Contemporary Stone & Tile Design Magazine

Mirroring the Desert Landscape with Porcelain Tile

October 1, 2005
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For the recent renovation of an office/warehouse in Phoenix, AZ, architect Michael P. Johnson chose 2- x 3-foot Marazzi Lavagna Levigato black porcelain tiles to clad the exterior facade.Architect: Michael P. Johnson Design Studio, Cave Creek, AZ Tile Manufacturer: Marazzi Gruppo Ceramiche S.p.A., Sassuolo (MO), Italy


When presented with the opportunity to freshen up the exterior facade of an office/warehouse in Phoenix, AZ, architect Michael P. Johnson jumped at the chance to experiment with something new. Although Johnson had initially been introduced to ventilated facade systems five years earlier, he never had the ideal circumstances to use one until this project. The building was desperately in need of revitalization, and an exterior cladding of large-format Italian porcelain tile provided the sophisticated image that his client desired.

“My client is in the floor covering business - every kind of flooring there is - linoleum, carpeting, tile, stone - the whole nine yards,” said Johnson, who runs Michael P. Johnson Design Studio in Cave Creek, AZ. “His warehouse was drab. It was just built as a service building without any design to it. I was involved with other projects with him, so he asked me to do something to improve it. He wanted to dress up this building.”

The architect went on to explain that his reasoning behind selecting the ventilated facade system was two-fold. Not only would it create a beautiful aesthetic for the exterior of the 20,000-square-foot building, but it also could open up another business avenue for his client. “I thought and suggested to the client that this could be a good way for him to get involved in another area,” said Johnson. “It was the perfect solution to what my client wanted to accomplish. Not only because it was a great solution to any problem of that nature, but specifically, because he works in this industry. The building became an advertising tool.”

According to Johnson, he first learned about the system when he won the Ceramic Tiles of Italy Design Competition in 2001. “I was sent to Cersaie, [an international tile exhibition held annually in Bologna, Italy], and asked to participate in a seminar where the system was presented,” said the architect. “Of course, I had never been introduced to it before. My reaction was that it was very expensive. My practice is based on smaller projects, where cost becomes an important aspect. But, with this building, it was a very logical place to go. Everybody ought to be looking into it.”

Re-facing the Exterior

Before the renovation, the structure's facade included an exposed aggregate finish with a disjointed array of windows and doors on the lower portion, which measured 8 feet. Johnson used a 134-foot-long x 40-inch-wide steel beam to unify the door and window openings. The addition of the steel beam became the benchmark for the ventilated wall system, which now wraps the entire building.

The structure was clad in 2- x 3-foot Marazzi Lavagna Levigato tiles, which are black polished porcelain. The material was chosen due to its reflective quality. “The reason I selected that was because it would mirror the desert,” said Johnson. “The whole remodeling is based 8- to 24-foot high. There's a 16-foot band of tile all the way around the building.”

The sleek look of the tiles also projects a simple clean image. “One of the upsides to the product is the maintenance-free quality,” said the architect. “The building will always look fresh. The polished porcelain self-cleans and doesn't attract pollutants. If you look at stainless steel or platinum or any kind of metal - in an environment like New York City - buildings start to look tired. With porcelain, you have the rains to clean it. It looks like a glass surface. Pollutants don't engage themselves.”

Choosing a System

Johnson explained that there are two types of ventilated facade systems - a “blind system,” where the fasteners are concealed; and an “exposed system,” where the fasteners are visible on the outside of the tile. “I went with the exposed system because the tiles are 8 feet up so you won't see [the fasteners],” he said.

According to many tile manufacturers, the ventilated facade system offers many benefits, including savings on construction and heating and cooling costs. Available in various tile sizes and colors, these systems present architects with a range of choices, and therefore don't compromise designs. Additionally, with porcelain tile being lighter than most stone panels, there is less of a load on walls.

While the use of porcelain tile in ventilated facade systems has been increasingly growing in Northern and Central Europe for the past 30 years, it has not been used much in the U.S. Arturo Mastelli of AM&A Marketing Inc. in Key Biscayne, FL, a veteran with years of experience working in the ceramic tile industry, has spent the last several years researching and lecturing about the use of these systems in the U.S. “Arturo Mastelli is the foremost expert on [ventilated facade systems] in the U.S.,” said Johnson. “We have done symposiums together.”

Mastelli's experiences led him to start his consulting company in the U.S. “I've had to re-write specifications, and have all these systems tested to conform and apply to local codes and requirements [in U.S. cities],” he said “Due to these specific experiences, I put together enough information to share experiences with as many architects as I can.”

Environmental issues play a large part of the education Mastelli is passing on to architects in his seminars. “I had the chance to do additional research with the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency], and I have data showing and proving that buildings built according to regulations are much more efficient and more profitable,” said Mastelli. “These buildings performed way over any other building that doesn't have compliance with Energy Star. The cost of energy to cool and heat a building is a good 48 to 51% of the total. When they realize there's a 25% savings on energy - it's a big chunk.”

Installing the Tile

In addition to being cost efficient and aesthetically pleasing, the installation of the ventilated facade system is also relatively simple, according to Johnson. “It's very easy to install,” he said. “One of my client's employees went to Italy to go through a quick lesson to learn to install the system. You install these clips, and then install the verticals and horizontals, and then click the tiles on them.”

With a crew of six installers, it would probably take three or four weeks to complete a building of this size, explained Johnson. In the case of the warehouse, the client completed the work in his spare time.

“I am dying for the right project to use [the ventilated facade system] on the right residence,” said the architect. “Imagine how beautiful it could be in the desert reflecting the natural plants. This system can very easily compete with other kinds of surfacing that people are using. It beats titanium, metal siding, aluminum or stainless steel.”

Johnson's work on the office/warehouse in Phoenix recently won him the Ceramic Tiles of Italy Design Competition 2005 in the commercial category. The architect also won the residential category award for an elegant renovation of a modest mid-century home belonging to a local female firefighter.

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