCs, do not absorb contaminants or other odors, inhibit the growth of mold and other organisms, can be easily cleaned, and do not require toxic products to maintain. They have an average useful lifespan estimated at 50 years, with easy replacement of individual damaged tiles at any point in time, while being both water and fire resistant.

Historically, the manufacturing of ceramics has had a large environmental footprint through the generation of greenhouse gases, excessive water use, steep electrical and thermal energy use (powering the heating of kilns to 1400 degrees celsius for the firing of tiles), and the production of waste by-products that were typically diverted to landfills.

The Grespania ceramic tile factory relies extensively on automated processes, which have been engineered to reduce energy use, save on water consumption, and recycle scrap material into new product. Courtesy Grespania

Fortunately, this is no longer the case. For decades, Spain’s ceramic tile industry has been developing advanced sustainable approaches to production, focusing on energy- and water-saving measures, along with innovative recycling initiatives. For instance, heat siphoning and reuse are employed in the clay firing and spray-drying processes, and the invention of roller kilns in the 1980s sped up the process of firing tile: what once took a full day now takes hours. Solar energy is widely used in Spain and cogeneration is becoming more prominent, resulting in energy savings between 15 and 40 percent compared to more conventional sources. Tellingly, in the past 20 years, ceramics production in Spain has tripled—but the industry has simultaneously reduced gaseous emissions by 75 percent from the consumption levels of the 1970s.

In addition, the ceramic tile industry has been reusing manufacturing waste-products. A Spanish multi-organizational initiative called LIFECERAM aims to attain zero-waste manufacturing. Manufacturers involved have developed a method of recycling scraps as they are cut. Reminiscent of pie crusts, the excess trimmings are sent back to the beginning of the process to be reground and reformed into new raw material. Some manufacturers have also begun incorporating recycled materials from other industries—such as glass and electronic appliance waste—into the production of tiles.

A pilot project called FERTILIFE focuses on the reuse of greenhouse gas emissions from the ceramics industry for agriculture. In this initiative, CO2 is captured in water destined for orange grove irrigation, as citrus trees prefer slightly acidic water.

In the beautiful surroundings of Valencia, it is abundantly clear that design excellence and environmentally conscious design are not at odds with one another. As designers, it is up to us to educate ourselves and to keep abreast of new developments in the industries from which we source materials, to ensure we fulfill our commitment to a healthy and sustainable built future.

Heather Dubbeldam, FRAIC, is principal of Dubbeldam Architecture + Design.