It's beautiful. And eco-friendly. Suvasini Sridharan finds out if red oxide floors can make a comeback

If you spent summers as a child visiting your grandparents in your ancestral village in South India, a memory that will possibly stay with you forever is the tactile feeling of the cool floor beneath you as you walked barefoot in the house. And more often than not, that flooring would be a warm red colour, slightly cracked in certain places with age, but nevertheless gleaming and clean.

“Oxide flooring is mostly found in Kerala, Chettinad, coastal parts of Karnataka and even Goa,” says Professor Eugene Pandala, an architect based in Kerala. “You can find beautiful oxide flooring in various colours in the old palaces and homes in Kerala. I have seen floors where the patterns created using the colours are almost carpet-like in their design.”

Over the years, with the introduction of mosaic, marble and vitrified tiles among other things, red oxide flooring was neglected and considered old-fashioned. “I do come across clients who are open to using oxide flooring nowadays,” says architect Lavannya Goradia of Studio Alaya, Bengaluru. “But it's not as if oxide flooring is undergoing a revival.” But there are people who are aware of its eco-friendly nature and want to use it. “I have clients who ask for coloured oxide flooring because they grew up in a house which had such flooring or remember it from their ancestral family home,” says Sumitra Vasudevan, an associate with Chennai-based Aprobuild Architects.

While red oxide flooring is the most familiar, the coloured oxides come in a variety of shades and hues. “You have around 20-25 variants of the red colour itself,” says Professor Eugene. Lavannya has done coloured oxide flooring in shades such as blue and green as well. The process involves mixing the oxide colour with cement and laying it. “While cement floors are most eco-friendly, many do not find the colour appealing,” says Lavannya. “So we suggest adding oxide colours to the cement to make the floor more aesthetically appealing.”

One of the major drawbacks of coloured oxide flooring is the lack of skilled labour. “You have very few people who still remember and are trained in the skill,” says architect Shama Dalvi of Shama Dalvi Architects, Auroville. “And a certain expertise is necessary for coloured oxide flooring or else the floor will not be uniform and cracks can form.” Besides this, as Sumitra says, the flooring is done in situ and is time consuming. That's why architects who do deal in coloured oxide floors make sure the labourers they use are skilled and dedicated. There is a lot of coordination and collaboration between the architect and the floor layer when it comes to this sort of flooring. Curing is also an important part of the process and the flooring has to set well. Says Lavannya, “The quality of coloured oxide should be checked as well; poor quality oxides can give rise to patchy flooring.”

Once the coloured oxide floor is set and cured, maintenance is not a major issue. “It just has to be mopped every day,” says Professor Eugene. “And once a year it can be waxed with a mixture of paraffin and honey bee wax to seal it.”

An alternative to coloured oxide flooring is the Athangudi tiles from Chettinad. “These are handmade tiles made of cement and coloured oxides,” says Shama. They are beautiful, patterned tiles in a variety of colours and designs. While these tiles are relatively easier to lay compared to an in situ flooring, some skill is required here as well.

“Tiles may get chipped at the edges during transportation, so the person laying it has to choose the right tiles and align and level them properly,” says Sumitra. Athangudi tiled floors do not need any polishing. For maintenance, sweeping to get rid of the dust and a gentle swabbing is enough. While the in situ floor is joint free, Athangudi tiles have joints.

Cost-wise, both coloured oxide flooring and Athangudi tiles are economical and can even be cheaper than some vitrified tiles. Says Sumitra, “While coloured oxide flooring costs Rs.80-90 per sq. ft, Athangudi tiles cost Rs.100-120 per sq. ft.”

Coloured oxide floors not only look good but bring back a little bit of the past into our lives. They are also eco-friendly and when done properly can last a lifetime and beyond. “The more the floors age, the smoother they become,” says Lavannya. Over time, they get a lovely sheen, standing testament to the years gone by.

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