Award-winning installation by Artcraft Granite and Marble in Phoenix, Ariz., combines quality proper specification, layout, and superior craftsmanship.

One of the hardest jobs I have faced in recent years involves judging installations submitted for award consideration. Usually, the entry is the year’s crowning achievement by the company submitting the project, and one has to look very closely to discern the differences between them. Often, a judge gets caught admiring the products used in a project, and can overlook an imperfection in the installation. To help myself and other judges when we prepare to critique installations, I have outlined several key elements required in a quality tile or stone installation.

Material Specification and Selection

You can have a beautiful installation and still have a failure if the materials selected are not appropriate for the project. The initial phase of a project, the selection of materials, is absolutely vital. Often, an architect or designer will rely on a salesperson or contractor for expertise or advice. Attention must be paid to the performance characteristics of the product selected. Some materials should not be installed in wet areas, or those subject to extreme fluctuations of temperatures. Other materials do not hold up well to heavy traffic.

Proper Installation Method and Materials

Often, the materials and method of installation is written into the architect or builder’s specifications. It is up to the installation contractor to determine if any changes or alterations need to be considered. They also need to ensure the method meets industry standards. All installation products, such as mortar, grout, substrate materials, and more should be reviewed to create a documented file of the method to be employed. This will protect all parties involved.

Preparation by other Trades/Preparation of the Substrate

The workmanship of other trades can significantly impact an installation. Often, the condition of the concrete slab is not flat or level enough to properly install ceramic tile or natural stone. This can be glaringly evident with large format ceramic tile and natural stone. The result is high and low spots in the installation, creating lippage, a tripping and chipping hazard. Certain types of lighting can make this situation look even worse. When grout joint widths are requested to be minimal, as is often the case, it is virtually impossible to avoid lippage issues. One way to address this is to float or level the floor, with proper communication called a change order. Another way to address this would be to widen the grout width, again with proper communication to all parties expected.

Numerous trades interact with each other all the time on a project. The job of the installation contractor is to make sure the workmanship performed by others will not impede a successful installation.

Proper Layout

How can you differentiate between a professional installation and an average one? Most often it can be seen by the naked eye. A well thought out layout with the cuts taking place in the most obscure places, can be the difference between a good installation and a beautiful installation.

A poorly planned layout can be disastrous, with large pieces of material being cut in one area leading to a slice of a cut in another. The best installations entail beautiful layouts. It is the first thing a contractor judge looks at when reviewing installation entries for awards consideration.

Solid Techniques/Proper Supervision

You can outline a detailed plan, and you can formulate a strong layout. But, if your crews do not implement the plan, it all goes for naught. Therefore, it is imperative proper supervision is in place to ensure the mechanics are getting adequate mortar coverage and that they are mixing properly. A quality superintendent or crew leader can be the difference between a profitable, quality installation, and a failure. Grouting is another key area. Many times, installation companies let a young apprentice be the one to apply the grout, thinking this is not a highly skilled task. Yet, imperfections in grout coloration and uniformity are often an area of complaint by consumers. A quality supervisor can minimize your risks.

Proper Communication on Maintenance and Care

If the installation contractor can properly communicate to the project owner how the installed area should be cared for, then it can go a long way to avoid problems in the future. Often, a contractor is called back to a job because the project is not performing to expectations, only to find that improper cleaners or waxes have been applied to the surface. This can make the tile or stone slippery or difficult to clean. A solid communication plan with the project owner makes good business sense, and is a great customer service idea, creating goodwill.

If a tile contracting company has all of these elements incorporated into their business strategy, they are more than likely recognized in their area as a quality installation company, and perhaps candidates for award recognition.