Understanding Terrazzo Floors

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Home Improvement

Terrazzo floors are highly durable and can add beauty to any space, be it a residential or commercial setting.

Have you ever stopped to notice the flooring beneath your feet? Terrazzo floors are not a common term for many, but they are quite popular in commercial and residential spaces for their durability and aesthetic appeal. The origin of terrazzo can be traced back to Western Asia, but it was Italian mosaic workers who invented it in the 15th century. It is made by laying chips of marble, glass, granite, stone, or even mirrored pieces of different sizes and shapes onto a concrete bed, which is then dyed and polished to a glossy finish. Terrazzo is used for flooring, walls, countertops, benches, and more. It can be decorative or utilitarian and is often used in high-traffic areas like airports, office buildings, and hospitals for its low maintenance and bacteria-resistant qualities. It is also an eco-friendly option as it can be made with recycled glass or other materials and does not emit toxic compounds.

There are three basic types of terrazzo flooring, with traditional or cementitious terrazzo being the first. This type of terrazzo dates back to the Venetian era and was made by using leftover pieces of materials, clay, and goat’s milk as a sealant. The workers did everything by hand, including polishing the rough surface to make it smooth and comfortable for walking. The traditional terrazzo is expensive due to the labor-intensive process and skilled workers required.

Venetian Terrazzo

Venetian-style terrazzo is known for its intricate designs and is a popular choice for high-end residential and commercial projects.

Venetian terrazzo is a modern version of traditional terrazzo. It is known for its intricate designs and is a popular choice for high-end residential and commercial projects. The process of making Venetian terrazzo is similar to traditional terrazzo, but it involves using a resin matrix instead of cement, which provides greater flexibility and allows for more intricate designs. The resin matrix is also more resistant to stains and scratches, making it more durable.

Rustic Terrazzo

Rustic terrazzo is a budget-friendly option and is perfect for areas that don’t require a glossy finish.

Rustic terrazzo is the most budget-friendly option and is perfect for areas that do not require a glossy finish. It is made using a mixture of cement and aggregates, which is left unpolished, giving it a rough and textured finish. It is commonly used in outdoor spaces, garages, and basements.

Terrazzo, also known as cementitious terrazzo, is a heavy flooring option that requires a thick cement foundation slab to be laid. The sand-cushion variation is said to be the best option for this type of terrazzo. A membrane is placed on top of the cement slab to block moisture, followed by a layer of sand. Metal or plastic dividers are then added to allow for color changes and to prevent cracking. The terrazzo topping, made of cement and aggregate, is then applied. This results in around three inches of flooring that weighs about 25 pounds per square foot. The flooring also takes a long time to dry. However, this type of flooring can be installed both indoors and outdoors, and moisture is not a concern due to its breathable nature.

Polyacrylate terrazzo, on the other hand, is a more modern option that is less heavy and complicated. This type of terrazzo involves laying the chips in a matrix of cement and latex, which allows for a thinner layer of only three-eighths of an inch. It can be installed in a single day and is less expensive than traditional terrazzo. However, it requires a level concrete floor with joints placed at specific distances and dividers to prevent cracking. This type of flooring weighs about four and a half pounds per square foot.

Polyacrylate terrazzo is a breathable option that can be used outside and has the added benefit of being able to include glass and mirrored chips, as well as being available in a variety of colors. It is a popular choice for walls and other applications due to its thinness and quick curing time. Epoxy terrazzo, on the other hand, is a resin-based option that is the most popular type of terrazzo installed today due to its versatility, strength, and resistance to scratching, fading, cracking, and staining. It can be installed in multi-story buildings and is available in any color, making it the best choice for intricate, multi-colored designs. However, it is non-breathable and can trap moisture between the concrete slab and the terrazzo topping, leading to loose topping. It also cannot be installed outdoors and requires a solvent for installation and cleanup, which can be too strong for some ventilation systems. Overall, each type of terrazzo has its pros and cons, and it is important to maintain it properly to prevent scratches and stains.

Installing Terrazzo: Initial Steps

Compared to other types of flooring, installing terrazzo is a more intricate process that requires the expertise of professional contractors. While there are different variations of terrazzo, traditional terrazzo requires a thick concrete base, which means that your contractor needs to assess your current sub-flooring. If you’re planning to install terrazzo outside, this may not be as complicated, but if you’re installing it in an existing building, a lot of time and money will be spent. On the other hand, if you’re getting polyacrylate or epoxy terrazzo and you already have a concrete slab, your contractor just needs to check it to ensure that it’s sound and level.

Once the sub-flooring has been assessed, the workers will clean it, repair any defects, and prepare it for the type of terrazzo you’re getting. This process is called creating the CSP (concrete surface profile). Traditional terrazzo requires a rougher concrete surface, while thin-set systems like epoxy can go on a relatively smooth surface. Depending on the type of terrazzo, a special membrane may need to be placed on top of the cement to prevent cracking or act as a moisture barrier.

For traditional terrazzo, a layer of sand and then a layer of cement are added before the design is put in place. For polyacrylate and epoxy, the design is added directly onto the surface. The design is planned out ahead of time and can be as intricate as you want it to be. Color changes in the design are separated by dividing strips made out of different materials like plastic, copper, zinc, or brass. Workers solder joints together and then attach the dividing strips to the concrete. If you don’t want a whole terrazzo floor, you can still use it in smaller, more affordable ways in homes and offices such as countertops, benches, or preformed tiles.

Installation of Terrazzo: The Attractive Part

Terrazzo, which can be incredibly ornate and beautiful like the flooring found in St. Peter’s Basilica, is the topic of discussion.

Finally, the beautiful part! The cement, cement matrix, or epoxy is mixed on site, and colors are added directly to the mix. Then the aggregate, which consists of glass, marble, and granite chips, is added. If there are many different colors, it means many different mixes. Epoxy cures quickly, so it will be finished in smaller sections. The topping is then spread evenly between the divider strips with trowels, or poured if it’s a thinner aggregate. The next step is curing, which could take less than a day or several days in the case of traditional terrazzo.

Once the terrazzo is cured, it might look rustic, like lumpy concrete. You might like this appearance in outdoor applications, and some people do leave their terrazzo that way. However, this is probably not the look you want to walk on in your office or home building. This is where grinding comes in. A massive grinding machine with disks covered in diamond or carborundum (silicon carbide) is run over the floor to expose the chips and create a smooth surface. There will inevitably be some small holes left in the surface due to air pockets when the terrazzo was spread, so workers will go back and fill all of these in with grout. Then they apply a sealer to prevent any staining or moisture from getting into the design.

The last step is polishing and waxing, after which the beauty of terrazzo can truly be seen. Wasn’t it worth the cost? But how much does it cost? You may ask. In my state, using a cost estimator provided by the National Terrazzo and Mosaic Association, it can cost between $10 and $16 per square foot. However, terrazzo has what industry people call a “superior life cycle cost benefit.” Though the initial installation is expensive, you don’t have to worry about replacing or repairing it like you do with carpet, tile, or just about any other type of flooring for at least 40 years. So enjoy. Or, if you’re like me, admire its beauty and durability anytime you walk across it.

Author’s Remark

When I first learned that I had to write about flooring, I wasn’t exactly thrilled, to be honest. I had a vague idea of what terrazzo was, but I didn’t know anything about its history, complexity, or versatility. At best, I thought terrazzo was like a poor cousin to mosaic. Yes, that’s how it started, but it has become its own art form and gained new life through its “green” possibilities. You can see utilitarian or ornate examples of terrazzo in all sorts of places. Terrazzo can be found in a hospital, a university building, a sidewalk in New York, or in famous landmarks like St. Peter’s Basilica or Mount Vernon, the estate of George Washington. I’ll be paying closer attention to what’s under my feet from now on!

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1. What is Terrazzo?

Terrazzo is a flooring material that consists of chips of marble, glass, granite or other aggregates set in a cement or epoxy binder. The surface is polished to a high shine and can be customized with different colors, patterns and designs. It was first developed in Italy in the 15th century as a way to reuse leftover marble scraps.

2. What are the benefits of Terrazzo?

Terrazzo is a durable and long-lasting flooring option that can withstand heavy foot traffic and extreme weather conditions. It is also easy to maintain and clean, as it is resistant to staining and scratching. Additionally, Terrazzo is a sustainable choice, as it can be made with recycled materials and has a long lifespan, reducing the need for frequent replacements.

3. How is Terrazzo installed?

The installation process for Terrazzo involves several steps. First, the surface to be covered is prepared by cleaning, leveling and priming. Then, a layer of cement or epoxy is applied, followed by the aggregates in the desired pattern. The surface is then left to cure for several days before being ground down and polished to a smooth finish.

4. Can Terrazzo be used in outdoor spaces?

Yes, Terrazzo can be used in outdoor spaces such as patios, walkways and pool decks. However, it is important to use a sealant to protect the surface from moisture and prevent cracking or discoloration. Additionally, outdoor Terrazzo should be installed by a professional who is experienced in handling the unique challenges of outdoor installations.

5. How does Terrazzo compare to other flooring options?

Terrazzo is often compared to other popular flooring options such as hardwood, carpet and tile. While each has its own unique benefits and drawbacks, Terrazzo offers a combination of durability, customization and sustainability that is hard to match. Additionally, Terrazzo can be more cost-effective in the long run, as it can last for decades without needing to be replaced.

6. Can Terrazzo be repaired if it becomes damaged?

Yes, Terrazzo can be repaired if it becomes chipped, cracked or stained. A professional Terrazzo installer can use a combination of grinding, patching and polishing to restore the surface to its original condition. However, it is important to address any damage as soon as possible to prevent it from worsening and requiring more extensive repairs.

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