Historic tile, contemporary style

Design challenges drive use of natural stone, decorative mosaics, pavers
August 11, 2010

On the central grounds of the University of Virginia, at the heart of Thomas Jefferson's Academical Village, renovation and reuse have been ongoing since the statesman laid the foundation for the first of 10 pavilions in 1817.

"Architecture is my delight," wrote Jefferson, "and putting up and pulling down, one of my favorite amusements." Some of Jefferson's ideology never goes away. Amid an evolutionary, never-ending construction and renovation program, the historical buildings remain an occupied, integral part of university life almost 200 years after their construction.

At the north end of "the Lawn," facing the 10 pavilions connected by student dormitory rooms and looking out over the Blue Ridge Mountains, Jefferson's brick and marble, half-scaled version of Rome's Pantheon, "the Rotunda," was erected as the focal point of academic life at the school. Despite its destruction by fire in 1903, its resurrection that same year by the renowned New York architectural firm McKim Meade and White — and subsequent work to restore the Jeffersonian interiors lost in that firm's interpretation — the Rotunda remains today an active epicenter.

Sometime around 1939, a terraced walkway was constructed that encircled the Rotunda and connected its north and south porticoes. Railed with a white marble balustrade and topped with slate-grey stone, the new walkways became defining features and the paths most often traveled by visitors.

Truth be told, there is no record to indicate that Jefferson ever foresaw the use of a walkway like this at the Rotunda. The composition was thoroughly Jeffersonian, however, and a similar walkway exists at Monticello, Jefferson's home just a few miles away. The original design for the Rotunda did boast a long, thin "Gymnasium" on the south side, tucked neatly below the monumental staircase that meets the lawn.

Problems underfoot

The walkway itself was the focus of a face-lift in 1983. Pavers were pulled up and reinstalled, but the original marble balustrade was never removed. Within 10 years, however, it was clear to everyone that there were problems underfoot. Water was entering the structure from the walkway, and finding its own path through the gymnasium to the offices beyond, says James Murray Howard, curator and architect of The Academical Village. One such office, ironically, belonged to the very architect of the university.

Howard employed local architect Michael D. Stoneking, a principal with Stoneking/von Storch Architects, to help him investigate and repair the problem. Stoneking, in turn, brought in an investigative team of material scientists from the Washington, D.C., office of the Chicago E/A firm Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates (WJE) to find out where the water might be entering the structure. After first focusing on the terrace's field of greyish bluestone pavers, Matt Farmer, project manager from WJE, and his team turned their attention to the balustrade.

Upon its careful removal, it was discovered that the balustrade and associated cornice were set without the metal flashing being locked together, says Howard. "They were lapped, but not folded or locked together. Slow seepage of water from the terraces, which became greater over the years, produced chronic spalling of the plasterwork below." Stoneking adds that the balustrade and flashing were not part of the 1983 project. "This was an original condition," he explains.

The project team had its answer, and defined its methodology to resolve the problem. Charlottesville general contractor Martin-Horn Inc. disassembled the marble balustrade and cornice and cleaned it with natural bristle brushes and hot water; the old underlayment was removed, and the structural slab reinforced. New stainless-steel flashing was installed and properly locked, and a rubberized, monolithic asphalt membrane was installed for the new underlayment. WJE had previously used this material to resolve a similar condition at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, and recommended it for use at the Rotunda, as well.

For rebuilding the terraced walkway, Howard and Stoneking selected a dark grey Virginia granite with a roughened "thermal" surface texture. The team felt that the granite would hold up better over time, under the feet of the thousands of students and tourists that make daily use of the Rotunda and the famous lawn.

The project team completed 25 percent of the terraced walkway last summer, with plans to complete the lawn-side surfaces later this year. "This hasn't been a terribly complicated project, just a lot of hard work," says Everett Collins, Martin-Horn's project superintendent. "The only real challenge is the timing." As with most projects involving academic buildings, the University of Virginia tries to limit work to the summer months, between spring commencement and fall orientation.

During the selective demolition, Collins discovered two coins in the rubble, a penny from 1879, and a two-cent piece dated 1865, that sat under the corner of one of the massive portico columns. "Someone left me a message," Collins adds, noting that he plans to replace the coins by placing a gold dollar, circa 2000, in the same location, when a specially ordered piece of base marble arrives.

Porcelain lands at airport

The contemporary use of stone is not limited to the austerity of academia, nor the buttoned-up architecture of antiquity. In fact, recent projects for public areas have increasingly relied upon stone and tile to lend a lasting, weighty quality to their civic image. While much of the stonework has appeared in the hallowed halls of government and justice facilities, pavers, marble and granite tile are used more often on plazas, entrance areas and lobbies. Inside, terrazzo, brick and ceramic and porcelain tile add a lasting quality and sense of value.

Yet, the materials are increasingly specified for the most utilitarian of spaces as well, where acoustics and first-cost concerns may have once ruled out the use of stone. At the Sarasota-Bradenton (Fla.) International Airport, for example, Tampa-based interior design firm Kelly Taaffe Design Inc. created a new mosaic mural floor for the terminal building, covering more than 52,000 square feet of the airport's 240,000-sq.-ft. floor space with decorative stone tile.

"We wanted to be creative, yet needed durability and easy maintenance," says Kelly Taaffe, the firm's principal and the project designer. In the passenger terminal, which opened in 1989, Taaffe's intent was to use flooring as a tool to introduce travelers to the best of what Florida has to offer, namely the sun, the beach and aquatic wildlife.

Taaffe selected commercial-grade porcelain stone tile for her floor murals, which she notes "gave us unlimited design possibilities." The owner, Sarasota-Bradenton Airport Authority , supported the choice both because of its aesthetic possibilities and its 30-year life and warranty. The designer and owner compared the choice with carpet and vinyl composition tile, or VCT, in terms of lifespan, warranty, ease of maintenance — and acoustics. The authority was initially concerned with terminal noise and the transference of noise from outside; traditionally, most airport public spaces rely on carpet and sound-absorbing underlayment.

To address this issue, says Taaffe, "A noise-transference layer was installed between the substrate and the tile to help with acoustics." The designer then worked closely with Intercoastal Distributors, the tile manufacturer's local representative, and with Carpet Services of Tampa, the flooring contractor, to create a tile installation with an average grout joint of less than 1/8 inch. "This was a real challenge, considering the amount of floor space and the condition of the existing slab," notes Doug Mahoney, project manager for the tile supplier.

The result is an installation that exceeds industry standards for lippage — defined as places where tile edges are exposed, or have lips — and contributes to both the aesthetic and sound-absorption qualities the airport authority was seeking. Today, as travelers to southwestern Florida arrive and depart, they are treated to a floor design that is as pleasing to the ears as it is to the eyes.