Stone Edge Surfaces, of Mesa, Arizona, reports that they have seen a 30% increase in sales of their terrazzo supplies in recent years, and they expect this growth to continue. This is due in part to developing new techniques for providing the aggregate and other materials that makes terrazzo flooring easier to install. But building clients are also seeing that terrazzo offers a host of advantages for new facilities. The Stone Edge Surfaces web page notes that customers have been rediscovering terrazzo over the last decade, drawn to terrazzo’s beauty and durability. Further, besides traditional institutional customers like schools and hospitals, and commercial interests like hotels and shopping centers, in recent years demand for terrazzo has expanded to include home builders with discriminating tastes.
How can terrazzo contractors build on this prosperity?
Educate architects about terrazzo
Architects need to know more about the basics for working with terrazzo. This includes the history of terrazzo, terrazzo materials, uses and advantages, and how terrazzo is installed. Most architects have heard of terrazzo from school and work experience, but don’t know much about it.
Solving that should be simple. Architects don’t need to commit to lengthy courses or training programs, or even weekend seminars. Some modest training videos and print materials would meet the need. Trade associations like the NCTA could invite representatives of the architectural firms in a community to a free lunch meeting, where they could talk about terrazzo briefly, show images of terrazzo flooring projects, screen a marketing video, and hand out literature, including the names of local terrazzo contractors. The NTMA can also provide training materials that architectural firms could use internally for their own staff. Trade groups that represent terrazzo contractors need to work to get architects thinking about how they can use terrazzo flooring in their projects.
Make sure architects understand what they should stress with their clients
When presenting terrazzo as an option for a client, an architect should focus on terrazzo’s three greatest advantages:
- Cost effectiveness
Terrazzo is more expensive than other kinds of flooring, but it costs less than tile or carpeting in the long run. This is important to municipal governments or school boards with tight budgets. Terrazzo flooring can also be uncommonly beautiful, and thus be used to make a statement about a community or institution to visitors, clients, and the general public. This is particularly important for facilities where image is important, such as sports arenas or airport terminals. A client can enjoy a remarkable work of art that becomes integral to a public space. Terrazzo is also quite flexible in terms of color palette, design, and layout. Finally, terrazzo is sustainable; a developer interested in LEED certification for a new facility would naturally choose terrazzo floors.
The cost of a terrazzo project depends on both the size of the space to cover and on the complexity of the design. Each color in a palette must be poured separately, one day for each color. So as a rule the more sophisticated the design and color scheme, the more labor required and the more expensive the project. But even considering this, clients with tight budgets should be shown that they don’t need to give up on using terrazzo to create a distinctive design. On the contrary, two of the 16 honor award winners for 2011 from the National Terrazzo and Mosaic Association were public elementary schools, and another recognized terrazzo flooring in a public library. Many clients see real value in not only installing terrazzo, but in paying a little extra for a work of art that will turn heads for decades to come. The material can profoundly enhance the image of any building.
Brag about the artist!
Creating a terrazzo floor is a team approach where, oddly, one member of the team tends to be overlooked. In web sites, print materials, conventions, and announcements, when a new construction or renovation project is celebrated, laurels are offered and wine glasses clinked to the architect, the general contractor, and the company that actually installs the terrazzo. But what about the person who creates the design? The architectural firm responsible for the new building relies on an artist with a specialty in terrazzo flooring to select the color palette, choose the patterns and materials, and create the art work. Then the terrazzo contractor creates the final product using those designs. Sometimes the architectural firm will provide the design with their own staff, and sometimes the firm will subcontract the flooring design to another architectural firm or to an independent designer with a specialty in this area. In the end the client can enjoy a work of great beauty, but the artist doesn’t get to add his or her initials.
That doesn’t mean that the artist involved should be ignored, however. “There should be an opportunity for the NTCA to celebrate and reward their designers for their use of the material,” Franceschina observed. “I’ve seen associations celebrate the contractors, but not give credit to the designer. Give more attention to the architect who created the design for the terrazzo, and the architects will be more interested in selling it.” The NTMA web site is a case in point. For the 2011 Honor Awards, the National Terrazzo and Mosaic Association recognizes 16 projects across the country. On nearly every project page, the company that sold the resin for use in laying the terrazzo floor is listed. The artists who created the award-winning designs are specifically mentioned only four times.
Muller & Muller of Chicago was the architect of record for West Ridge Elementary School of Chicago, which opened in September of 2010. They were also responsible for the designs for the terrazzo flooring, featuring the planets on the third floor, presidents of the United States on the second, and the mathematical value, Pi, on the first. When their design was granted an NTMA Honor Award in 2011, Mindy Viamontes and her design team were left to congratulate themselves. “The terrazzo contractor was the first to find out that they had actually won,” Viamontes said. “We found out a few weeks later. We contacted the terrazzo contractor and they let us know.”
Stress that terrazzo is flexible
In speaking with Franceschina about marketing terrazzo to his firm’s clients, it was no surprise that the high cost of terrazzo emerged as the biggest challenge he faces. But another unexpected challenge also appears. “Terrazzo is perceived as an expensive flooring solution,” he said. “And because of its permanence, it is perceived as something the client or property owner can’t change.”
Terrazzo is a remarkably durable flooring material. But for some clients, terrazzo can be too durable. What if a client has an existing building with a terrazzo floor that looks dated? What if the client wants to change the color palette and design to help an older building compete with its neighbors? Terrazzo lasts forever, and that’s a selling point, but that also means that terrazzo is hard to replace, right?
Not necessarily. “I have a current client with a building completed in the late 1980s, and they are looking at remodeling their public spaces for the 21st century,” Franceschina said. “The terrazzo floor is very representative of the late 80s, such as the pastel colors that were trendy back then. It has not stood the test of time aesthetically. “
Modern materials and techniques make it practical for a building owner to upgrade or replace an existing terrazzo floor. Historically, if a client wanted to replace a terrazzo floor the original flooring would have needed to be broken out with jackhammers to prepare a surface for laying a new one. This is because concrete-based terrazzo had to be at least three inches thick. But more modern epoxy floors only need to be an inch thick, making it possible to simply cover an existing terrazzo floor with a new one. Franceschina’s client was interested in a more neutral color, design, and pattern, something that would be relevant in the future. In this case he contractor had to adjust the doorways and thresholds, but other than that the cost of providing a replacement terrazzo floor was no more than any other terrazzo project. Similarly, O’Hare Airport in Chicago spent $39 million in 2010 to renovate terminal three, and part of that project was to replace the floors. The original terrazzo had seen a lot of wear since the 1960s, but more than that a design created in the days of gas for 50 cents a gallon needed to be made relevant for air travelers carrying iPhones and laptops.
Usually clients don’t replace an existing terrazzo floor, because terrazzo rarely wears out. Further, historic designs, such as those found in buildings built from the 1890s through about 1930, are usually uncommonly elegant. But the late 1960s through the early 1980s was an age rather remote from the great moments in the heritage of human artistic endeavor. The era that gave us:
- Starsky & Hutch
- Polyester leisure suits
- The aptly named “Brutalist” style of architecture, typified by the Boston City Hall, declared the ugliest building in the world in a 2008 poll
has been fairly described as the decade that produced “the worst music, the ugliest clothing, and the most tasteless architecture in the history of western civilization.” Given the general lack of judgment that seems to have prevailed in the era of Watergate, it wouldn’t be too surprising if some developers at the time produced buildings—and terrazzo floors—that their sons and daughters wondered about later. Further, artistic tastes and social values change over time, as well as economic patterns, technology, and demographics. So a building that is otherwise structurally sound after 40 or 50 years might be functionally obsolete and in need of a new role, or in need of a renovation project to keep up with the times and the competition. The same can hold true of that building’s terrazzo floor. And as Luigi Franceschina points out, terrazzo can be updated when necessary.
Selling terrazzo to private developers
But that leads to another problem. The durability of terrazzo is a selling point for savvy government agencies and institutions that seek to control long-term maintenance costs. And that’s why developers working for the private sector, building shopping centers, office buildings, and condominium towers, and luxury homes, tend to perceive terrazzo as something for institutional use. According to Ryan von Drehle of GREC Associates, contractors working on private developments ironically see terrazzo as less prestigious, despite its elegance and initial cost. “A lot of private clients would rather use stone or marble,” von Drehle said. “They ask, ‘Wouldn’t you expect terrazzo in a hospital or school?’”
GREC Associates still suggest terrazzo when designing privately-owned spaces such as restaurant interiors or office lobbies. But in that they face a second irony. While a pension fund or venture capital group looking to finance a Midtown Manhattan office building might not, in fact, worry overmuch about how much terrazzo costs to install, von Drehle has learned that they are, conversely, also harder to motivate when it comes to the standard counter-argument; terrazzo costs less in the long run because it lasts for decades. “A lot of developers in office or restaurant interiors are interested in the next five years, not the next 20 years,” von Drehle observed. Developers working on projects for private owners like office buildings or shopping centers are likely to either sell the property or renovate it within the next 10 to 20 years, or even less. So marketing terrazzo to private developers can be rather like trying to market energy-efficiency to homeowners. The remodeling market still does a brisk business selling efficient replacement windows. But if a suburbanite installs photovoltaic panels on his roof to generate his own electricity, he might need to wait for over 30 years until his investment pays for itself. Very few homeowners expect to stay in their homes that long. Likewise a developer looking to build an office complex or condominium tower has no long-term interest in cost savings, So offering this developer terrazzo as a floor that lasts forever can, in fact, backfire.
That doesn’t mean that the developer raising the Midtown Manhattan office building can’t be inspired to try terrazzo over marble in the lobby. The architect simply has to find the right way to motivate the client. And that architect should notice that the same developer is likely to spend a lot of money for a work of art or sculpture to grace a grand, sunny, atrium lobby. The idea is to turn heads. So why not include art in the floor as well?
An architect can stress to a developer who wants to build a private commercial property that terrazzo can be used to create a statement in a competitive market. A property owner can invite visitors to walk on a remarkable work of art, a splash of color and design that makes the property stand out among its peers. Terrazzo allows far more flexibility than granite or marble flooring in this regard. For a property competing for tenants, an elegant floor design can be a real bonus.
Architects should also stress for private projects terrazzo’s sustainability, if not its durability. A new developer will look to advertise a new property while it is under construction, as well as when it is finished. In the 21st century, that means telling potential tenants that a new building has a LEED certification. Terrazzo flooring can be a part of that certification, relying on locally-sourced and recycled or reused materials.
For municipal government bodies and other institutions, terrazzo flooring enjoys a lot of momentum. They can see the value in a flooring system that lasts indefinitely. For private developers, terrazzo can be used—in several different ways—to create an image that can enhance a property’s marketability.