Mark just retired from a career as a carpenter and general contractor, so what better way to commemorate the transition than by turning our own home into a construction site with a full-blown remodel of our bathroom?
potential marriage breaker domestic disruption has been a long time coming. It was prompted by our recognition that as we, along with many of our family members and friends, have reached the stage of life characterized by the occasional discount on a cup of bad coffee or condescendingly raised voice from pharmacy staff, it would be advisable to replace our high-rimmed, impossible-to-make-presentable clawfoot tub that I bought from a pile outside an antique store in 2004 with something less likely to cause us to trip and fall. What finally set our wheels in motion was the Hallelujah Chorus of stepping into the newly completed bathroom of our clients Nick Detrich and Kathleen Benson, who tiled their walls in seafoam green – a shade that, while not for everyone, proved the perfect evocation of 1930s camp for me (and luckily, for Mark as well). They’d ordered too much field tile and were hoping to sell it. We were happy to oblige.
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From the start, we agreed on most of the details. A built-in cast-iron tub, an exhaust fan that’s quieter and more effective than the cheap-motel-circa-1972 model we currently have and a wall-hung basin with intact enamel. The tall shallow cabinet I built years ago with a salvaged door and hardware will stay, as will the shuttered window-like opening that lets light in through the laundry room.
Then there’s the floor. I wanted to keep the black-and-white checkerboard of 12”-square commercial-grade vinyl composition tile that I installed when I first moved in, inspired by a room that Sharon Fugate and Peggy Shepherd had finished in their eclectic home-furnishings store, Grant St [sic.], in the early 1990s.
Mark wanted ceramic tile or unglazed porcelain mosaic. “It’s the highest-quality finish,” he insisted. “It’s thicker and more durable.” Exactly what I would have told customers 20 years ago. And considering that we’re tiling the walls up to about 5’, he said, we should also do away with the baseboard so that moisture condensing on the vertical surfaces wouldn’t drip down onto the square top edge. Hmm, I thought. I have never seen water pool on the baseboard, other than just behind the clawfoot tub, where the wall sometimes gets sprayed when certain tall people (one in particular) take a shower – and that condition will be eradicated when we install a built-in tub.
The idea of a tiled floor didn’t feel right to me for this house. It’s a funky house built and finished on a shoestring budget. The funkiness is its charm, and I know the story behind nearly every house part, from the salvaged sink that lacks a mixer faucet to the gate I made to keep our dog in the mudroom and the lamp my maternal grandma made from an antique hand-cranked coffee grinder. I have never been concerned about using the “highest quality” offerings just because they’re widely considered superior; I don’t want to live in a house where my surroundings are dictated by other people’s often-uncritical judgments. I have always worked with budgetary constraints – at $1 per square foot for a commercial-grade flooring product, my VCT tile reflects a necessarily skinflint period of my history that I have no desire to forget. I feel more at home when surrounded by things that hold meaning for me.
Ceramic and porcelain tile floors are hard. From a purely sensual perspective, I find them unwelcoming, though I have installed plenty of them in rooms where they were period-appropriate. Tiled floors are also cold. If we lived in a tropical climate I might value this characteristic, but we live in a place that has winter. Of course we could address the cold with under-floor heating, but that, too, strikes me as luxurious overkill, at least for our home. So you’re cold when you get out of the shower – dry off and put some clothes on. A little discomfort is good for us; it reminds us we’re alive. For our house, installing under-floor heating as a way to make tile more palatable also seemed a bit like the logic of building houses so tight and well insulated that you need a heat recovery ventilation unit to bring in fresh air. At some point, from a cradle to grave perspective, the efficiency arguably becomes inefficient.
Also, I like the bathroom baseboard, even if its interruption of the transition between a tiled wall and floor may not be typical in contemporary high-end bathroom construction. Does it work? Do we like it? Is it easy to keep clean? The answers to these and similar questions matter more to me than some industry stamp of approval, not least when I remind myself that such stamps appear on many cabinets made with ½” MDF carcases held together with staples and hot-melt glue.
Vinyl composition tile is by definition synthetic – a product of the plastics industry.[i] At a prima facie level, this inclines me to view it with disapproval; it certainly raises all sorts of questions, from which chemical constituents went into its production to the possibility of toxic off-gassing over time.[ii] By comparison, the 1” hexagonal porcelain ceramic tile mosaic we’ve been considering seems more traditional, and so (in theory), safer – it was used in many a late-19th-century bathroom floor, at least in higher-end residences. (The majority of homes occupied by “working people” in that era did not have indoor plumbing.) I thought back to some recent news reports about cases of silicosis among workers in the composite stone countertop industry; even though ceramic and porcelain tile seem closer than VCT to their naturally occurring components, the dust from decanting, mixing and applying the cement and grout, as well as that produced by cutting tile, presents its own dangers to health. And when you’re talking about the industry that mass-produces ceramic and porcelain tile, you’re in the world of heavy materials that have to be mined and transported, often internationally, then processed with complex equipment at temperatures only achieved with significant carbon inputs, coloring additives, glazes and more – in other words, a highly energy- and resource-intensive product in its own right. So much for any “green” advantage, at least insofar as I can make out.
As for durability, while the 1’ x 2’ sheets of mosaic we were thinking of using are somewhat thicker than VCT, the latter is far denser than the resilient sheet flooring most people associate with vinyl; that’s how VCT came to be the flooring of choice for grocery stores around the country during the 20th century (even if acres of the stuff are now being scraped up in favor of an unapologetically bare, polished concrete floor). When properly installed, VCT will last for decades.
“But tile is more waterproof,” said Mark, invoking a common belief. Really, though? Water can’t get through 1/8”-thick VCT. Granted, there are joints where water could in principle penetrate to the underlayment and subfloor. Then again, there are many more potentially permeable joints in a floor made with the 1” porcelain hexagonal mosaic we were considering. Sure, if we installed a waterproof membrane beneath it, the tile floor would be waterproof in a meaningful way – as long as the membrane remained intact. But we use a bath mat when we step out, and how often does a sink in our house overflow or a toilet go bonkers and leak all over the floor? Neither has happened in the 17 years since the house’s construction, and with the two of us aging tradespeople who regularly clean out the gutters, mop up spills, and keep things reasonably well maintained, neither is very likely. Besides, should we design every feature of our homes with a view to its ability to survive a rare and potentially devastating scenario? I’m not talking about basics such as anchoring a structure to keep it on its foundation in an earthquake zone, or bracing it to resist high winds; this is a matter of interior finishes.
You can answer that for yourself, but my answer is no. In aesthetic terms, to make one room of our house State Of The Art would be an affront to the spirit of the entire place. It would also be a concession to dogma – “tile is better because harder, more permanent, more expensive” – the kind of prejudice I think it’s important to make my customers aware of on principle (because you know a friend or relative is going to ask them why they chose what they did, regardless of what they did), but that I don’t think should be the ultimate deciders.
And the VCT floor is already there, in perfectly good shape. Why rip it out and send those materials to the landfill?
For decades, the ethos in the building trade has been “tear out what’s there and upgrade” – more luxury, more comfort, more image-conscious “curation.” Maybe I have just been around for enough years that I recognize the motivations underlying so many real estate and construction industry recommendations, which too often boil down to “buy more.” My life and home have been shaped as powerfully by what I’ve rejected as what I’ve embraced. Mark is persuaded. (It helped that keeping the current floor will mean spending significantly less money.)
[i] Although the word “synthetic” is commonly used to connote poor quality, it simply means that something made by putting constituents together. Strictly speaking, few things we live with, wear, or eat are not synthetic.
[ii] I should add that there was no discernible smell to this flooring, even when it was new. It’s a different product from sheet vinyl flooring.