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  • Writer's pictureJohn Henry Architect

Terrazzo: an old way of thinking with remarkably modern qualities!

I grew up walking on terrazzo floors before I even knew what they were.  Solid, beautifully colored, typically on a black or light ground with specks of stones embedded, and completely moisture resistant.  Smooth, shiny, easy to maintain, nearly impossible to mar. Spills easy to clean up.  As tough as concrete, terrazzo is prone only to high concentrations of acid or alkali, but can be repaired.  

Terrazzo flooring monochromatic
Monochromatic Terrazzo floor

This was in Turkey in the 60s - but it was in every country that touched the Mediterranean and in Germany and Scandinavia, Russia too.   We had it in the kitchen and bathrooms of our condo apartment.  It was in the common area floors on each level.  The speckled floors were in banks, restaurants, and nearly everywhere you looked.  They were used out of doors as well.

Art Deco Lobby

When I moved to Florida in about 1987, I saw terrazzo once again in houses from the 30s through the 60s, also in commercial buildings of the time.  Art Deco and Moderne styles featured these floors.  But then, during the 70s to date, the technique was seemingly abandoned.  Why? Some of the most dazzling examples are during the Baroque era in Venetian palaces.  Terrazzo was discovered in ancient Egypt and excavated in Neolithic houses, and a term originally ascribed to the technique of polished colored and burnt lime and clay.  But this is not the terrazzo that we know today.  

(right: terrazzo used in an Art Deco commercial installation.)



I would like to mention this other ancient art form, related to terrazzo only in that it was the first form of decorative flooring and mosaic work.

Dad would take us on 'field trips' outside of Izmir, just an hour's drive from Ephesus, and we would see ancient Greek and Roman cities.  Most walls of individual houses or villas in these magical places with exotic names were barely standing.  But on the floors, there were mystical imaginative patterns -- floor murals.  If you looked closer, the designs were made of small half-inch square colored stones.  The Romans called these 'tesserae', after the Greek 'four'.  They were typically four-sided and stood the test of time through war, flood, and fire.   (image at left, 2nd century, Greece) 

Wikipedia cites: "The oldest known tesserae dates to the 3rd millennium BCE, discovered in the ancient city of Shahdad in Kerman province, Iran."  

This mosaic artform was installed in walls and ceilings throughout the Middle East in religious and public edifices.

Originally they were just assembled into patterns and pictures on a hard binder into a prepared area over bare earth.  The binder was probably a special clay. (below: tesserae floor of a Murano church)


It took almost two thousand years using tesserae from the demise of Alexander's Greece to the mid-1700s in Italy for a chance discovery of a new flooring technique.  If you recall, it was the Romans who invented what is commonly termed concrete now.  Volcanic dust, when added to lime or gypsum mixed with brick or rock and water showed to harden and form an amazing structural material. 

Without concrete, Rome could not have been built.  I say that because all the formerly marble-faced temples and other public buildings had a sandwich of concrete with brick on either side.  The height gained and the soaring arches could not have been created without concrete.

So much marble sculpture was being produced throughout Italy during the Rennaissance and innumerable marble slab panels were used for flooring and facade veneer.  But was there an economical way to use the byproduct: irregular chips and stone fragments that were tossed?  YES.  You simply laid down raw concrete and sprinkled these leftover marble pieces, smoothed them over to harden, then grinded and polished to the desired finish.  This was terrazzo, originally 'pavimento alla Veneziana': pavement as in Venice. 

In modern times, the cement base has undergone some changes with the addition of polymers and other additives.  In addition, in large placements of terrazzo, you must use dividing strips, as in modern concrete installations, in order to minimize the potential of cracking. (above, floor in Castello Bevilacqua, Venezia.  Note that in many cases simply using a linear border pattern eased the stress of the solid floor)  The beauty of the terrazzo floor was considered more precious than that of slab marble as it had artistic themes integrated.

The most durable terrazzo installation would be on a reinforced concrete slab, poured on a stable base on grade.  Using it for second floors is trickier, as the potential for cracking increases.

Analysis by today's modern criteria find that terrazzo is indeed a 'resilient' material.

It is difficult to damage and can be easily repaired. Terrazzo has show that it will last for years, hundreds or more! It is easily cleaned with soap and water and can be buffed to shine. It takes high traffic with little wear. It will stand up to flooding and even small fires.

Terrazzo satisfies many criteria of 'green design'. It is a recycled material, it does not 'off gas', it has a long usable life, it requires little to maintain, and indoor air quality is not polluted. One can also specify the ingredients from close sourced stone quarries or even crushed stone sites that reduce the cost and energy/exhaust fumes from hauling long distances. It does not absorb microbes or germs. Waste is minimized and it is made of naturally occurring aggregates.

So why is this technique not used much anymore? Cost. The labor required in the past was two or three times over that of laying individual slabs of stone, marble, or tile.  This is very unfortunate because there is nothing more interesting to the eye or refreshing to the bare foot, than a cool polished floor of terrazzo! However, modern installations can be competitive to wood and other solid stone flooring.  

Now you can import Italian (or other produced) terrazzo floor tiles that have the same durability and look of the original.

Did you know that the Hollywood Walk of Fame is one of the best-known examples of terrazzo flooring in the U.S.? (notice the dividing lines to minimize cracking)

Compare the hand-worked setting of individual marble, glass and other precious stones in the tesserae installation vs. the terrazzo technique.

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