Canada’s solid reasons for embracing hard surfaces

FOLKS IN THE FLOOR COVERING BUSINESS are passionate about what they offer, none more so than tile and stone suppliers. With all of the materials competition in Canada — carpet, resilient, hardwood, engineered floors — what makes solid surfaces such as tile and stone so appealing?

In some cases, the economic argument to the client becomes too compelling to consider anything else. George Kneider, principal of Kneider Architects in Toronto, Ont., put together just such a monetary case in front of a local school board a few years ago.

Kneider found that schools at the time were particular towards using vinyl tile, especially in the face of unit cost comparisons to porcelain tile. “I said, ‘I want to put porcelain tile in the corridors and some of the classrooms because it is cheaper than vinyl tile,’” says Kneider. “They looked at me like I’m crazy. I said, ‘let me explain to you why it is.’”

His case wasn’t immediately obvious, but when he got them to examine how they were running the school at Christmas, Easter and summer holiday breaks, the penny dropped. “They empty out the classrooms and strip the vinyl tile, wash it, then come back and wax it and polish it and bring the desks back in to every room. They do that three times a year.

“So, I said, ‘run your costs on that as to what it costs to leave them in the room and just wash and clean the floors and let them self-dry when the school is out.’

“We ran the numbers over a five-year-period, and they saved $2 million.” Taking into account the initial cost of the tile — both vinyl and porcelain — over that period of time was how much money the school saved in labour.


According to Kara MacGregor, principal at Mac Interior Design in Halifax, N.S., time scale is also important to her many commercial clients. “The other big selling feature is if you have a client who is looking at a five-year product installation versus material that they want to last a decade or longer, like a hotel lobby, a mall or a big corporate building.

“They don’t want to be replacing their floors every five or 10 years — it is way too inconvenient. Tile can last decades.”

MacGregor observes that there is a “buy local” trend happening in many industries in Canada, affecting many choices by those in the A&D (architect and designer) community.

“People want to eat local, buy local and they want things made local,” says MacGregor. “Canada has this great granite industry that if people are interested in local, they can draw upon this natural resource. It is a really good, durable material. If you go back to Italy, stone has been around for hundreds of years.”


President and c.e.o. Sylvia Benchimol of Stone Tile International in Toronto believes that people can be genuinely attracted to stone. “They are driven more by the romance of stone and the idea of having a piece of nature in their house,” says Benchimol. “These are people who don’t care about the maintenance and will forgo practicalities for beauty.”

Stone Tile, also with locations in Montreal, Que., Calgary, Alta., and Vancouver, B.C., has noticed that in the Toronto market at least, there is a trend for customers looking to have their stone cut to size. “They are not really looking for tile that is in stock but what they or their designers want,” says Benchimol. “I find that more and more, we are just selling slabs cut to size, and less and less tile. Consequently, we are inventorying less tiles and more slabs. Whether it’s commercial or even high-end residential, I find a huge switch to cut to size in the last few years.”

She adds that the most important thing about stone is that the client user has to be willing to maintain it and must understand stone. “We train our people to really manage our clients’ expectations of the stone. People pick a stone a year in advance. The blocks come in and they look different.

“When you sell stone, it is a little more complicated then when we sell porcelain. There is a lot of training of salespeople and how they sell — how they manage their clients’ expectations.”

Kneider Architects specifies porcelain and ceramic tiles, as well as marble, granite, Caesarstone and quartz, so it needs to be properly educated by companies such as Stone Tile on these surfaces to ensure its clients get a material that works for them and their budgets.

According to Kneider, his firm might do four major building projects in a year, so it relies on suppliers to furnish the proper information. “Those people do it every day because that is their business. I rely heavily on them.”


He has a word of caution for those businesses that might take advantage of his firm: “I have said to many of them, ‘you can do the first job for us, but it will be two jobs if you don’t do it right. It will be your first and your last job.’

“Interestingly enough when they hear that they say, ‘well.’ I say ‘I want you to give us the right answers. I can give you the next 30 jobs, but you have to earn our respect for what you are telling us because we rely on you to tell us the goods. I don’t want you to upsell me on something just because it’s a better commission. That is nothing to what you could get over a period of ten years.’

“They then begin to realize this, and it is amazing with some of them how their attitude totally changes. They say ‘We do know our business. We know it very well.’ I have always said, ‘I have to surround myself with the right people because they do their job every day.’” Stone Tile prides itself on its outside sales force that visits architects, designers, builders and contractors. In conjunction with its four showrooms across the country that are also open to the public, Benchimol says, “we are constantly visiting architects, updating the libraries, bringing new stones, talking about new stones, making presentations.”

Technical information that is imparted by suppliers to the A&D community naturally becomes knowledge that can be shared with both commercial and residential clients. In the end, it always comes down to what works best for the client’s project and the budget, according to MacGregor. For example, she can tell a client that solid body porcelain is distinct from glazed porcelain tile. “Solid body porcelain tile has that natural, deep abrasion resistance,” says MacGregor. “It still is one of the best ways to get a full high slip resistance rating and is technically more durable than granite.

“Every different porcelain has its own technical characteristics. But generally speaking, for solid body porcelain, you get a price point that it is obviously much cheaper than granite.”

MacGregor knows that you can get really good quality LVTs that have ceramic bead coatings that make it much more scratch resistant. “But then you get up to premium dollars for that premium product — and it usually falls out of the budget,” she says. “You could get a porcelain tile in for much cheaper.”

The porcelain tile still is probably going to have better scratch resistance than even the top end LVT with ceramic beads, according to MacGregor. “It is really about look and function. If you have any vehicular traffic, for example, like car dealerships, or wheeled traffic, like hotels with luggage carts and in retail settings the grocery carts, it really does drive a porcelain tile as the most durable solution. Because the price can vary so much it can be really cost effective as well.


“To me what still wins for natural stone is that every particular stone has its own technical characteristic. Some are harder and some are softer. Some are more prone to acid spills some are not. So, if someone spills a Coke, you have to get right at it — or it will probably be OK for a little bit.”

In Canada’s colder climate, in-floor heating systems are increasingly an alternative source of warmth and a technology that requires porcelain and ceramic tiles for the most part. However, Benchimol doesn’t see in-floor heating as that commonplace. “Homeowners do it sometimes in bedrooms because people walk in their bare feet in their bedrooms. But don’t forget in Canada, that since the homes are heated not a lot of people go through that expense of heated floors.”

Kneider, however, is currently designing a country home that will be entirely tiled in porcelain and ceramic with in-floor heating using a geothermal technology to create a net zero energy house. His firm is also building a barn to house 100 dairy cows on the property.

This where one architect has had to stand on his toes to learn something new — the owner wants to use methane gas to heat and cool the barn. “If people ask me what I’m doing these days,” Kneider laughs, “I’m studying methane from cows.”

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