CERAMIC TILE IS SO DURABLE THAT IT is likely to outlast the houses you build—which may explain why home buyers love the material so much. Ubiquitous in kitchens and baths, ceramic is water resistant, hard wearing, and (relatively) easy to clean, which is why manufacturers say it should not be restricted to the wet areas of the home.
“We do see it being used more and more [in other areas of the house],” says Patti Fasan, a Vancouver, British Columbia–based designer and consultant for Tile of Spain, which represents the Spanish tile industry in North America. “It is a growing trend.”
According to The Freedonia Group, a Cleveland-based market research firm, the U.S. demand for hard-surface flooring is seeing strong gains and is projected to advance 5.5 percent per year through 2009. Consumers still have a preference for wood flooring, but the material is often too expensive, so they end up picking vinyl or laminate. And while vinyl is still the leading hard-surface flooring, it has lost significant share to laminate flooring and ceramic tile.
TREND SPOTTING Performance isn't the only attribute ceramic has going for it. Thanks to cutting-edge manufacturing and technology, the material is no longer stuck on whites and beiges but can take on a wide variety of colors and designs. “We continue to see growth because people are looking at the designs, more colors, and accent pieces,” says Laurie Lyza, marketing manage for Crossville, Tenn.–based Crossville.
Arguably the hottest design trends come from Europe, and Spain and Italy are the leading proponents, responsible for tile that looks like wood, metal, and concrete. “New collections of Italian tiles replicate everything from linens to woven textiles to leather and crocodile skin,” wrote Ceramic Tiles of Italy, the country's trade arm in the United States, in its yearly trend report. At the same time, Spanish manufacturers are exploring textured surfaces, Asian-influenced styles, and products with a nod to the '70s, Fasan says.
“Everyone is influenced by Italy and Spain,” says Marc Nover, general manager of Monroe Township, N.J.–based Villeroy & Boch, a manufacturer of ceramic tiles.
For example, says Nover, one of the trends that originated in Europe is large-format tiles. While American consumers were selecting 4-inch-, 6-inch-, and 12-inch-square sizes, European manufacturers were introducing to their buyers products measuring 26 inches by 12 inches or 36 inches by 18 inches.
“[The large-format] trend has taken a while, but it's starting to penetrate the U.S. market,” says Nover. Crossville, for example, is set to release it first 24-inch-square product, Lyza says.
Of course, not all styles catch on. Rectified tiles—those whose edges have been cut truly flat so that they install with tight grout lines—originated in Europe, but the style has not been very popular here. “We don't sell much, but I am not sure why,” says Nover.
PRESSING ISSUES Ceramic tile has many positive attributes, but it still has some inherent qualities that could hinder its acceptance as a flooring material in a family room, say, or a den.
“Ceramic reflects what the ambient temperature is,” Fasan says, so if a room is warm the floor will be warm. In-floor radiant heat could easily solve the problem in colder climates, she says, adding that radiant heat is more efficient. Additionally, the same feature that makes ceramic durable—its hardness—could make it uncomfortable for some people to stand or sit on. This may not be a dealbreaker for all home buyers, but some consumers prefer to have plush carpet underfoot in the living room or family room.
Still, manufacturers feel that tile offers enough benefits to be the ideal floor for residential construction and also has added value for home builders.
“More and more builders are having to differentiate, so they have to give buyers value,” Fasan explains. “They have to list features that save buyers energy and offer [low] maintenance and durability.”