Bringing back red-oxides

The modest and earthy red-oxides were nearly forgotten, but for a few architects who showed the imagination to keep them going in spite of the drawbacks they pose.

July 18, 2014 04:28 pm | Updated 04:30 pm IST

Colour oxide flooring fell out of popularity in the Seventies and was relegated to being more or less a poor man's option. Designers with an earthy eye are trying for its revival.

Colour oxide flooring fell out of popularity in the Seventies and was relegated to being more or less a poor man's option. Designers with an earthy eye are trying for its revival.

Architect K. Jaisim, known for building with values of environmental sustainability, believes in the age-old oxide floors and their intrinsic worth, especially their cost-effective implications that could help the affordable housing segment reap the benefits. Jaisim rues that the technique of using coloured cement for flooring would have found newer customers even today in appreciable numbers had it been technologically updated for its judicious mixing, application and spread.

When did the oxides, or the reds to be more specific, lose ground? “Red-oxide was sidelined and even pushed out-of-the-way every time a new flooring material arrived in the market,” says architect Sathya Prakash Varanashi. While newer options turn up and make noise for their ‘special properties’, older ones need not be outdated, he says. “But unfortunately, in the urban context, red-oxide laying turned out a time-consuming affair, with labour too becoming critical. People started preferring pre-polished granite, marble and industry-driven vitrified, albeit being energy guzzlers.”

Mr. Varanashi goes on to explain that nothing is impossible even now. Achieving quality depends on one’s will power, says the architect, who perhaps is one designer doing up homes with the earthy reds, the oxide mix being perfected with every house gaining on the gleam.

Role of cement

Let’s look into the detailing, the way red-oxides were being used on cemented floors a few decades ago, and their actual usage today, says architect B.S. Bhooshan, urban planner and research adviser, who has handled myriads of oxide-floorings. Bhooshan’s house in Mysore, built 25 years ago, still retains its red-oxide sheen, while the houses he takes up now may not actually claim to bring in the same top-grade glossy make-up, although he follows a faultless application. “Let’s face it, be it cement, the graded Gulbarga lime that was mixed or the age-old oxides, none is the same now. The material quality we receive is different today,” explains Bhooshan. “High-grade cement procured today sets quicker as it has higher bleaching content. When oxides are mixed into this kind of cement, the ancient quality that slow-setting cement offered should be forgotten, as leaching (or bleaching) leaves white patches, and the coloration is due to the calcium surfacing,” he says.

But many such chemical/technical snags can be overcome with natural admixtures that nullify the excess calcium, says Bhooshan. “In Sri Lanka, red-oxides are used perfectly for a seamless flooring even today. Vast stretches of cement flooring generally tend to crack, as high-strength cement of today shrinks and settles faster, releasing excess heat. An oxide blend with grey cement or fly ash can make it non-sticky and workman-friendly. Adding lime too slows down or retards the setting process, helping one get a better finish. Long stretches of cement flooring can be abridged with intervening lines that act as separators, to avoid cracks, advises Bhooshan, adding that the Indian industry badly needs lessons on all this.

Even carpet-like patterns were embossed on floors with meticulous use of multiple-tinted oxides for colouring, says Bhooshan. However, only an expert craftsman can lay a perfect floor without cracks that does not develop patches with time. The process is laborious as it needs to be trowelled evenly by highly skilled masons who can give the right attention. Egg-white, coconut oil and rice bran are used while stone-scrubbing the floor. “Even two decades ago, red-oxide flooring was completed overnight for a room,” he says.

Cost factor

M.R. Satheesh, a contracting consultant for construction materials, says oxides may work out to be one-third the normal granite cost, if the masons do not charge a lot. The open and wet areas may not take the oxides, he says, as atmospheric changes can bring in light fissures. Calcium and magnesium are sensitive to direct radiations.

If colours speak of an era, red-oxides on your floor are the glorious reds transporting you to nearly a century of rich tradition. Several parts of South India, especially Kerala, coastal Karnataka and interior Tamil Nadu, saw a gleaming spread of the oxide in shades as cherry, crimson, ruby or scarlet. “Its uniform finish and joint-free stretches makes it more eye-catching, while the glow that the colour exudes with every passing year makes it special,” contends Satheesh.

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