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Thinking Big for Award-Winning Tile Design

By Ron Treister

RMW architecture & interiors wins Ceramic Tiles of Italy’s annual design competition with its design of Brocade Communication’s new space and some extremely large format tiles.

For nearly two decades, Ceramic Tiles of Italy has sponsored a design competition showcasing the work of progressive North American architectural and design firms which specify Italian-made tile material for their projects. The competition traditionally has been very strong and this past year, the international jury had an understandably difficult task in selecting the winners. The tile installation that ultimately won best commercial project for 2010 clearly indicates how today's A&D community is "thinking big" by specifying extremely large format tile material.

At the Ceramic Tiles of Italy press conference, which was held on Tuesday, March 15 during Coverings 2011 in Las Vegas, the commercial/ hospitality award was given to San Francisco-based RMW architecture & interiors for its state-of-the-art tile designs at the new San Jose, Calif. campus of Brocade Communications. Produced using cutting-edge technology, extremely large format tile manufactured by Caesar Ceramiche (distributed by SpecCeramics Inc., and installed by DeAnza Tile and Reputable Tile) worked well within RMW's project.

The firm took on the mission of creating a work environment that encourages productivity and harmony within its client's progressive new 560,000-square-foot space, which will be home to 2,300 employees. The design gave Brocade Communications, a worldwide leader in networking solutions, the workspace needed to be both attractive and innovative, while concurrently encouraging teamwork and the building of community among staff members.

RMW created a unique design scenario consisting of three office buildings with universal workspaces, presentation theaters and outdoor cafes. An ISO 14001 porcelain tile collection was chosen as the flooring for the lobby, inside the elevators and elevator corridors, and throughout public spaces on each of the 18 floors in all three buildings. Throughout the Bladerunner Café, the floor and accent walls were also tiled to provide an attractive and easily maintained surface within the heavily trafficked area.

"The tile specified was absolutely ideal for this kind of project," says Dave Leal, president of SpecCeramics. "Being porcelain, it has good qualities such as low water absorption, wearability, low maintenance and color consistency. But more importantly, it should be recognized that [the manufacturer] invested in a brand new technology allowing for production of extremely large format tiles with incredibly tight tolerances for warpage, rectangularity, shade control and more. This was a project in which irregular tiles were not an option."

Karen Letteney, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP, of RMW architecture & interiors, was a lead member of the design team which worked on Brocade's interiors. "When it finally came to the selection of tile, it was important that the material chosen was of the right scale. And due to economics, this product would have to be thin set, not mortar set."

"When we first saw the Caesar product, our initial reaction was that it was offered with wonderful colors… those which gave off an honest architectural feeling," Letteney continues. "So, together with the flooring contractor, we worked on many mock-ups, some as large as 100 square feet, to make sure the look of the tile once installed completely met our stringent visual expectations. Collectively, we were extremely pleased."

"This was the first time we had ever installed large format tiles of that magnitude," says Rich Papapietro, president of DeAnza Tile, referring to the 2- by 4-foot tiles specified for the first floor and the 3- by 3-foot tiles for the second floor lobbies, hallways and other public areas. "We were really concerned that this specific tile product had never been installed in the United States prior to this project. Would it work correctly? So we went through a due diligence process. Working with the people at RMW, we created actual pre-installation mock-ups." Papapietro adds that because larger format tile means less visible grout joints, the floors offer a more monolithic look.

Brocade Communications also set a construction goal to achieve the highest green standards from the very beginning of the project. "Most of the materials specified for this interiors project contain recycled content," says Letteney. "A major effort was made for the data center and labs to be as energy-efficient as possible." The project is targeting LEED Gold certification and is undergoing its final review.

The building's large format tile installation resulted in some added benefits, as well. "There are three major advantages for using very large format porcelain tile," concludes Leal. "To begin with, large format tile allows for fewer grout joints. Secondly, large format flooring means much easier overall maintenance; the process of cleaning the surface of tile requires less labor than what is necessary to clean grout. And thirdly, think about the perception of the room with these large tiles. What is perceived for the most part is that large tile actually makes the area in which it has been installed appear much, much more spacious."