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The question of embodied energy

SATHYA PRAKASH VARANASHI
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It is not possible to build only with natural materials, but using only high carbon materials with a huge environmental impact is not fair.

We are in an age today where it is not possible to live only with natural materials without using anything manufactured. Examples of living a complete natural life, as certain tribes of Amazon do or by following experiments done by Henry David Thoreau or solitary Buddhist meditations in silence, are more an exception than the rule. The A to Z of construction, which was once done by local natural materials, today witnesses varieties of manufactured and transported materials, be it in America or Zambia.

While manufacturing ensures quality, comfort and sophistication, it leads to high consumption of energy and material resources and in essence a big carbon footprint. However, it is not fair to dismiss them only on that count without looking at their merits and necessities. Going by the increasing need for built areas in urban contexts, it is not possible to build only with nature, yet total dependence on high carbon materials with huge environmental impact is equally not fair.

Chart a road map

In such a delicate situation, discussing ceramic and vitrified tiles is appropriate not only to help choose between the two but also to chart a roadmap ahead. Basic ceramic technology, processed earth fired at high temperatures, theoretically is age-old with remnants found from the classical age of the Chinese and Greek. In modern times, found to be good in resisting water, ceramic became popular with bathrooms and later generally with all flooring. They have a durable surface, varied patterns and good glazing. With easy availability and execution, ceramic tiles are a good choice for saving money and mass construction.

Drawbacks of ceramic

Among the major drawbacks of ceramic is the visibility of joint lines which over the years tend to develop a blackish shade. The surface sometimes chips off due to heavy wear and tear, while some tile finish isslippery. As the technology progressed, vitrified tiles entered the market, which are technically same as ceramic tiles, but have the top surface especially finished, compared to the lower part. The thickness of this vitrified surface is an important criterion in both cost and durability. Cheaper quality vitrified tiles tend to crack on this surface if they are very thin, while the better quality tiles are costlier, often on a par with granite and marble, making us ponder over our choices.

Over the decades, vitrified tiles have overshadowed ceramic tiles with prices dropping and patterns increasing, often coming with lookalike surfaces of even wood or marble. The negativity of manufactured material gets partly balanced by the natural appearance! The joints can be done paper-thin with no groove there, yet large floor areas can be covered in a comparatively short time.

Despite all the above advantages of ceramic and vitrified, for those ecologically inclined, both the materials could be among the last options, unless not avoidable. They come with high embodied energy, cannot be reused, appear odd with natural materials and let sophistication define architecture rather than design itself.

SATHYA PRAKASH VARANASHI

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