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Today's Terrazzo

The old tradition of terrazzo is reaching a new generation. Iconically underscored and underfoot in mid-20th century American homes, terrazzo is enjoying a resurgence in today's contemporary homes.

Terrazzo is a durable composite, comprised most commonly of marble chips or other aggregates, which are suspended in a concrete or resin binder and polished until the aggregate is visible and the surface is smooth. Most commonly used as flooring, terrazzo makes a strong style statement, says Mark Fowler, executive director of the National Terrazzo & Mosaic Association (NTMA) in Fredericksburg, Texas.

"We are seeing an uptick in terrazzo residential sales," he says. "People are reimagining the midcentury modern look and bringing it into the 21st century, and terrazzo is hot with its cool look and applications."

Meaning "terrace" in Italian, terrazzo was created six centuries ago when Venetian mosaic workers made a durable flooring that was polished smooth after marble scraps were pressed into clay. This flooring was installed on the terraces surrounding the workers' living quarters and the name "terrazzo" stuck.

In the United States, the use of terrazzo flooring peaked in the mid-20th century. New homes built slab-on-grade using poured concrete made the installation of terrazzo flooring easier than ever, Fowler says.

"Cementitious-based terrazzo is typically a 3 1/2-inch thick system in which stone or metal aggregate are dispersed throughout wet concrete," he says. "After it dries, heavy grinders with increasingly higher-grit discs polish the floor to create a smooth, sleek surface."

Called poured-in-place terrazzo by tradespeople, metal strips are most often embedded into the wet mixture wherever there is a need for a joint or change of color in the floor.

"Terrazzo is often the flooring of choice in airports, schools, hospitals and other commercial buildings because of its beauty and durability," Fowler says. "But now, intricate designs in terrazzo flooring are easier than ever to achieve in homes through the use of sophisticated wet saws and precast terrazzo, made from durable resins."

While cementitious-based terrazzo is still the only reliable choice for outdoor applications, most indoor installations use resin-based terrazzo. There is more versatility in using today's resins, which act as a binder for decorative aggregate, says Eric Wilhite, the second-generation owner of Terrazzio, based outside Nashville, Tennessee.

"While a consumer could do a poured-in-place resin-based terrazzo on-site, our company specializes in precast terrazzo tiles that we manufacture under controlled conditions in our workroom," he says. "There are many advantages of resin over cementitious terrazzo."

A wider selection of colors, greater tensile strength, 1/4-inch to 3/8-inch installation thickness and less susceptibility to cracking are all benefits to a resin-based terrazzo. While terrazzo may be considered an impermeable surface, both the cementitious and resin-based varieties require regular coverage with a high-quality sealant, Fowler says.

"It's not the resin that needs to be sealed, it's the porous aggregate marble, stone chips and concrete that require sealing," he says. "Although terrazzo is a lifetime floor, follow manufacturer's guidelines and be prepared to seal it at least every decade in a home."

Fowler says it's imperative to prepare the floor substrate properly before installation of terrazzo can begin. To avoid cracking, there should be no bounce in the floor and cement backer-board can be used an underlayment. Bespoke or custom-made terrazzo is easy to achieve with the precast variety, Wilhite says.

"Custom-added aggregates, resin colors, sizes and shapes of resin terrazzo are all achievable in a controlled environment," he says. "We can manufacture 4-by-8-foot panels, and have them cut into a variety of shapes to create a mosaic on the floor."

Terrazzo is also migrating off floors and landing on walls, countertops and seating as architectural accents. In a thoroughly modern monochromatic home, terrazzo can add interest through subtly colored or sparkly aggregates.

Fowler says it's imperative to hire an expert terrazzo installer for any job, and homeowners should expect to pay between $10 to $35 per square foot of terrazzo installed for basic jobs. Fabrication and installation of more intricate terrazzo patterns will boost costs.

"Some terrazzo installers are so good that they can create the illusion of a seamless floor and staircase," Fowler says. "But the real testament to the enduring quality of terrazzo is witnessing homeowners restoring an original 1950s floor to its former glory."

Step Up

-- National Tile & Mosaic Association, NTMA.com, 800-323-9736

-- Terrazzio, Terrazzio.com, 931-845-3434

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